Why You Should Love Your Reserves

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You know most of your team’s success will come down to how you have prepared them, not your game time decisions. And regardless of your sport, on game day, playing time is the area in which you as the coach have the biggest influence on the outcome. So, who starts? When do you sub? How do you rotate players?

When deciding who plays and who doesn’t, we face a lot of challenges. Your most talented or skilled players rarely make your best lineup.

Statistics are being used more and more in sports to determine “the best lineup, depth chart, or side”, but even they fail to address other important factors like: Do you reward a player’s effort and attitude with playing time?

How long do you stand by a player who is in a rut before you give someone else a chance?

Coaches could argue about the answers to these questions ’til the grave! But what is equally as important — and what is discussed infrequently — is what you should do after you decide who will play.

We need to ask ourselves two critical questions:

1. Why should we care about our reserves?

2. How can we love our reserves better?

So, for a second, let’s stop focusing on deciding who  to play and how to get our reserves to buy-in while keeping those darn parents off our back.

Instead, let’s start by focusing on the challenges of being a reserve!

Jordan Patterson’s Story

Jordan Patterson had paid her dues. In fact, during her first two years of playing softball for the University of Alabama, she sat the bench behind two great catchers. And during those two years, she worked hard, had a great attitude, and cheered for her team. After winning the National Championship her sophomore year, they graduated two catchers, so during that off-season, she believed her time had come!

But her world would be rocked that summer when Head Coach Patrick Murphy brought in a junior transfer who just happened to be a very talented catcher. Not only that, but the coach appointed Jordan with the responsibility of welcoming this transfer to the “family.”

While Jordan continued to work her ever-living butt off, she quickly realized that their new transfer, Molly Fitchner, was incredibly talented, a great teammate, and worked just as hard as she did. She understood that she would get an opportunity to be a starter, but she also knew in her heart that she was probably going to be experiencing games much as she had in her first two years — from the dugout.

Jordan’s story at this stage is not uncommon in athletics at any level — A new player joins the team and is a threat to the roles of the existing players. But what happens next is unique and special.

Instead of “transferring,” — which the majority of players in professional, collegiate, and even high school sports do these days — she continued to work harder than ever. And she still she managed to balance working hard, competing for the spot, and accepting her role as a reserve.

She started to lead from the dugout and became fully invested in the success of the team.

She understood that she played a vital role to that success, even if she wasn’t in the games.

Was it easy for her?

Absolutely not!

She cared so much about softball; she was a competitor, and it’s unnatural for a competitor to sit and watch! We play sports to play, not to sit pitch after pitch, inning after inning, game after game.

Now, her story could have been different. Molly could have gotten hurt and Jordan could have stepped up and led the team to glory! The Hollywood finish! Right? Just think of Nick Foles in the Super Bowl this season.

But that is not what happened.

What happened is, she sat in that dugout for the next two years.

Was it all a waste? Those four years?

In Jordan’s eyes, absolutely not. While it took her some time to fully appreciate what the experience taught her, she came to understand that as unfair, frustrating, and hard as those moments were for her, they were a part of life. The experience further developed her work ethic, resilience, and mental toughness, preparing her for law school and life as a corporate lawyer.

So, what does Jordan’s story teach us?

Why is her story different than the stories of so many other athletes?

Well, I had the opportunity to talk with Jordan on my podcast recently and we came to three key conclusions.

First, Jordan is an exceptional person! Kind, motivated, hardworking, and self-aware, she was able to — and will continue to — overcome adversity, because she is mentally tough.

Secondly, Jordan’s parents showed empathy by listening to her and continuing to support her and the team. They never bad-mouthed the coach or her teammates, and they never told her it was unfair.

Lastly, Jordan’s coach, Patrick Murphy, created a culture that was bigger than the sport — one that valued every player as a person. While I love talking to great coaches, it was incredible to hear a very articulate perspective from one of the players.

3 Reasons You Care About Your Reserves

1. You want to win. Even if you only care about winning, you know you need to have reserves that show up at practice every day to push your starters and your key minute players. Practice in nearly every sport is most beneficial with more players than the most  number of players you need to play a game. Also, the reserves are often younger players whom we need to continue to develop, so we want them to keep working hard and improving. And then there are the times you’ll need those reserves ready for when a starter or a big minute player goes down with an injury or suffers from a drop in performance. The bottom line is that on most teams, to be successful and continue to improve, we need players who are willing to come in, work hard, and compete in practice, even though they are not getting important minutes.

2. Our team culture depends upon the “reserve” players. Just take it from Anson Dorrance, the most successful Division 1 college coach of all time. Dorrance said, “I thought it really came down to luck if the team chemistry was good or bad. Now, I believe it really boils down to the attitude of the reserve players and how the starters view and treat the reserves. That determines whether or not you have a genuine team.” Just look at your bench. Observe the level of communication and the body language of those who are not in the game and I think you will have a pretty good sense of your team’s culture. Are they all about “me” or all about “we”? If the players at the end of the bench are standing up, cheering, and positive, then you know they love their teammates on the field.

3. We coach because care about every person on the team. Most people in coaching are in it to have a transformational impact on the people we are leading. And we are in just as much of a position to positively or negatively influence the lives of our “reserves” as we are to influence the lives of our starters or big minute players. Just look at the story of Jordan Patterson. Her life was forever transformed by her experience and she has the greatest respect for her coach. As coaches, we can have that type of impact if we love ALL the people we coach.

7 Ways to Loving Your Reserves

1. Language: Stop calling or referring to your reserves as “bench” or “role” players. Nobody wants to be a “bench” player and everyone is a “role” player; they all have roles. Instead, use the term “reserve player” or “non-starter.”

