For every travel team, no matter the sport, only a certain number of boys or girls can be a starter and log a substantial amount of playing time. For basketball, you cannot have more than five players on the floor at one time. For baseball and softball, only nine players can take the field at once. In volleyball, you can only have six players on the court. You see where I’m going with this.
So, what happens to the remaining bench players who are unable to log significant minutes? Are they still able to contribute to the team? Well, with the right mindset both from the player and their parents, being a bench player on a travel team can end up being a positive experience for everyone involved.
Playtime and parents’ reactions
From my experience as a travel team coach, the most frequent complaint from both players and parents alike is about playing time. Playing time is an opportunity, not a right, and it’s earned through performance during practices and games.
Parents who do not understand this concept become frustrated. Unfortunately, complaining about your son or daughter’s playing time does not automatically mean it will increase. Parents feel that because they are paying to play, they have input in the lineup or the right to critique other players in an effort to make their son or daughter a more significant member of the team.
This is why coaches resort to vague phrases like “Well if Jimmy keeps working hard, more opportunities will come,” or “Good things are in store for Sally. She is getting better every day,” or “Billy just needs to focus more.” These phrases come into play because honesty is not a two-way street. It is reality versus the parents’ perception of reality.
The subject of how much a kid plays comes up quite often between coaches and parents. Parents request meetings with coaches all the time to discuss their concerns about their child’s playtime and what he or she can do to increase it. Every travel team coach encounters these conversations at one point or another. These meetings add up over time. Expressing concerns is totally understandable, but when the same parents ask to talk with the coach about the same issue, it begins to take time away from other important things like practicing, planning for games, etc.
There’s more than playtime in games
What many don’t realize is that there’s much more to being a part of a travel team besides playing in games. A lot goes on behind the scenes that most parents don’t witness. Every player receives attention in practice. Coaches are always working with them to help them improve each and every time. The instruction players get is invaluable to their growth and development as an athlete. It is this guidance and training that allows them to improve and possibly increase their playtime.
In addition to knowledgeable coaching, having access to quality facilities is another aspect of travel sports that often goes overlooked. Practicing and playing games in a facility of good condition makes a world of difference. Well maintained athletic spaces considerably decrease the risk of injuries to players. When the grass or turf is consistent and there aren’t any divots, the chances of twisting an ankle, or worse, is less likely.
We need to talk…
At the end of the day, the coach has a responsibility to parents to be upfront with them and discuss what their expectations are with their child. Telling a parent that their child isn’t as talented as they think he or she is can be a difficult discussion to have. It always is. But, the coaches who know how to have this necessary conversation can help mitigate frustration on the parents’ end. Always remember, just because a coach may be having this conversation with you about your kid now, doesn’t mean that things won’t change in the future. Bench players don’t always remain bench players forever.
For those who do have this conversation with a coach, attitude is just as important as putting in the time and effort to improve. The end goal may be for the player to become a starter, but working towards that goal may take some time. Isolating, or dividing, a goal up into smaller pieces makes the process seem much more manageable. It also allows the athlete to spend more time solely focused on one aspect of his or her game.
Having a strong coach is essential
So, how do we avoid awkward confrontations over playing time when a child is simply not good enough to be the star player that mom and dad envision? The answer is to be upfront from the start by laying out clear expectations.
No matter the sport, most travel teams have an A-team and a B-team, or an elite team and a gold team. No matter the name, most organizations have multiple teams for the same age group. In doing so, these organizations have a competitive team and a team that needs experience. This is where coaches need to be upfront with parents. Bars must be set.
A conversation with a player’s parents needs to be phrased in a firm manner, like so: “Paul is a great kid and we’d love to have him in our program. In our eyes he has shown enough dedication and drive in practice to be considered for our Elite Team, but he would not be a starter. We would love to have him as a bench player with a chance to earn a starting position as he improves. If that is not an option and Paul wants play more to gain experience, we have a spot where he would be a starter on our Super Team. He would play for a significant amount of time and have the opportunity to be a key contributor.”
Notice how I didn’t ask what the parents wanted? It’s all about Paul. This is a decision that is going to affect Paul 100 percent and he needs to have input. Parents who understand that this is their son or daughters’ decision are usually the parents who make the right decision.
Parents need to have the honest conversation with their child: “Would you rather play a little less and win a little more or be a starter and get a ton of experience, but possibly be on a team that isn’t as good?” This is where Paul would get a chance to evaluate what he really wants to do.
If winning is important to Paul and he wants to be a part of the elite team even if he’s one of the bench players, great! If Paul would like to play as much as possible and gain valuable experience, that’s great too! Does Paul have more friends on one team as opposed to the other? Does he prefer a particular coach who makes sure his development progresses?
There are multiple factors contributing to this decision, but Paul has to decide for himself or at least have significant input. His parents can’t decide for him. Well, they can but 11 times out of 10 those are the first parents to complain!
“Why isn’t Paul playing more?”
“Why doesn’t his team win as much?”
There needs to be a balance between the expectations of the child and the parents. That’s not to say the decision should be a 50/50 balance; it shouldn’t. The player should ultimately have more say in the decision. The child will be the one playing. Whether he or she is a starter or one of the bench players, they’re the ones who are most affected by the outcome – not the parents. As long as you remember that, you’ll be on the right track if this kind of situation ever arises with your young athlete.
It’s all about the growth of the player
On a travel team, selling the bench player position is by far the toughest conversation to have with the families involved. Usually, not all the time but usually, if the conversation is had early enough in the process it can eliminate a lot of complaining further down the line. It also promotes an open dialogue and a relationship with the family that has the best interest of their son or daughter in mind.
True travel team organizations have no other objective other than what is best for the players. These organizations are tough to find but they do exist, I promise you.
Parents, let me clue you in on a key aspect of the travel team experience: it is about the growth and development of your child, not to make your son or daughter a millionaire meal ticket! Whether they’re one of the bench players, or on the A-team or B-team, it doesn’t matter! Let me repeat that: it does not matter! From 9U to 18U, in any age group, being on a travel team needs to be about having fun, gaining experience, and developing players for what lies ahead by keeping their best interests in mind.
A concept that coaches and parents need to get across to bench players is that playtime doesn’t directly correlate to value to the team. Bench players can have a tremendous impact on plays, games, and seasons. They are vital to any and every team. Making sure that bench players understand how vital they are is integral to positive team chemistry.
If playing in college or playing professionally is important to you as a player, keep this in mind: if you are good enough, they will find you. Take me for example, I’m just a small-town kid from the central Pennsylvania suburbs who never played on a travel team a day in my life or went to extravagant camps and showcases. Yet I was drafted out of high school by the Florida Marlins and played Division I baseball for the number one ranked team in the country. If you are good enough, they will find you. I promise!