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Benchwarmers: The Best Seats in the House

By Thomas Fakehany

    Some people play volleyball to record points, or block attacks with an executed barrier.  Some enjoy the thrill of a systematically place spike. Other players just perch on their butts.

    For benchwarmers, volleyball consists of chasing balls, cheering teammates, keeping score, officiating lines and dreaming of praise.  You may not always see them, but they're there. Benchwarmers are on every team, yet you might never see them play.  They are the heart of any team.  They go to all the practices and, for the most part, work as hard as anyone -- but they are lucky to get a chance to engage the opposition every three or so matches.   Benchwarmers might get an ace service or score a point, and then realize the game score is 13-3 and nobody really cares anymore.

    Do you know what that is like, or did you always get to play.  Since I have established 411Volleyball Net on the Internet I often received notes from those who sit on the bench, waiting for a chance to play.  They have written to me as freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors longing to start a game with some authentic competition, yearning to be on the first team.  While there are only a few benchwarmers sitting on those hard metal chairs in every gym, watching the action unfold in front of them, their numbers add up.

    Let's see, the coach is on the end of the team area, flashing signs and yelling instructions to the players on the court.  A spike!  A bump follows.  Then a long misguided quick hit that dives and slithers to the gym wall.  A rally is starting and the fans are starting to get excited, as it seems that the team is going to win another game.   The benchwarmers look satisfied.  They stand up, cheering, and congratulating other players as they return to the bench for a time out, instruction and quick water break.  However, on the inside, the benchwarmers are torn apart by the fact that they can't get into the battle.

    This for many benchwarmers is a typical game, wasting away on the bench, feeling useless and not really part of the team. Every person handles sitting on the bench his or her own way. Some are very upset with their role.   "I'm not happy about it. It's boring sitting on the bench with nothing to do, not being able to play," wrote Tony Chavez, a junior at University Central who plays on the fighting Anteaters volleyball team.  A benchwarmer that did not want to be identified wrote, "This isn't what my parents paid the athletic fee for.  It doesn't feel like I'm even on the team."

    Some volleyball players have written me that when told that their playing time is going to be reduced, they resort to throwing things, most often a temper tantrum.  There is a rare class of high school benchwarmers, though, who are resigned to the fact that once in a while, and they aren't going to play.  Mary Sterlin, a junior who plays volleyball and softball, said that she "understood why I was sitting on the bench.  It gives other kids a chance to play and it gives me a chance to relax."

    Some benchwarmers' outlook on sitting on the bench combines resignation with anger.  I am frustrated, stated one email, that I am not able to play more and contribute, but I understand that there are better players who deserve the time more than I do.   The real problem lies with younger players, especially in lower grades and leagues, which never get the chance they deserve.  If you've been playing volleyball for five or so years and feel bad about sitting bench, imagine how a kid just starting out feels when they are told by a coach that they're not good enough to play for their team.

    One young 14 year old girl that D1 coach Jerry Gregg, responded to in an email stated that that when she tried to talk to her high school coach about playing time, her varsity coach responded with "complaining is a sin, and a sure way to go to hell."    A coach who wants that elusive championship can crush a young player's dreams.  Coach Gregg further stated, "That some coaches evaluate teams of the basis of the weakest player--if my weakest player is better than yours, I should win most of the time--it pays off then to prepare weaker players. I would agree (for the most part--good teams need at least one 'big stick').

    As a purely practical matter concern ONLY for win/loss, over a whole season (feeling and finances of players aside), and especially when working with younger teams, bench players had better get some experience because it is inevitable that at some time "starters" will not be available. If bench players are not prepared and ready, the team loses.  You can't expect an inexperienced and therefore, unprepared, player to 'rise to the occasion'. As a coach of younger players (14 and under for example), early in a season it is a little scary to play weaker players, but later on in the season it pays off in win/loss. In terms of rewards for your efforts, it sure is nice to send 8 or 9 fourteen and under players on to high school varsity teams when they are freshmen."

    For those discouraged players who email me, I have asked some of the mothers, fathers and coaches I have met on the Internet to give them advice.  Some of which follows:
 

    "Be patient. Some players don't develop until they get older.  Everyone has to pay their dues."

    "Be supportive.  Only five players can play at one time.  If you have the desire, enjoy the game, and really want to be a volleyball player, eventually you'll get the chance."

     Jeffrey Warren of the St. Helena, California wrote to me "substituting your benchwarmers is a complex issue.  But it is vital, and one that is not paid proper attention.  It is often approached too simplistically.  One side says play all players equally, and the other says play the best players until the game is in the bag (one way or another) and then empty the bench."

