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Being a role player and spending a lot of time sitting on the
bench is one of the most difficult positions for an athlete to play on a team. Not only does the athlete struggle with keeping up his/her confidence and maintaining a good attitude, but the athlete’s parents also have a hard time with their son or daughter’s lack of playing time. For coaches, their treatment of, and attitude towards their role players can make or break their overall success for the season. In this issue we will discuss how to “play the bench” and what coaches and parents can do to make the athlete feeland perform like the valued and important part of the team that he/she is.

ATHLETE’S LOCKER – “Being a winning ‘pine-time’ player”
PARENTS’ CORNER – “ Why isn’t my kid starting/playing more?”
COACH’S OFFICE – “How to best handle your role players”
DR. G’S TEACHING TALES – “The lion and the mouse” An animal fable about the bench players.


“Being a winning ‘pine-time’ player”

The very hardest position for any athlete to play on a team is that of role player or “sub”. Having to sit on the bench can be discouraging, de-motivating and a confidence-killer. You work just as hard as the guys that get to start. Sometimes harder! You sweat just as much. Sometimes a lot more!! You follow all the rules. Why is that some of those starters get away with breaking them? Yet you don’t get a chance at any of the glory. You don’t get to play when it really counts. Sure you may get an occasional minute or two during “garbage time” when the game is already decided, but rarely do you get the nod when it’s crunch time. Sometimes it just seems downright unfair. Sometimes it is downright unfair! If only the coach could see that he/she is making a terrible mistake. Doesn’t he/she realize that you’re much better than so & so? If only he/she would give you a legitimate chance. Then you could really prove yourself!

If you are a role player or “bench sitter” on your team and you’re really unhappy with this position what should you do?

First off, you have to understand something that I know you already know: On any given team there are always a limited number of starting spots and those will usually go to those players the coaches feel are better, stronger, faster, tougher and/or smarter than you. Whether you agree with the coaches’ choices is basically irrelevant on most teams. Whether you think this situation is fair or not is also irrelevant. Whether the coach is accurate in his/her choices is irrelevant! The fact of the matter may be that what’s happening to you is wicked unfair! The coach’s kid or favorite may be starting in place of you and you are hands down the better athlete.

The bottom line, however, is that most athletic teams are not run like a democracy. Therefore you do not have an equal vote or an equal say. The team you may play for might better resemble a tight-fisted dictatorship. For better or worse, this is how team sports are usually run. The coach is the captain of the ship and you are just one of the lowly mates! Rock the boat and you may find yourself having to walk the plank!

Second, you have to ask yourself as a “sub” on this team, what attitude do you want to maintain and share with the rest of the world. Given that the coach and your playing time are two huge uncontrollables, (Remember an “uncontrollable is anything that is directly out of your control. Whenever you focus on “UC’s” you will get stressed out, lose your confidence and play like garbage), how do you want to handle the present role that you’ve been assigned?
In answering this question consider this: Focusing on how unfair the coach is, that you should be starting in front of so & so, that this whole situation sucks and how angry you are will NOT make you a better player or improve your chances of getting more playing time. On the contrary! Your anger and resentment willbring you and your level of play down. It will undermine your motivation,sabotage your confidence and bum your teammates out. Put quite simply, nothing good will ever come from having a lousy attitude and selfishly dwelling on how little playing time you’re getting.

