Sitting on the bench is tough. It is tough for kids, tough for parents. The easy way to handle it is to shift the blame to the person in charge. The unhappy athlete will surely have the opportunity to do that, but they are passing up a real opportunity for growth. They will miss out on lessons that will serve them well later when things get more important. I have some advice for the athlete who is not happy with their playing time, as well as their parents.
As a baseball player, no one ever confused me with being ultra talented. I had average physical gifts, at best: below average arm, well below average speed, I was undersized, and not a great hitter. Somehow, I was in the starting lineup at the end of every season I played in at North Eugene High School, Lane Community College, and Western Oregon State College (now W.O.U.). I also think I have perspective that might be valuable as someone who coached many years at the high school and collegiate level.
I’ve put together a “how to” for working your way into the starting lineup, or at least more playing time. I can’t promise you that it will work, but I can promise you it is your best plan to follow. So, if you are an athlete not satisfied with your role on the team, or you have a young athlete in your life not happy with their playing time, consider the following advice:
1. BE THE HARDEST WORKER ON THE TEAM: If you are not willing to do this, you really shouldn’t waste any more time reading this. You either need to become the hardest worker, accept your current role on the team, or quit. If you don’t, you lose all your right to complain. In my role as a teacher, I’ve talked to several young athletes who were unhappy about their playing time. I first ask them if they are the hardest worker on the team. Many times I get answers like: “Well….I work as hard as everyone else. ”
Nope….not good enough.
Being the hardest worker means being the first one to practice every day. You send your coaches a positive message about how important the team is to you when you do this. It means working your hardest during every single drill during every practice and every work out. It means being the hardest worker at any team relate event. Team fundraiser? Be the hardest worker at it. Study Hall? Be the hardest worker at it. Field prep/clean up day? Be the hardest worker at it. When your name pops into your coaches head, you don’t want it to be “just like everyone else.” You want to emerge as special. You want to be the first name that the coach thinks of when they are looking for a substitute or a lineup change.
2. BE THE MOST COACHABLE PLAYER ON THE TEAM: Coaches got into the long hours, little pay, and headaches of coaching because they like instructing athletes. They love the feeling of satisfaction that is gained by teaching someone, watching them try, implement, and achieve. Coaches are going to be drawn to those players who they really feel are trying to take their advice. When a coach gives you instruction and you don’t even try to do what they say, they are going to take that as a personal affront, and probably not like you very much. Not accepting their coaching is viewed by them as disrespectful, because in their eyes they are only trying to help you succeed. Also, they are going to spend their practice time instructing someone who they feel is listening. When it comes time to give a player an opportunity in the game, they are much more likely to give it to the player who has proven to be coachable, period.
Whatever the coach tells you, own it. Don’t become a “yabut.” These are the players who always have an excuse, or some reason they can’t do what the coach is asking. “Yabut…my club coach says to do this.” “Yabut…..I dropped it because it was a bad pass”, “Yabut….I’ve always done it this way.” When your coach instructs you: look them right in the eye, keep your mouth shut, accept the coaching, and then try your best to do what they are telling you. If you really have a problem or disagreement with what they are telling you to do, ask them for an appointment to talk about it. Hang out after practice and something like, “Hey coach, can I schedule a 10-15 time with you where we can talk about some things?” Take some time to practice how you are going to phrase it so it does not appear you are questioning the coach’s intelligence or methods. Coaches have most likely invested decades of their lives thinking about their craft, smart players are careful about how they make suggestions. “Hey coach, I know you have been asking me to do it this way, and I know your way is best for most players. I feel like this way is best for me, and here is why. I was wondering if you would be willing to let me try doing it my way for awhile and giving me an opportunity to prove that I can help the team be successful that way.” Try to keep your language about the team, and minimize the use of the word “I.” It may or may not work, but your coach will gain respect for you because of the way you handle it.