        Both arguments he contends lack sufficient subtly.  Proper substituting is an important teaching tool. Playing everyone equally is not only unrealistic, it is unfair to the kids who work hard to excel and improve their skills.

       "Unfortunately" he states, "it appears many of today's coaches have not learned (or are not focused) on 'The art of substitution'.   The good coach will use playing time many different ways for many different reasons.  The good coach knows that the team will be better if there is an incentive for hard work, improvement, good attitude, following directions, good sportsmanship, sacrifice, etc.   And that is a punishment for failing to exhibit any of these qualities.  The incentive, of course, is playing time, and the punishment is naturally, lack of playing time."

     Mr. Warren's states”The good coach makes it plain that "starting" will be merit based.  However, any starter who disobeys rules, slacks off, exhibits poor sportsmanship, etc. should immediately find her playing time reduced (regardless of her ability), and the good coach makes it clear to the team why this is happening.  'Jenny is going to sit out the first 10 pints because she was late for practice.'  'Becky is going to start the second game because her serve has improved so much'.  'Sandra is being benched for the rest of the match because she exhibited poor sportsmanship by slamming the ball down'.  'Betty is going to start the last game because she hasn't started all season and she's never missed a practice and never complained'."

     Writer Warren declares, "That by articulating to the team the reasons for disciplinary substitutions, everyone learns what the rules are and has incentives to follow them.   There are other substitutions that need not be articulated for they will cause resentment, but should take place and set a "tonality" for any team.  A promising sophomore must play more than her ability because the coach owes it to her for bringing her up to varsity from a JV team she could have starred on.  Generally, seniors ought to play bit more than equal ability juniors.

    A child with social problems might benefit from some extra playing time--maybe the kid with the highest G.P.A. gets time, for the example she sets.   Players will 'get' what's going on without the coach actually explaining it and embarrassing the child.

     The good coach knows (what the late George Davis used to preach) that it's the 3rd string running back that wins or loses you a championship.  (All 49er fans remember Adam Walker).  It's a variation on you're only as strong as your weakest link.  To make the team as a whole better, the Good Coach will work the weaker players in with the stronger ones--all during a match.  Weaker players don't improve if they're all thrown in together.

     In the old days it was unsporting to run up scores.  Coaches always put there second and third teams in as soon as possible.  It was not uncommon in football, for example, for a team that was way behind; to gain on the opposing teams' reserves, to the point where the coach was forced to put his starters back in.  One rarely sees this any more.

     Contrary to popular opinion, volleyball is particularly well suited to substitution.  In St. Helena, varsity girls play best of five.  They are quite good.  They have played teams they totally dominate.  Yet, the coach misses
the opportunity to 'lose' one or two games.  I know this is heresy but in non- league games, especially, there is nothing wrong with losing two games to an obviously inferior team.  It doesn’t mean one has to lose the match.  The good coach would (after going up an easy two zip), play the reserves, even hoping to extend it to four or five games. It allows the first team to test themselves under pressure to win that fifth game.   And the lesser players would improve dramatically with the additional game experience, thereby strengthening the team for league play.

     Last year, St. Helena girls' basketball team led an opponent in the playoffs by 29 points going into an 8 minute 4th quarter.  The bench was finally cleared with 4 minutes to go, yet the game ended with the county’s best player (ours) still on the floor.  Why?  The other team would have had to score at an average of 120 points per game and we would have had to score zero, for us to have lost.

    It was an embarrassment to the whole town--yet the coaches didn't even notice.  It would be proper for each high school's athletic director to sit down each individual coach and discuss the "art of substitution and encourage them to incorporate it into their philosophy.  This discussion should also go on in league conference meetings.

    Tricky as it is, substitution is a solvable problem, which though it will never go away, each individual coach can go a long way towards raising the "contentment quotient" of both parents and kids.  There's no better way to teach 'fair play' than to substitute fairly."
 

    Volleyball is an allegorical play about America, a poetic, complex and subtle play of courage, fear, and good luck, mistakes, warming the bench and patience about fate, and other self-esteem

What is wrong about volleyball will be fixed by what is right about volleyball.  

Maybe, then, the message to coaches is that what players want is very simple. 

They want a volleyball team that is as good as promised.

The message to players is work hard and sticks it out. If that doesn't work out, at least you'll have a great seat to see the game.
 
