Collegiate sports can be a rude awakening to a lot of athletes that have been big fish in small ponds most of their life. One of the toughest things for coaching a collegiate program is you’re going to have 12-16 individuals that were most likely some of the top players for their respective areas. They come from different backgrounds/philosophies. Some were coddled, others had coaches push and push, but all were typically successful in some form. These athletes now have to work with a completely new group of players, with a new coach, and buy into a common philosophy – adjusting some of the things that helped them get to this point. It’s a very tricky process, especially when many of the athletes that will be on the sidelines don’t have much experience with it.
A few years back I was visiting practices/matches for a women’s volleyball team at a local school. They were nationally ranked in their respective division. I saw many good things going on with the program, but I continued to flash back to two specific moments. The first one involved a player announcing within earshot of many of us that she didn’t want to go to a weekend tournament as she probably wouldn’t play. The second one was when one of the girls proceeded to tell the coach they were quitting after not getting to play during a match. That match, they upset the #1 ranked team in the country after losing to them their first two meetings.
I’ll repeat that: A player quit her collegiate team after they had upset the top team in the country because she didn’t get to play.
I admit my first reaction was pretty harsh. However, I started thinking about my experience as a college coach, and I felt less distaste towards her decision. I actually felt bad for her. If a player plays 5-10 years without ever having to spend time on the sidelines, how can we expect them to know how to properly handle it once the opportunity comes? Furthermore, as I thought about it, I realized I was guilty of a similar experience…
By the age of 4, I was able to do long division. In first grade, we were given an assignment and I went home and did every problem in the entire book. I was way ahead of the curve for being able to work with numbers, and my whole life, everyone told me I would do something big with math. Math came REALLY easily to me, but not because I had a good work ethic, or trained myself in the craft. I’d see the problem, know the answer, and that was that. 15 years later, when I had the first class that I couldn’t pass by going through the motions, I quit. I simply didn’t have a passion for it.
Volleyball was a different story. I joined my school team in 6th grade, and we had seven boys on the team. I was the bench guy all three years. However, I stuck with it, and while it was a SLOW climb up, I continued to play and work at my game – it didn’t feel like work to me, and that was critical for my development. Every adult team I’ve joined, I started as a reserve – but within a year I was starting, and that was because I embraced the opportunity to work and earn my role on that court.
Above everything else, it taught me not to look at the bench as a bad thing – it simply meant I had to work harder. If you’re sitting on the sidelines thinking “I should be in”, then you will most likely stay put. It’s the athletes that ask the coach outside of matches/practice “What can I do to work my way into the lineup”, then take the feedback and work relentlessly towards it that have the best chance of getting on the court.
If I have a child and they decide to be an athlete, I hope they have to sit on the bench. I hope they learn how to deal with adversity, how to start something behind someone on the depth chart and have to outwork them to play catch up. I hope they learn what a difference they can make when they’re cheering their teammates on versus standing with their arms crossed pouting because they aren’t on the court. I hope they learn to be the 7th player on the court, use the chance to study what the other team is doing as the match progresses, then run up to the court ready to use that information when the opportunity presents itself. Should they earn a starting spot, I hope they take that time on the sideline to remind themselves that playing time is a privilege, not a right, and not to take it for granted when putting work in at practice or on their own time.
If you or your child are not getting the playing time you feel they deserve and you want to change it, have the athlete ask the coach what they need to work on most. It doesn’t guarantee playing time, but it’s your best chance to get an assessment on what needs to be worked on. If you don’t feel your coach will give you an honest evaluation, find someone whose opinion you do respect – but make sure the focus is what the athlete can change, not external circumstances!Photo Credit: Terry Johnston