3. KNOW THE GAME BETTER THAN ANYONE ON THE TEAM: Coaches love smart players and smart teams. Become a sponge for all the information you can. When the coach talks, make sure you are up in front, paying attention to everything that they say. When they are giving instruction to another player, get right up close and pretend they are talking to you. Chances are that you could benefit from whatever they are telling the other player. Watch the professional and college games on t.v. when you can. Talk the game with your teammates and others who know it. Read books and watch videos. When a coach sees a player who doesn’t know much about the game they are trying to play, they think to themselves, “How important is this to them? Not enough to learn!” Conversely, when they have a player that knows the game really well, it sends a message that you love the game and it is important to you. Coaches want to coach people who share a level of love and importance of the game and the team with them.
This also goes to signs, plays, formations, etc. As a coach nothing is more frustrating than a player who doesn’t know them. It sends a message to the coach that this is not really important to you. Your opportunities in a game might be hard to come by, so you really need to capitalize when you get a chance. If you don’t know the plays, and can’t get to the right spot and do the right things, you have just taken your opportunity and gone backwards. This might require practicing with a teammate or family member on your spare time, or having a family member go over them with you at night. If playing more is really important to you, you will find the time.
4. STOP TAKING THINGS PERSONAL AND QUIT WORRYING ABOUT JUSTICE:
I’ve talked to hundreds of coaches over the years. They all have one thing in common: they want to win. When they think you provide the team with the best opportunity to win, you will play more. Sometimes they don’t exactly love everyone they put in the lineup…..but they play the people who will help them win. If they seem to criticize you a lot, take that as a good sign that they still care and think you have the potential to get better. Don’t be scared by the sounds of a coach pushing you, be scared when they don’t. Silence means they have given up on helping you to get better, and moved on to other players.
Stop telling people that you are not playing because “the coach hates me.” It is most likely not true, and if it is true, YOU be the one to change that. Besides, you lose credibility with anyone who really knows sports as soon as you utter those words.
Stop worrying about justice, and don’t say things like, “well, that other player makes the same mistakes or does the same things I did. I got yelled out or taken out of the game, they didn’t.” That is a waste of time. The coach may or may not be even aware they are doing this, or they may have reasons that you are not aware of for handling players differently. Every minute you spend worrying or complaining about this is a waste of the time and energy that could be focused on getting better. Sometimes, coaches make mistakes and play the wrong people. If you are patient, and continue to work hard, they will likely figure it out. Don’t automatically assume the coach is making a mistake on purpose. Like every other walk of life, coaches aren’t perfect. Maybe, just maybe you are right and the treatment is not totally level. Get over it, life isn’t always fair.
5. IMMERSE YOURSELF IN THE SUCCESS OF THE TEAM:
Visualize this scenario that is played out all over the country many times a day. A team just got a big win. Almost everyone on the team is happy and excited. Players smile and high five each other jubilantly. One player didn’t get to play as much as they liked, so rather than celebrating and being joyful with the team, they pout. What message does this send to the coach and teammates? Selfish, not a team player. Not the type of person that the coach should be making an extra effort to provide opportunities for. Same thing goes for feeling sorry for yourself or bitter during the game. Be positive and enthusiastic in supporting your teammates in games and in practice. Coaches love that.
Is personal disappointment okay? Definitely, but in private. Find a way to at least mask your feelings for long enough to enjoy hard earned victories by the team. If you feel the need to let negative emotions out, do it in in private after you get home. Sometimes, acting is a part of life.
6. FIND A NICHE THAT ALLOWS YOU TO CONTRIBUTE:
Playing multiple positions will create more opportunities. Sometimes you might just have the bad luck of playing the same position as a very talented player. Talk privately at an appropriate time with the coach about the possibility of you practicing at another position that would allow you a better chance to increase your playing time. Phrase it the right way like: “Hey coach, I was wondering if you could take a look at me at this other position. I really think I could help the team be more successful If I had a chance to try that position.” Coaches will like this, feeling that you are trying to be proactive and help the team.
