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 “ya but.” These are the players who always have an excuse, or some reason they can’t do what the coach is asking. “Ya but…my club coach says to do this.” “Ya but…..I dropped it because it was a bad pass”, “Ya but….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.
Here is a portion of "Defining Toughness in College Hoops" by Jay Bilas
"...Toughness is something I had to learn the hard way, and something I had no real idea of until I played college basketball. When I played my first game in college, I thought that toughness was physical and based on how much punishment I could dish out and how much I could take. I thought I was tough.
I found out pretty quickly that I wasn't, but I toughened up over time, and I got a pretty good understanding of toughness through playing in the ACC, for USA Basketball, in NBA training camps, and as a professional basketball player in Europe. I left my playing career a heck of a lot tougher than I started it, and my only regret is that I didn't truly "get it" much earlier in my playing career.
When I faced a tough opponent, I wasn't worried that I would get hit -- I was concerned that I would get sealed on ball reversal by a tough post man, or that I would get boxed out on every play, or that my assignment would sprint the floor on every possession and get something easy on me. The toughest guys I had to guard were the ones who made it tough on me. Toughness has nothing to do with size, physical strength or athleticism. Some players may be born tough, but I believe that toughness is a skill, and it is a skill that can be developed and improved. Michigan State coach Tom Izzo always says, "Players play, but tough players win." He is right. Here are some of the ways true toughness is exhibited in basketball: Stephen Curry's effectiveness comes not from his strength or size, but because he's constantly in motion trying to find an open look.
Set a good screen: The toughest players to guard are the players who set good screens. When you set a good screen, you are improving the chances for a teammate to get open, and you are greatly improving your chances of getting open. A good screen can force the defense to make a mistake. A lazy or bad screen is a waste of everyone's time and energy. To be a tough player, you need to be a "screener/scorer," a player who screens hard and immediately looks for an opportunity on offense. On the 1984 U.S. Olympic Team, Bob Knight made Michael Jordan set a screen before he could get a shot. If it is good enough for Jordan, arguably the toughest player ever, it is good enough for you.
Set up your cut: The toughest players make hard cuts, and set up their cuts. Basketball is about deception. Take your defender one way, and then plant the foot opposite of the direction you want to go and cut hard. A hard cut may get you a basket, but it may also get a teammate a basket. If you do not make a hard cut, you will not get anyone open. Setting up your cut, making the proper read of the defense, and making a hard cut require alertness, good conditioning and good concentration. Davidson's Stephen Curry is hardly a physical muscle-man, but he is a tough player because he is in constant motion, he changes speeds, he sets up his cuts, and he cuts hard. Curry is hard to guard, and he is a tough player.
Talk on defense: The toughest players talk on defense, and communicate with their teammates. It is almost impossible to talk on defense and not be in a stance, down and ready, with a vision of man and ball. If you talk, you let your teammates know you are there, and make them and yourself better defenders. It also lets your opponent know that you are fully engaged.
Jump to the ball: When on defense, the tough defenders move as the ball moves. The toughest players move on the flight of the ball, not when it gets to its destination. And the toughest players jump to the ball and take away the ball side of the cut. Tough players don't let cutters cut across their face -- they make the cutter change his path.
Don't get screened: No coach can give a player the proper footwork to get through every screen. Tough players have a sense of urgency not to get screened and to get through screens so that the cutter cannot catch the ball where he wants to. A tough player makes the catch difficult.
Get your hands up: A pass discouraged is just as good as a pass denied. Tough players play with their hands up to take away vision, get deflections and to discourage a pass in order to allow a teammate to cover up. Cutters and post players will get open, if only for a count. If your hands are up, you can keep the passer from seeing a momentary opening.
Play the ball, see your man: Most defenders see the ball and hug their man, because they are afraid to get beat. A tough defender plays the ball and sees his man. There is a difference.
Get on the floor: In my first road game as a freshman, there was a loose ball that I thought I could pick up and take the other way for an easy one. While I was bending over at the waist, one of my opponents dived on the floor and got possession of the ball. My coach was livid. We lost possession of the ball because I wasn't tough enough to get on the floor for it. I tried like hell never to get out-toughed like that again.
The first player to get to the floor is usually the one to come up with any loose ball.
Close out under control: It is too easy to fly at a shooter and think you are a tough defender. A tough defender closes out under control, takes away a straight line drive and takes away the shot. A tough player has a sense of urgency but has the discipline to do it the right way.
Post your man, not a spot: Most post players just blindly run to the low block and get into a shoving match for a spot on the floor. The toughest post players are posting their defensive man. A tough post player is always open, and working to get the ball to the proper angle to get a post feed. Tough post players seal on ball reversal and call for the ball, and they continue to post strong even if their teammates miss them.
Run the floor: Tough players sprint the floor, which drags the defense and opens up things for others. Tough players run hard and get "easy" baskets, even though there is nothing easy about them. Easy baskets are hard to get. Tough players don't take tough shots -- they work hard to make them easy.
Play so hard, your coach has to take you out: I was a really hard worker in high school and college. But I worked and trained exceptionally hard to make playing easier. I was wrong. I once read that Bob Knight had criticized a player of his by saying, "You just want to be comfortable out there!" Well, that was me, and when I read that, it clicked with me. I needed to work to increase my capacity for work, not to make it easier to play. I needed to work in order to be more productive in my time on the floor. Tough players play so hard that their coaches have to take them out to get rest so they can put them back in. The toughest players don't pace themselves.
Get to your teammate first: When your teammate lays his body on the line to dive on the floor or take a charge, the tough players get to him first to help him back up. If your teammate misses a free throw, tough players get to him right away. Tough players are also great teammates.