2. Culture: Does your culture see the players as people or just athletes? Coach Murphy was invested in helping his players grow as people, not just athletes. Jordan described the team culture in this way: “There was no way you could play there and not be a better person.” Check out this blog for more on this principle.

3. Clear Role: Everyone needs to clearly understand their role on the team and how it is important to the overall success of the team. Coaches far too often assume that a player knows their role and they end up avoiding these hard, honest conversations. It is the role of the coach to clearly communicate the role to the player, and to continuously do so throughout the season to everyone within the program. Clarify their role when it comes to the minutes they will play, the shots they will take, and everything else you expect from them.

Jocko Willink, former Navy SEAL Commander, calls it “leading down the chain”. He says, “It is paramount that senior leaders explain to their junior leaders and troops executing the mission how their role contributes to big-picture success. This is not intuitive and never as obvious to the rank-and-file employees as leaders might assume. Leaders must routinely communicate with their team members to help them understand their role in the overall mission.”

When it comes to games, continuously look for ways to expand their role and influence beyond just cheering. If you can’t give them more playing time, then find areas where you can give them more responsibility and ownership. Giving them a voice in team meetings, film study, and half-time discussions are just some areas where they can feel valued.

4. Opportunity: Especially early in the season, every player should have an opportunity — and believe they have an opportunity — to compete for a starting role.

Be VERY intentional in how you select your practice teams early in the season, so as to give everyone a fair chance to prove themselves. Why is this important? So that when you select your starters, everyone feels like they had an opportunity, and your starters won’t feel entitled to their position. Not only will this create a better culture, but it will also help create a more competitive practice.

At some stage, you may feel it is important to have a “set lineup” and stand by certain players, even when they are struggling in a game or over the course of a few games. But everyone should feel as if they had their time and their chance.

Before every game, a player should understand when their opportunity for playing time will come. Honest conversations must be had. If they are only going in when the game is clearly won, then they should know that beforehand. If they are only going in if certain players are hurt, penalized (such as foul trouble, flags, or cards), or playing poorly, then they deserve to know that as well.

5. Path to Mastery: Along with autonomy and purpose, “path to mastery” is the third key ingredient that researchers have identified for intrinsic motivation. People will struggle to show up every day if they feel it is not helping them grow as a player and a person. If they can see that there is a path to development laid out for them and the coaching staff is invested in their continued growth, they will become more motivated.

As often as possible, avoid designating reserves as the water boy, rebounder, ball girl, or “practice cheerleader”. Avoid letting players stand along the sideline as much as possible. I used to laugh when I would hear football coaches complain about their reserves’ attitudes, but when I would observe their practices, the reserves were expected to do all the required conditioning, only to stand on the sideline in the freezing cold for hours during the team’s practices. Feeling and knowing that they are improving largely motivates players; don’t deprive them of that!

6. Appreciate: Everyone should feel equally valued and cared for. In fact, we should expend more energy and effort to appreciate our reserves.

In front of tens of thousands of fans in 2015 at Ohio State’s National Championship celebration, when Urban Meyer stepped up to the podium, the first player he acknowledged was not the starting quarterback. In fact, it wasn’t any starter on the team. He called up and spoke about reserve Nik Sarac and the selfless sacrifice he made for the team in giving up his scholarship to another player because Nik’s parents could afford to pay tuition at OSU.

Jordan Patterson recalled that one of her most memorable moments in her collegiate career was when Coach Patrick Murphy started his speech at their National Championship Ring Ceremony by looking at Jordan and saying, “Your ring is just as important as Kelsi Dunne’s ring.” Kelsi was their star pitcher.

Appreciate your reserves in little moments, but don’t forget to do it in the big moments as well!

7. Empathy: I believe a lot of coaches find it difficult to empathize with the struggle and challenges of being a reserve due to the fact that many coaches were the “star” or key players for their team. For an athlete, it’s not easy to accept the possibility that someone else may be a better player. It’s hard to sit on the end of the bench and “stay ready”. It’s hard to face parents, fans, and friends after games when they haven’t played a single minute and these people do not hesitate to share their opinions on why they should be playing more.

Keeping a great attitude, working hard, respecting your teammates, and appreciating the opportunities you do have is not easy when you have to sit and watch every game. Think of it this way. Can you imagine showing up for work every day and not collecting a paycheck? Would you still work hard and have a great attitude if you were told that you might get paid later on down the road, but there were no guarantees?

Call to Action

“Sacrifice for the team!” This is a lot easier said than done.

In Training Soccer Champions, Anson Dorrance tells the story of Tracey Bates. Tracey played on the national team for some time as a starter, but the year before the World Cup, she lost her spot to a new player named Kristine Lily. One night, Dorrance was heading out for a run and heard Tracey on the hotel phone crying to her mother. While Dorrance couldn’t hear Tracey’s mother, it was clear to him that her mother was upset that Tracey had lost her spot. He heard Tracey say, “No, I am working hard and Coach isn’t mad at me! Don’t you understand? Kristine is just better than I am, and she deserves her spot.”

As Dorrance’s story shows, we will never make it painless for the reserve player who sacrifices so much and works so hard only to have to watch and cheer from the sideline. But we can create a culture in which they understand, accept, and appreciate their role — a culture in which they feel valued.

Patience.

Love.

Empathy.

It all starts with us.

-J.P. Nerbun

Click here read Jordan Patterson’s blog. It is a great story to share with athletes and sports parents.

Works Referenced

Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink

Training Soccer Champions by Anson Dorrance

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