If you’re really upset with how unfair the coach is and you think your situation is killing your love for the sport, irreparably destroying your self-confidence and doing more harm then good, then I suggest you find another team to play for. Don’t stay in a situation that is really hurting you! If you’ve tried to approach the coach and reason with him or her and have gotten no satisfaction then go. However, if there are no other games in town and your quitting is not an option in your book, then you must change your attitude. Take your anger and frustration and channel it into the only constructive direction there is: GET BETTER! That is, work harder on your skills, conditioning and strategy to prove the coach wrong. Force the coach to notice you by strengthening your weaknesses and outperforming the starters in practice. Demonstrate a winning, team-first attitude and let go of “my playing time” as an issue. Make yourself mentally and physically ready so that if and when you do go in, you’ll be more than ready. If you never get the chance, at least you’ve improved yourself and gotten stronger. Perhaps you may get a better opportunity to start or play more with another coach next year. For now, however, you need to make the most out of this “opportunity.” You need to decide to have a positive attitude and to play this most difficult position to the very best of your ability. Stay positive and support your team in any way that you can. Ask the coach what you can do to improve/get better/get stronger. If you have a coach that is truly unapproachable, (you’ve tried many times and have gotten nowhere), then find someone else whom you trust to help you with your game. Don’t let yourself get caught up in bad-mouthing the coach or starters. You and the rest of your team lose when you do this. To be successful, championship teams need good role players. Athletes who are smart and mature enough to give up the “me” for the “we.” Teams can’t consistently win without a good, solid supporting cast. You are an extremely valuable member of the team and if your coaches or some of the starting athletes don’t support this view, then they are dead wrong and making a very costly mistake.


“Why isn’t my kid starting/playing more?”

From the sidelines where you sit you can usually see two, very different coaching philosophies alive and well in youth sports. First there’s the “winning is the most important” principle where the coach will play only the best players. While everyone may get some token minutes, only the better athletes in the coach’s eyes get the lion’s share of the playing time. The understanding here is very basic. By fielding the best possible athletes, you maximize the team’s chances of emerging with a big W. Winning is the major goal in this coaching philosophy and guides most decisions as far as the kids go. The second coaching philosophy is based on the belief that everyone on the team should have equal opportunity to play. Fair and equal participation is the guiding principle. The outcome of the contest is completely secondary to each child having an opportunity to learn, practice and master new athletic skills. You could say that this coaching style is much more driven by the coach’s consideration of the athlete’s self-esteem than the outcome of the game.

Most sane recreational sports programs are run by coaches who are committed to
this second, coaching philosophy. They view youth sports as a vehicle to teach
life skills, build self-esteem and promote fun. These coaches recognize the value of participation and understand that the “winning is the most important” philosophy is inherently counterproductive to both effectively teaching a sport and promoting good self-esteem. You CAN’T teach a sport by keeping a kid on the bench. You also can’t teach new skills if you’re simultaneously pressuring an athlete to win. Furthermore, you can’t build self-esteem in everyone by assigning playing time based on skill level. I’ve never known a young athlete who feels better about himself by mainly “playing” the bench. Keeping a kid out of a game while teammates get to play only ends up devaluing him or her. As you move your child onto select or travel teams, all-star/Olympic Development programs and high school and college sports, the more common coaching model visible is the “winning is everything” one. At this level it is
usually clearly understood that playing time is strictly based on ability level. The primary goal of these programs is straightforward: to win. Secondary to this goal may be the teaching of new skills and further down in the coaching hierarchy you may find the building of character and self-esteem. Consequently the coaches will give playing time to those athletes that they feel will increase the team’s chances of winning.

For the athlete stuck on the bench, this may be a hard pill to swallow. While they have to work just as hard as everyone else, they do not get to share in the glory. Sitting on the bench isn’t fun. Keeping your spirits and confidence up is also tough. You could probably make a compelling argument about which coaching philosophy is healthier for the athletes involved. I’m not going to tackle that one now. You must understand, however, that in many high school, college and select programs, the coach’s won-loss record is what gets used to determine if that coach is doing a good enough job. Both you and I know however, that the number of wins you achieve does NOT make you a good or bad coach. It’s
just that the powers that be use this as a very important measuring stick. As a result, coaches are under a fair amount of pressure to field the best teams possible and win. This does not mean that in less important games or lopsided contests that the coach can’t give the less talented athletes more playing time. He/she should.

