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How Do You Handle Being a Role Player

As we enter the middle of winter, I am working with numerous team sport participants who are frustrated with their roles on their respective teams. Players on basketball, volleyball, football and soccer have all been consulting with me about they’re playing time, or lack of it. Whether it be on a club or high school team, many of these athletes have been upset because they are either not starting or not getting many minutes in their games. And several of them have been very vocal about how they believe they are better than the players ahead of them. As long as there are sport teams with more players than positions, there will always be frustrated athletes, parents and coaches as well.

If you have read my newsletters, you know that I like to say, “A good coach is a good psychologist and a bad coach needs a sport psychologist”. I believe one of the most difficult roles a coach has is making everyone on the team happy, because it rarely happens. There are always going to be frustrated athletes for a variety of reasons. Playing time is usually the most common problem most coaches have to deal with. Whether it is an unhappy athlete or a steaming parent, a coach needs to know how to communicate clearly about their decisions about who starts, who is first off the bench and why he/she has made these choices.

In my opinion, the key to dealing with this starts in the pre-season meeting.
Before the season begins, a coach should explain his/her coaching philosophy about who starts, who comes off the bench and how and why these choices are made. By doing this in the pre-season meeting, you are setting up the foundation for the choices you make during the season. I believe one of the keys to this is establishing a communication channel for athletes and parents who will inevitably get frustrated as the season progresses. I know many coaches, especially in high school, will not speak with parents about this issue after the season begins. I feel once an athlete enters high school, they should have the self-confidence to be able to ask questions to their respective coach. However, many athletes have told me that they are ignored by their coach and eventually ask their parents for help. Often times, when the parent gets involved it can get ugly and confrontational. Effective and successful coaches understand this and usually are good at explaining why certain athletes start and what others roles are. They usually set up a communication channel that can give the athlete an opportunity to speak with the coach, which can eliminate getting parents involved.

However, many athletes are still frustrated even when they can speak with their coach about their role. The word “fairness” is commonly brought up in the conversation, with many athletes complaining that it’s not fair that they are either not starting or not playing enough. In our sessions, we often discuss that to give themselves the best chance of playing, they need to first focus on what they have control over. They can’t force the coach to play them, but they can impress the coaching staff with their attitude and effort in practice. I commonly suggest that they need to make their practices, their games. Approach practice as if it is the actual game with a positive attitude, and putting out the effort that can impress the coaches. In their discussions with the coaches, don’t complain about why they aren’t playing enough, instead ask the coaches what areas of their performance they need to improve on and set goals to work on these areas. Even though they may not change the coach’s decisions, they will eventually set themselves up for success. In the long run by doing this, they will not only improve their chances to play, but improve their skills as well. Many athletes are told that their role is to come off the bench and be ready when their name is called. By accepting this is their role and understanding this is how the coach feels they can help the team, they give themselves the best chance to impress the coach with their attitude and eventually have the opportunity for more playing time.

As always, your thoughts….

One thought on "How Do You Handle Being a Role Player"

Mindy Capehart says:

It’s funny that this is the newsletter for this month; as I have a daughter home for the holidays who plays D1 basketball in Georgia. She worked her way up to a starter this year as a Sophomore. This is a new coach from last year, he’s working with recruits from the past regime. He only has one recruit of his own as they are a young team and only lost one senior after last season. Lately, the dynamics have changed and alot of the players feel is has become a mind game of who plays and who doesn’t. He has now started playing his Freshman recruit, puts players on the bench with tenure and are scoring. My daughter was the leading scorer out of the Freshman class and had the most minutes clocked as a Freshman. I understand the collegiate level is MUCH different than high school, this is a coach’s bread & butter and he wants to look good and is going to put who he thinks is best on the court. But, this has become more of a Chinese fire drill, trying to find a combination that he thinks works…the girls are confused as to their roles. My daughter is a shooting guard, she is afraid to shoot now – because if she misses, he pulls her after a couple missed shots and puts in another player. She went from starting 3 games in a row, to sitting out the who first 10 minutes of the last game; and clocked minimal time in. She’s frustrated because she doesn’t know when she should shoot and fears if she misses is looking to the bench to see who’s coming in for her. She’s also understood that she is not quite as quick in the feet as some of the others, but her ball mentality and ability to find open players and get things going is huge strong point for her; plus the team seems to calm down and flow better when she is in the game. I’m not saying it because she’s my daughter either. I’m not one to say my child is the best or think she should have more time than anybody else. I’ve always told her she had to earn her time and that body language and attitude are key to playtime also. I know she wears her heart on her sleeve, her frustration shows through because all she wants to do is play and she feels like a yo-yo at this point; as do several other players. It’s hard to put in this kind of commitment at this level, practice the hours they do, conditioning, classroom, travel, etc. Kids that are at college not on an athletic scholarship have no idea the amount of work and time/sacrifice goes into playing at the college level. It can be brutal.
I wish I had some words of advice or encouragement for her before she flies back the day after Christmas for practice that night! It’s hard to hear her say that she doesn’t love the game anymore, because all the mind games and uncertainty of where you stand at all times is never known. Afraid of being able to play your game for fear of being pulled out. Not sure what to say to her. It’s just a different beast…and they are getting a free education, but at a hefty price in terms of mental and physical exhaustion at times, defeat, frustration, etc. Don’t want her to walk away from it without a fight. She’s only got 2 more years left I keep telling her. Then it’s all over and she can look back on it and say she at least did it. May not have been everything she dreamt it was going to be; but I think maybe this is just the way it is at this level?? I don’t know, she’s my only child to play at this level so it’s new to me. Would like to see a newsletter on how to combat these issues. Thanks! Enjoy your stories.

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