Take responsibility for your teammates: Tough players expect a lot from their teammates, but they also put them first. When the bus leaves at 9 a.m., tough players not only get themselves there, but they also make sure their teammates are up and get there, too. Tough players take responsibility for others in addition to themselves. They make sure their teammates eat first, and they give credit to their teammates before taking it themselves.
Take a charge: Tough players are in a stance, playing the ball, and alert in coming over from the weak side and taking a charge. Tough players understand the difference between being in the right spot and being in the right spot with the intention of stopping somebody. Some players will look puzzled and say, "But I was in the right spot." Tough players know that they have to get to the right spot with the sense of urgency to stop someone.
The toughest players never shy away from taking a charge.
Get in a stance: Tough players don't play straight up and down and put themselves in the position of having to get ready to get ready. Tough players are down in a stance on both ends of the floor, with feet staggered and ready to move. Tough players are the aggressor, and the aggressor is in a stance.
Finish plays: Tough players don't just get fouled, they get fouled and complete the play. They don't give up on a play or assume that a teammate will do it. A tough player plays through to the end of the play and works to finish every play.
Work on your pass: A tough player doesn't have his passes deflected. A tough player gets down, pivots, pass-fakes, and works to get the proper angle to pass away from the defense and deliver the ball.
Throw yourself into your team's defense: A tough player fills his tank on the defensive end, not on offense. A tough player is not deterred by a missed shot. A tough player values his performance first by how well he defended.
Take and give criticism the right way: Tough players can take criticism without feeling the need to answer back or give excuses. They are open to getting better and expect to be challenged and hear tough things. You will never again in your life have the opportunity you have now at the college level: a coaching staff that is totally and completely dedicated to making you and your team better. Tough players listen and are not afraid to say what other teammates may not want to hear, but need to hear.
Show strength in your body language: Tough players project confidence and security with their body language. They do not hang their heads, do not react negatively to a mistake of a teammate, and do not whine and complain to officials. Tough players project strength, and do not cause their teammates to worry about them. Tough players do their jobs, and their body language communicates that to their teammates -- and to their opponents.
Catch and face: Teams that press and trap are banking on the receiver's falling apart and making a mistake. When pressed, tough players set up their cuts, cut hard to an open area and present themselves as a receiver to the passer. Tough players catch, face the defense, and make the right read and play, and they do it with poise. Tough players do not just catch and dribble; they catch and face.
Don't get split: If you trap, a tough player gets shoulder-to-shoulder with his teammate and does not allow the handler to split the trap and gain an advantage on the back side of the trap.
Be alert: Tough players are not "cool." Tough players are alert and active, and tough players communicate with teammates so that they are alert, too. Tough players echo commands until everyone is on the same page. They understand the best teams play five as one. Tough players are alert in transition and get back to protect the basket and the 3-point line. Tough players don't just run back to find their man, they run back to stop the ball and protect the basket.
Concentrate, and encourage your teammates to concentrate: Concentration is a skill, and tough players work hard to concentrate on every play. Tough players go as hard as they can for as long as they can.
No team can be great defensively without communication and concentration.
It's not your shot; it's our shot: Tough players don't take bad shots, and they certainly don't worry about getting "my" shots. Tough players work for good shots and understand that it is not "my" shot, it is "our" shot. Tough players celebrate when "we" score.
Box out and go to the glass every time: Tough players are disciplined enough to lay a body on someone. They make first contact and go after the ball. And tough players do it on every possession, not just when they feel like it. They understand defense is not complete until they secure the ball.
Take responsibility for your actions: Tough players make no excuses. They take responsibility for their actions. Take James Johnson for example. With 17 seconds to go in Wake's game against Duke on Wednesday, Jon Scheyer missed a 3-pointer that bounced right to Johnson. But instead of aggressively pursuing the ball with a sense of urgency, Johnson stood there and waited for the ball to come to him. It never did. Scheyer grabbed it, called a timeout and the Blue Devils hit a game-tying shot on a possession they never should've had. Going after the loose ball is toughness -- and Johnson didn't show it on that play. But what happened next? He re-focused, slipped a screen for the winning basket, and after the game -- when he could've been basking only in the glow of victory -- manned up to the mistake that could've cost his team the win. "That was my responsibility -- I should have had that," Johnson said of the goof. No excuses. Shouldering the responsibility. That's toughness.
Look your coaches and teammates in the eye: Tough players never drop their heads. They always look coaches and teammates in the eye, because if they are talking, it is important to them and to you.
Move on to the next play: Tough players don't waste time celebrating a good play or lamenting a bad one. They understand that basketball is too fast a game to waste time and opportunities with celebratory gestures or angry reactions. Tough players move on to the next play. They know that the most important play in any game is the next one.
Be hard to play against, and easy to play with: Tough players make their teammates' jobs easier, and their opponents' jobs tougher.
Make every game important: Tough players don't categorize opponents and games. They know that if they are playing, it is important. Tough players understand that if they want to play in championship games, they must treat every game as a championship game.
Make getting better every day your goal: Tough players come to work every day to get better, and keep their horizons short. They meet victory and defeat the same way: They get up the next day and go to work to be better than they were the day before. Tough players hate losing but are not shaken or deterred by a loss. Tough players enjoy winning but are never satisfied. For tough players, a championship or a trophy is not a goal; it is a destination. The goal is to get better every day.
When I was playing, the players I respected most were not the best or most talented players. The players I respected most were the toughest players. I don't remember anything about the players who talked a good game or blocked a shot and acted like a fool. I remember the players who were tough to play against.
Anybody can talk. Not anybody can be tough."