As a parent it’s important for you to understand the coach’s philosophy up front. If your child is not getting enough playing time in an instructional or recreational program then there is something very wrong with this picture and you need to intervene. If the coach is unresponsive, find another program where the coach has a healthier attitude. However, if your child is playing travel, select high school or college sports limited playing time may be part of the package. In these situations you want to encourage your son/daughter to do whatever it takes to improve their skills and be a good team player. Avoid bad-mouthing the coach or program to your child or other parents.

In general, playing time in these situations is usually a coaching staff decision and is not for you to criticize or comment on. If your child is extremely unhappy and you think that his/her role on the team is taking a significant toll on his/her self-esteem, then encourage them to find another program.

In sum, consider this: When asked, most kids would much prefer to be on a losing
team and play all the time than to sit on the bench for a championship team. Participation is the key. Kids play sports because they want to PLAY, not sit on
the bench!


“How to best handle your role players”

They say that the mark of a truly great coach is that he/she can make the least talented athlete on the squad feel just as important as the superstar. As a
coach it’s certainly difficult to blend and balance a group of athletes with widely diverging skills. However, keeping your role players happy and confident is absolutely critical to your overall success. If support players feel demeaned or unimportant in your eyes, they can and will sabotage team cohesion and undermine your best efforts to produce a winning season.

Convincing your role players of their importance to the team is a tough job when they are not getting enough playing time. Most athletes evaluate their self-worth and importance to the team based on the actual minutes on the field or court. The athlete who spends a great deal of time on the bench will tend to doubt him/herself and be more vulnerable to making mental mistakes. Once the sub finally gets in he/she is likely to worry too much about messing up and getting benched again. As a consequence, the athlete will tend to play tentatively or try too hard.

So why should you keep your role players happy? After all, some won’t actually get in many games during the season and can’t possibly make a difference at crunch time. When interacting with your “pine time” players consider the following:

#1 Role players are an important an integral part of your team and like any team member, their attitude, mental toughness, work ethic and personality will have a significant impact on the other athletes, team chemistry and the eventual outcome of your season.

#2 Role players push your starters and keep them honest, performance-wise. Role players can challenge your better players and help them keep their game sharp.

#3 Because of unforeseen problems with and/or injuries to starters, you may be forced to go to your bench. A sub’s readiness to play may be very much affected by how he/she has been treated.

#4 Your bench is an important source of support and positive feedback for the starters. Role players who feel appreciated by the coach are less likely to resent the starters and therefore are more likely to support them both in practice and at games. A vocal and supportive bench always makes an important contribution to a winning effort.

#5 Subs can play an important “assistant coach” role providing valuable feedback both to teammates and coaches. The players on the bench have a unique objective to watch the action. From this vantage point they can sometimes provide useful information that might contribute to a winning effort.

#6 Frequently your best leaders aren’t your best players. If your captains or team leaders don’t get a lot of PT, then it’s critical that they be valued for their leadership contributions.HOW TO KEEP YOUR BENCH HAPPY AND READY

#7 Make daily contact with them and acknowledge their presence – Many athletes feel invisible when the coach doesn’t talk to them that day. Let them know that you know they are there and contributing to the team by a pat on the back, a helpful comment, etc.

#8 Catch them doing things right – Don’t just catch your role players goofing off or messing up. While critical feedback is essential for skill and strategy development, positive feedback is necessary to build confidence and enhance motivation. When you see good effort or a gutsy play, acknowledge it out loud in front of the whole team.

#9 Be honest with your role players about their playing time – Don’t tell a sub he/she will get to start or go in the game if you have no intention of following through. If you promise and have to break your promise, let the athlete know why. Otherwise you run the risk of discouraging and de-motivating that athlete.

#10 Be clear with your role players what they need to work on to improve and possibly get more PT – Take an active interest in their skill development and performance in practice.

#11 When you do bench a role player after some PT, be clear with him/her why you pulled them out of the game. Communicate directly and cleanly rather than being silent and forcing them to use their imagination to “read” your mind.

