Keeping Bench Players ‘In the Game’

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I have yet to meet a competitive athlete – any age or sport – who relishes sitting on the bench. In fact, excessive time as a second or third stringer can be frustrating and demotivating, and is a primary reason athletes lose their passion for the sport if not their interest in playing at all.

Yet, the rules of every sport limit how many athletes can participate in the competition at one time. And it is rare that an athlete will not play a reserve role at some point in her or his athletic career. Indeed, for some, serving as a substitute will be their predominate experience as an athlete. And some, justifiably, feel completely ignored and unappreciated by their coach.

So how does a coach effectively manage playing time among team members so that subs stay positive and engaged throughout the season?

Quality coaches understand that a successful program requires the right team climate in which every player has a chance to improve his or her skills during competitions. This requires a game plan not only for those who will get most of the playing time but especially for those who will have fewer chances to compete.

Championship coaches such as Anson Dorrance address this issue early in the preseason by teaching players how to behave when asked to play a bench role. One of 12 core values his teams have adopted while winning 22 NCAA soccer titles is “When we don’t play as much as we would like we are noble and still support the team and its mission”.

Athletes must be coached to understand that regardless of their position on the team, they could be called on at any moment to enter the competition and must be mentally ready to help the team. Former college baseball coach Augie Garrido, who led teams to five national championships, preached to his players that the game is always on and reminds them that if you are wearing the uniform, you must be mentally engaged in the competition and ready to play. He taught his athletes that when they are on the bench they should watch the play intently and imagine making the same plays that they see their teammates making, or in the case of failure visualizing themselves making the correct play when they get their chance to get in the game.

One way for coaches to encourage and engage athletes who don’t play much during competitions is to assign them an important observation task. For example, in soccer a player could be given a tablet or a clipboard and asked to chart the number of successful passes made while another bench player could be asked to chart the number of times the opponent regains possession by stealing the ball.

When practical, coaches might also assign bench players the task of observing specific teammates. This is particularly valuable when the player who is in the game is playing the same position as the bench player (e.g., have a linebacker observe and chart actions of linebackers or a guard chart the actions of other guards). This strategy has the added benefit of helping the bench players develop position-specific game sense, something referred to in the expertise literature as ‘mental representations’. The best athletes separate themselves from less-skilled performers by learning how to organize their knowledge of the game, and how to perform specific skills, more efficiently. They are better at seeing patterns of play and anticipating opponent moves.

An even more powerful way to use bench time for athlete development is to have bench players play the ‘anticipation game’. With this strategy bench players are instructed to guess what the opponent will do next at specific moments in a match. Prior to the match coaches can prepare an ‘important match moment’ sheet that bench athletes keep with them during the competition. The sheet could include three columns – one column for the match moment, a second column for how they think the opponent will respond, and a third column for what happened. Examples of important match moments could include corner kicks in soccer, after the ball is turned over because of a shot clock violation in water polo, play calling on third down situations in football, or the type of alignment a team will use during a power play in ice hockey.

The ‘anticipation game’ is a form of deliberate practice because it requires full attention and concentration while providing immediate feedback on the performance (was their ‘guess’ correct?). To maximize the value of this strategy coaches could ask bench players to share what they are learning with the team during natural breaks in the game, such as between quarters or at half-time. In this way not only are bench players staying engaged and improving their game sense, they are developing important leadership skills while being recognized for their contribution to the team even while on the bench.

Coaches may consider broadening the observation focus beyond just technical or tactical skills to positive behaviors in general. Bench players could be asked to chart each time one of their teammates demonstrates a ‘positive’ behavior. Any example of a player acting in a way that is consistent with the team’s core values and behavior standards would be considered a ‘positive’ behavior. Examples could include walking away from a hard foul, not challenging an official after receiving a penalty, showing good communication with teammates, hustling and not giving up after losing possession or falling behind.

Finally, one of the most important roles for athletes to play when on the bench is to show support and cheer for their teammates who are competing. Preseason games and scrimmages are opportune times for athletes to create and practice appropriate bench support behaviors. Players should be given ownership of designing creative ways to cheer on their teammates. The best team chants and cheer strategies can then be passed along to future teams, building pride and tradition for the program.

For a team to function at their best, all members of the team must be engaged and contribute to the effort. This means that even when not physically participating in the competition bench players should be taught how to stay ‘in the game’. With this approach every player can improve their skills and feel connected to the team during a competition, leading to a better team and a more enjoyable sport experience for all.


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