 Name: Sara
Comments: I read your bench warmers article and I really relate to it...I am a freshman at xxxxxxxxx college in Michigan. I sat the bench pretty much all season...on rare occasions I would go in. I felt terrible I was a three year starter on my high school team and I never thought what it was like to sit the bench. I took stats the whole season. I was always cheering for the team and being positive but on the inside I was upset. I never knew how painful it was to watch everyone else play while I sat on the bench. It seemed to me like I was never given a chance. I saw it to be incredibly unfair! My colleagues and friends asked me why I stayed on the team and I simply said I have never quit at anything and I definitely wasn't going to quit at something I loved!! I have been working on it I have been lifting weights and staying in shape. I want to be someone who is first picked to go in. I don't mind not being a starter I just want to be in the game and helping out. Going in and out doesn't bother me it’s the fact that I never go in that bothers me. I will work on it until my coach sees that I am worth putting in. I want to show my coach that I am worthy of being on his team. I never want to let anyone down and that is my attitude about everything. Why give up when you know you just might have the chance. I go to a junior college and I am only here for two years. I don't have much time to show what I have, but if this coach doesn't see it maybe another coach will and that’s what I will be waiting for. thank you for your time and the great article I just wish everyone has the chance to read it and learn from it!!

I was on the high school volleyball team all through Jr. High. I never sat the bench; I was the one everyone wanted to be, even though we lost every game. When my Freshmen year rolled around I was so excited to be playing with HIGH SCHOOL GIRLS! I just couldn’t believe it. Unfortunately, I sat the bench all year because my coach only wanted to win, she didn’t care about anything else. A good friend and I sat through countless matches, and both cried on the way home from a local tournament. We couldn’t talk to anyone on the team, because NO ONE understood. We were told by our team mates that if we practiced hard, we would defiantly play. So that’s what we did. In our free time, we went to the gym; I had volleyball in my locker that we could use when in PE. We breathed, slept, and talked volleyball. We had came SO FAR, we were actually fitting into the team, we were starting to serve, bump, hit, and set like most of the other players. By the end of the year, we had it down pat, we were amazing, but we still had no playing time. My parents and friends told me that my Sophomore year would be better, that I would be an 'oldie', I would get a lot of playing time.

Dear Tom;
I was on the high school volleyball team all through Jr. High. I never sat the bench; I was the one everyone wanted to be, even though we lost every game. When my freshmen year rolled around I was so excited to be playing with HIGH SCHOOL GIRLS! I just couldn’t believe it. Unfortunately, I sat the bench all year because my coach only wanted to win, she didn’t care about anything else. A good friend and I sat through countless matches, and both cried on the way home from a local tournament. We couldn’t talk to anyone on the team, because NO ONE understood. We were told by our team mates that if we practiced hard, we would defiantly play. So that’s what we did. In our free time, we went to the gym; I had volleyball in my locker that we could use when in PE. We breathed, slept, and talked volleyball. We had came SO FAR, we were actually fitting into the team, we were starting to serve, bump, hit, and set like most of the other players. By the end of the year, we had it down pat, we were amazing, but we still had no playing time. My parents and friends told me that my sophomore year would be better, that I would be an 'oldie', I would get a lot of playing time.
Well about a month ago, we were at a home camp. We were working harder than everyone else there. This year we have a different coach, so I thought for sure, we were going to play. Sure enough, our first summer league match came around. We were both playing. Then I got the news that if I wanted to play, I had to get my spike approach down. My friend was playing in every game, and so was I, but when our actual season comes around, I was sure I would be benched. So I started to work harder than everyone else. Over the next few weeks, I got a better approach. And just the other day, and a match, she said she was thinking about starter teams. She wrote the 'Maybe' starters on the board. There was my name. I was so pumped. So I went out during that game, and made sure my name stayed in that group.
I got that magical set, and it was just like slow motion. I did a PERFECT approach; I got on top of the ball, and slammed it straight down on the opposing team’s side. I was AMAZED that I had done it.
So I guess me and my friend overcame the odds. We weren’t going to take no for an answer, and we got what we wanted. It may have been a year later, but hey, at least we got it.
What I mean by all this is, for anyone who has been benched, no matter how long, it CAN get better. Just remember that with hard work, and some pain, you WILL play eventually. Don’t get down on yourself.
Note: at the end of my freshmen season, I got a special note from my coach. She said that I would be an amazing player someday. That I had the biggest heart on the team. I am a leader, and helped the team in there times of need. That I should never give up. I think everyone should learn from those words. It helped me.
Emily Peterson 7/7/2008

Dear Tom;