#12 Whenever you can, give your role players minutes. It’s tough to keep a player’s confidence level up if they never get a chance to go in. When your team is blowing out the opposition or having that done to them, let your subs have some play. The more PT they get, the more of a contribution they’ll ultimately be able to make during the season.

#13 Treat your role players with respect. Do not allow your starters to demean players who sit the bench. Hold your stars to the very same standards and rules as the players on the bench. Preferential treatment of players based on talent will backfire on you big time. If your better players can get away with breaking team rules that only seem to apply to everyone else, then your team chemistry will go down the drain.


“The lion and the mouse – An animal fable about playing the bench”

One day the King of Beasts was lazily lying around, amusing himself with his thoughts when an unsuspecting mouse made the mistake of his soon-to-be-very-short life. He wandered right by one of the big lion’s paws. The great lion cast one disbelieving eye downward towards the mouse, watched him scamper by for a second or two and then, quick as a flash, pounced on the poor unsuspecting rodent.

The lion smiled with delight as he held up the squirming, helpless mouse by the tail. He then opened his terribly large mouth and was about to turn the hapless creature into an appetizer when the mouse began begging and pleading for his life. “Please, please Mr. Lion sir. Please don’t eat me…I beg of you…Have mercy and spare me oh great King of the Beasts.

In a playful mood the lion said, “Why my little lunch snack? Give me one good reason why I should spare your furry, worthless life.” In its high pitched and fear tinged voice the mouse responded. “Because sir, if you spare me, someday I will save your life. If you eat me today, however, I won’t be able to help you tomorrow.”

When the lion heard the mouse’s words he was momentarily speechless. Then he suddenly burst into a fit of laughter, dropping the mouse in the process and rolling around on the ground, chuckling so hard that his stomach hurt and his eyes watered. When he had finally got control of himself he addressed the mouse. “My little tasty morsel, how could someone so small and weak as yourself possibly save my life, the King of Beasts? I fear that what you have just said is the funniest thing I have ever heard in all my days. The mouse stood his ground and repeated, “If you spare my life noble sir, one day I will save yours.”

The lion, still chuckling, decided to let the mouse live, perhaps only because it had brought some good humor into his day. “Go on then” he told the mouse, “be off with you before I change my mind.” The grateful mouse thanked the lion and as the little creature scampered off into the safety of the tall grass, he called back over his shoulder, “Someday I will save your life, fine sir.” “When pigs fly” the lion thought to himself.

Shortly after, the incident was completely forgotten by the lion. The mouse, of course, never forgot. About a month later, when the lion was hunting for his dinner he accidentally triggered a trap and, in an instant, he found himself hanging upside down in a net. He realized at that very moment that he was a goner. There was no way he was going to be able to extricate himself. Other animals came by but could do nothing for the lion except offer words of condolence. Suddenly he heard a familiar squeaky voice behind him. When he turned, he saw a mouse climbing on the net towards the main rope that held it suspended from the treetops. In that instant he recognized the mouse as the one that he had spared not a month earlier. The lion groaned in frustration and desperation. “My little friend, it looks like I will make a fine rug for those hunters. When they come back I fear I’m dead.” The mouse calmly and cheerfully addressed the Great lion. “Not to worry my kind sir, I will have you free in no time.” Whereupon the little creature began to gnaw at the main rope. Little by little the rope began to fray and then shred, one strand after another. Soon there was just one small strand that held the net in place. In the background they could hear the sounds of the approaching hunters. “Hurry my friend”, urged the lion. “You are almost there and I am almost free.” Then with one last bite, the mouse completely cut through the rope, the net fell to the ground and opened and the lion bolted to safety. Indeed, the weak, little mouse had saved the great
lion’s life.

Every member of a team is important. Every member of a team has an important contribution to make. Your skill, size, strength or speed does not mean that you can’t learn something from your less talented team members. Once you start acting larger than life and think that you don’t need your supporting cast, you’re surely headed for a big fall.

If you are struggling with a performance difficulty or consistently underachieving, call me today. I can help!


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