Coaching tips

COACHING TIPS: The Plight of the Benchwarmer…What Coaches, Parents, and Kids Need to Know

For those of you who follow ASKCOACHWOLFF.COM, you know that our friend and colleague, Doug Abrams, wrote a most powerful column this past week on this website.

It was such a powerful topic that I felt compelled to talk about it on my WFAN radio show this AM.

In short, in this day and age, when we are all so caught up and focused on who ares rising young stars in youth and amateur sports, I think Doug’s point of view is very much right on point.

That is, what do we do with the kid who doesn’t start on the team…the youngster who is hoping to get into the game but probably won’t…the player who has to sit and wait for his or her time to get in.

The young athlete who, unfortunately, is labelled, or viewed, as a benchwarmer, sees and views the game at hand much differently from the coach or from the way his teammates do. That is, the coach (and I’m talking primarily about HS varsity coaches here) is focused on his game strategy and X’s and O’s….the starters are locked in on following the coach’s game plan, and hoping to have a good game. But the kid on the bench? He’s hoping that the game results in a lopsided score so that maybe, just maybe, he or she might get some playing time.

That may be harsh, but deep down inside, for anyone who has ever sat on a HS varsity bench, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

And of course, there’s more. The parents of the benchwarmer are also wondering why their child isn’t getting more playing time. You know what happens next: the coach starts getting emails or calls from the kid’s parents as to what’s going on.

THE MOST DIFFICULT MESS OF THEM ALL

Let’s back up. Playing time at the elementary and middle school ages (as well as travel teams) should never be a problem. Every kid on the team should play at least half the game. And coaches, you have to make sure that happens. That’s the most important part of your game approach. Winning at those ages is NOT your top priority. Getting kids lots of quality playing time is. That’s rule number one.

I recall when I was coaching youth soccer. The games were often divided into quarters, and I kept a detailed scorecard for each quarter, and made sure that not only did each kid on the team play at least half the game, but I also made sure the youngsters rotated positions.

Was this time-consuming in terms of keeping track of playing time? A little bit. But I knew two things:

1 – That in the end, my won-loss record in coaching youth soccer wasn’t a top priority.

2 – That the moms and dads and grandparents who came out to watch the games were there for one singular purpose  — to watch their child play, and play at lot. They did not come out to see them sit on the bench.

And a couple of things happened….my youth soccer teams won more often than they lost…why? Because I think since all the kids on the team knew they were going to play, and play a lot, they brought an extra sense of energy to the games.

And two…the kids and their parents came away from the games with a sense of joy.

Trust me, that counts for a lot.

At the youth level, coaches, I can’t emphasize that enough.

But admittedly, things get more complicated as kids get into HS age. Example. One of the callers on the show this AM complained that his son played on his HS football team, went to every practice, but never got a minute of playing time in the games. Hard to believe how a coach could do that to a kid. But I fear that this kind of thing happens more often than we want to admit.

There was also significant debate about a HS coach simply telling a senior player on the team that: “Look, you’ve earned your spot on the roster, but you need to know that you’re not going to play much this year, if at all.”

While I feel for the coach being honest with the senior, I also know that the player is most likely not going to cut himself from the team. Instead, he’ll stay on the team, and hope and pray for a few seconds of action. From the coach’s perspective, he admitted that it bothered him that he would have to pass by this kid on the sidelines during the game, knowing full well that the kid desperately wanted to get in, but that the coach knew he wasn’t going to play him.

My perspective? If a kid makes your roster, then Coach, you are then obligated to make sure he or she plays and contributes even in some small way to the team. To become a perpetual benchwarmer is not only not fair to the kid, but it also plants serious seeds for division on your team.

BOTTOM LINE FOR COACHES?

Please give the concept of benchwarmers some serious thought and reflection. If you know you’re the kind of coach who tends to only play his starters all the time, then tear off the Band-Aid and keep only a minimal number of players. That is, cut the benchwarmers.

If, however, you’re the kind of coach who CAN find playing time for all of your players, then keep a solid number and make sure they all play at least a little bit.

In other words, this is one very, very delicate issue. Just remember this: Playing time for their kids continues to be the Number One complaint from parents to coaches.