By Dr. Mark Robinson PhD
For many athletes, sitting on the bench as a reserve can be a painful and lonely reality check. I often work with athletes who develop personal and social developmental issues from sitting on the bench waiting to play the sport that they love. It may surprise you that allowing athletes a safe place to discuss playing time issues can bring them comfort while they adjust to the difficultly of sitting on the bench.
The biggest problem for student athletes, especially high school and college freshman, who receive limited playing time are their parents. Yup, the parents of these athletes. These parents have invested time and money during their child’s pre-high school experience in youth leagues and travel ball. They felt untold excitement when the high school coach expressed interest or when their child was offered a scholarship; a free education. These parents now fully expect their child to walk onto a high school or college campus and play, be an instant starter, regardless of the number of returning players on a team.
Parents usually have no idea what a child is experiencing through social media, peer relationships and skill development regarding sitting the bench. Instead parents blame the coach’s inability to see true talent and immediately think about the possibility of selecting another AAU program, high school or transferring colleges.
Athletes sit on the bench for a variety of reasons. Some think that they are sitting on the bench because they are not good enough, and need to work harder to get better. For some, a place on the bench is due to the level of talent of the upper or senior class athletes. For others the claim is that the coach doesn’t like them, or that politics and favoritism are at play. All of these things can, and will, race through a young athlete’s head over the duration of their high school or college career, until they get the opportunity to play.
How each athlete copes with sitting on the bench is uniquely different, but they all try their best to deal with their own situation. The feelings an athlete has about sitting on the bench is not something many want to discuss, nor is it something helping professionals or parents are ready to embrace. As an example; ask any kid who sat on the bench on a High School or College team if anyone other than their mom or dad ever discussed how sitting and watching others play made them feel?
A parent once told me;“My son was never recruited to sit on the bench, and the coaches never told me or my child that he would be sitting on the bench. In fact, we were told during the recruiting phase that he would be a big part of the program.” Actually, being on the team and sitting on the bench is a big part of the program; it’s just not the part she nor her son had intended on playing.
Often, mom and dad are the only people athletes in this situation can turn to. However, unless the family has a plan moving forward away from sport, they can sometimes make the situation worse. The conversation should be concerned with the positives associated with playing on the team and a focus on getting better, or the honest truth regarding talent and ability. Possibly a better avenue to take would be focusing on developing a passion outside of sport and accepting the role of a bench player.
Have you ever overheard this conversation?
Q: Do you play on the basketball/football team?
A: Yes. I am on the team. My role is to work hard in practice, pushing the starters and our star player to perfect their craft for game day. I make sure the other players on the bench are involved in the pre-game dance during the announcements, and I am responsible for getting the starters and the home crowd hyped up. I am a big part of the walk through process and I am a star on the scout team during the week. The experience I am having just being on the team is wonderful. I have a great group of guys I get to travel, work and laugh with on a daily basis. But on game day you would never know this because I sit on the bench. We never hear this conversation because we are failing to teach the true value of the athletic experience.
There is value in sitting on the bench, but often players, parents and athletes never see that value until a playing career is exhausted. A player sitting on the bench can take advantage of this opportunity to learn the game, and see the inter coaching dynamics that take place during, while getting better and gaining the much needed confidence through practice.
The next time you attend or watch a sporting event on any level, look at the bench and appreciate the unseen efforts these players give. The bench player on the high school and collegiate level will never be inducted into the respected athletic departments’ hall of fame for their efforts. The bench player will most likely never be drafted, which means he/she won’t receive a multi-million dollar contract playing sports. However, the bench player can improve their skills, have time to focus on a new passion and truly admit that they were a part of something bigger than themselves.