Emotional Safety — and the Harms of Benchwarming
By Doug Abrams
Headlines these days pay close attention to youth leaguers’ physical safety – concussions, over-use injuries, and other risks and conditions that damage health and well-being. But player “safety” also means emotional safety, this column’s subject. Parents and coaches fulfill their most important missions when an athlete emerges from the final youth league game both physically healthy and emotionally healthy.
In our society that places so much emphasis on sports, few humiliations damage a youth leaguer’s emotional safety more than chronic benchwarming.
USA Hockey, the sport’s national governing body, sets a wholesome standard for youth leagues: “Fair and equal opportunity for all to participate.” The National Hockey League, USA Hockey, and more than a dozen other prominent hockey organizations recently adopted a Declaration of Principles reaffirming that “hockey is for everyone”; the foundation for this imperative is respect for “each individual’s physical, emotional and cognitive development.” Similar aspirations should drive decision makers in other youth sports.
“Fair and equal opportunity” means more than just enrolling all interested youth leaguers and placing them on teams at appropriate levels of play. Enrollment and placement are the easy parts. The sternest challenge comes in games, when coaches eyeing the scoreboard get a tenseness in the stomach and might feel tempted to overlook some players for much or most of the contest. For more than 40 years, I coached youth hockey players who are now in their 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s. My former players still tell me why, in both the short term and the long term, emotional safety in youth sports depends on coaches who heed their better instincts by playing every team member.
Short-Term Emotional Safety
In the short term, chronic benchwarming does not let kids be kids. Players join the team to play. They do not join to sit for a coach who thinks that benching some players might help win games whose scores families will likely soon forget. Former NBA player Bob Bigelow is right: “Few things violate a child’s basic wants and needs – and his or her basic rights – more than sitting on a bench.”
Childhood in America is meant to be a time of relative innocence and personal growth. Sports should deliver players fun and camaraderie, accented by personal achievement from giving best effort. Earning a living, paying mortgages, raising children, and similar weighty obligations will dominate their adult lives soon enough.
Long-Term Emotional Safety
In the long term, chronic benchwarming can leave permanent emotional scars from tattered self-esteem. A few years ago, the Los Angeles Times published a letter-to-the-editor by a former Little Leaguer about memories of his chronic benching one summer when he was a fourth-grader more than a generation earlier. “Our coach played only the stars,” he wrote, “I remember nothing else of that summer . . . except the sole inning I played. I struck out and screwed up a play in left field. For the remainder of the season, I was invisible to the coach.” The letter writer confided that “the shame and humiliation of that one night at age 9 never went away. I’m 50 now.”
Shame and humiliation can impose serious lingering deprivation. More than four decades of coaching youth hockey taught me that as many as a quarter of a youth team’s players are destined to lead difficult, challenging adult lives through no fault of their own. On a roster of about 16 players, this means about three or four kids. When these players are adults years from now, they or a family member may experience disability or disease, for example. Or financial stress, loss of employment, serious accident or injury, or other crisis whose temporary or permanent dislocation can strike families swiftly and at random.
Today’s coach does not know which eager 11-year-olds will be dealt a difficult hand in life; the players do not know; and the parents do not know. But these players are in the locker room, and they are standing right in front of the coach.
Nostalgia remains one of the great strengths of the human mind. When my former players cope now with family adversity, youth sports still provides some of their most enduring memories of pure, unvarnished fun. When adults hit personal roadblocks, they can draw confidence and fortitude from reminiscing about good times, including experiences years earlier on childhood playing fields or in locker rooms.
Coaches deprive their youth leaguers of emotional safety when bittersweet memories of chronic benchwarming disable this lifelong support mechanism. Players remember the good times, but they never forget the bad times.
The Key Question
Coaching other people’s children is serious business, a relationship grounded in trust and respect. How can youth league coaches know whether they are fulfilling their responsibility to help keep every player emotionally safe, now and later in life?
Look squarely in the mirror and ask one question: “How well do I treat my least talented player?” The answer will tell plenty about what emotional safety means to the coach.
Sources:, Declaration of Principles
https://nhl.bamcontent.com/images/assets/binary/290835644/binary-file/file.pdf; Bob Bigelow, Just Let the Kids Play (2001); Humiliation of Ineptness on the Field Never Left, L.A. Times, May 21, 2001, Part 5, p. 4 (letter-to-the-editor).