There are important skills in every sport that coaches love, but not everyone can do well. In baseball, examples might be bunting or baserunning. In football it might be something you can find a way to do well on special teams, or in a special package. In soccer it might be throw ins, free kicks or corner kicks. In basketball it might mean becoming the best free throw shooter, so your coach feels confident putting you in at the end of the game when free throws will be very important in sealing the win. Find something you can do well that your team needs done. Doing it successfully makes it more likely that you will get further opportunity.
7. TREAT EACH PRACTICE LIKE A BIG GAME: Because for you, it is. Practice is the opportunity to show the coaches what you can do. If you are not currently getting much playing time, it might be your only opportunity. Show up for each practice the most focused person out there, and be ready to prove what you are capable of. The goal of each practice should be to put doubt in that coaches mind that they are making the right decisions regarding you.
8. FIND OUT WHAT THE COACH LIKES, AND DO IT: Coaches play favorites. So do bosses, so do teachers. That is a fact of life, accept it and learn how to work it to your advantage. Who do they usually favorite? Low maintenance hard workers who hustle, are coachable, and care about winning like they do. Individual coaches have other specific things they really like as well. Most basketball coaches love a player who is willing to take a charge, block out, set a hard pick, and scraps for loose balls. Find out the things your coach really appreciates, and do them. When you get a job, the boss is not going to change the company or their leadership style to fit your needs, it is up to you to adjust. The same is true for sports.
9. HANDLE YOUR OWN BUSINESS AND CONCERNS:
If you have a problem or a question about playing time, whether or not you are starting, or anything else, ask the coach to schedule a meeting to talk about it. Make it away from practice or games in both time and space. If the coach is a teacher at your school, ask if you can come talk to them on lunch or some time like it. Rehearse and practice what you are going to say. Let the coach know that you respect them and their philosophies, and you just want to clarify what you can be doing to improve your situation. Don’t attack the coach, don’t whine. If you do it right, the coach will respect you more for handling the situation the correct way. You may not get the answers you are looking for, but you will have a clearer understanding of the things you need to do.
Your parents may want to do this for you. They love you and they want you to be happy more than anything. If they feel you are getting an unfair deal, they want to protect you. Talk them out of this, as it usually doesn’t work and often makes things worse. Tell them, “I know you are looking out for me, and I really appreciate that, but I need to handle this myself. It will be excellent practice that will help me greatly in the future.” If you feel strongly that the meeting with the coach doesn’t go well, only then should you consider a meeting with your coach and parents. You should attend that meeting, and do most of the talking for yourself. If your parents have to handle everything for you, this will not go far in earning the respect of your coach. In fact, it will probably have the opposite effects of what the meeting was hoping to achieve.
WHAT IF THIS DOESN’T WORK?
This may or may not work. It is still the best plan to follow. If you failed to notice, nothing I mentioned above requires great physical talents or gifts. Everyone is capable of all of it. If your playing time situation doesn’t improve, you will have the peace of mind that comes with knowing that you handled things the right way. Keep your positive attitude, and be a strong teammate for the rest of the season. Don’t quit the team, don’t become a cancer. The season is really not that long. You can make it. Let us just say you are right and the coach was wrong, you just proved to yourself that you can handle adversity. You will always be able to draw from that experience during future tough times. Don’t quit. Fairly or unfairly, if you quit once you are going to get labeled a quitter, and that will be a tough label to shake. If it is really important to you to play more the next year, dedicate yourself in the off season to that goal. The off seasons are when you will have the most opportunity to gain on the people you are competing with. If you are going to play for the same coach next season, set up a meeting with them right away to talk about what you need to do to improve your standing in the program.
If it doesn’t work out in the short term for this particular season or sport, understand that the actions I described above will help you in nearly every area of life further on up the road. Youth sports are all really just practice for the big games of life that will be played later in the schedule. Whether you choose to handle adversity in the right way or the wrong way, you will be on the path to creating habits and defining your character for years to come.