I read your bench warmers article and I really relate to it...I am a freshman at xxxxxxxxx college in Michigan. I sat the bench pretty much all season...on rare occasions I would go in. I felt terrible I was a three year starter on my high school team and I never thought what it was like to sit the bench. I took stats the whole season. I was always cheering for the team and being positive but on the inside I was upset. I never knew how painful it was to watch everyone else play while I sat on the bench. It seemed to me like I was never given a chance. I saw it to be incredibly unfair! My colleagues and friends asked me why I stayed on the team and I simply said I have never quit at anything and I definitely wasn't going to quit at something I loved!! I have been working on it I have been lifting weights and staying in shape. I want to be someone who is first picked to go in. I don't mind not being a starter I just want to be in the game and helping out. Going in and out doesn't bother me it’s the fact that I never go in that bothers me. I will work on it until my coach sees that I am worth putting in. I want to show my coach that I am worthy of being on his team. I never want to let anyone down and that is my attitude about everything. Why give up when you know you just might have the chance. I go to a junior college and I am only here for two years. I don't have much time to show what I have, but if this coach doesn't see it maybe another coach will and that’s what I will be waiting for. thank you for your time and the great article I just wish everyone has the chance to read it and learn from it!!

Hello Tom, my name is Megan Hxxxx and I am just starting my junior year at XXXX College in Sherman, Texas. I was searching the Internet for pointers on the mental aspect of passing due to a comment made to me by my coach and came across your site and the article about benchwarmers. I just want to say that what you wrote is entirely true and I am so glad that there is someone out there who gets it! When I was in high school and playing club I never sat the bench. I was either playing as libero or as a defensive specialist. All of a sudden I get to college and I don't even get to dress out because of a rule about the number of players you can have, much less see the court. That year had a great negative impact on my and my feelings about my "role" on the team. Since I sat out every game of the season and couldn't even stand over by my teammates, I felt completely isolated and not a part of the team at all. Now, as a junior, I am looking at another year on the bench as I continue to watch my teammates that get to play improve and become very strong on the court while I put too much pressure on myself because I feel like when I do get to be on the court, that is THE opportunity for me to grab my coaches’ attention so maybe he will let me play and see all of the hard work I have put in and that I am just as strong as they are. Since I don't get very much exposure or even the same number of reps as other people on the team, my confidence is not very strong and affects my skills on the court. My coach does not believe in training the mental aspect of the game and I am left trying to coach myself and try to fix my mistakes alone with no direction. I keep asking and asking for hello but my coach just won't give me the time of day. I guess what I am trying to say is can you give me some pointers on the mental aspect of the game and dealing with constantly being on the bench, even as an upper classman, and not let those negative things effect my confidence (which is significantly lower due to these events in college ball)?

 

thank you (especially for understanding what it is like to be on the bench!!),

Megan Hxxxx

 

Megan you obviously are a very insightful and thoughtful young woman. I say this because you would not be able to describe your experience and feelings so definitively if you were not.

I too was a "bench warmer" in my youth at school and always felt like an outsider on my teams. What I know now and could not have fully appreciated until adulthood was the invaluable experience it was.

The following may interest you and possibly be of some use for you today and in the future.

The 1st fact is: YOU ARE WILLING. Do not let this very important fact go unrecognized. Many are unwilling to endure the practice and hopes you may bring to the sport with you. You also may not (in your case not yet?) get the result you wish for. Willingness in life is one of the many ingredients leading to a successful and happy life, in my opinion.

2nd: If people (coach's, teammates, others) do not recognize your value, talent, hard work and abilities that you possess, real or imagined, that is about them, not about you. People cannot always be counted on to do what seems so obvious for you or others. Sometimes even if they have been made aware of your capabilities they may choose to do the opposite.

3rd: Do not lose your confidence or passion for what you love. Continue to excel the best you can and in your innermost self, know that you have done all you could, and that it IS enough.

4th: Perhaps you might find other ways to express and or realize the desires to be a part of a team experience. I do know this is easier said than done, but I guarantee you it WILL be worth the effort. One day you will look back fondly and perhaps even a little sadly at the whole experience of college, sports and your youth in general and be grateful for all that has happened. Who knows maybe the person you will have become is content with life and is that way as a direct result of all that has been your experience.

My personal theory is mistakes and all experiences in life are valuable. If people learn from a mistake they make, that in turn becomes their "experience". However, if people keep repeating the same "mistakes" over and over, then the lesson has not been learned and we are doomed to repeat it until do learn from it.

I was moved by your E note to Tom Fakeheny (we are colleagues in the sport of volleyball) and thought maybe I could offer some encouragement and or enlightenment. I do hope that
you find the things you are hoping for.

Respectfully,
Sam Crutcher

 

Some of these benchwarmers make the best coaches later on!

They get to see the good, bad, and ugly things that coaches demonstrate during practice and at matches.

They will then apply the good habits of a coach and become a more respected coach than those they learned from…good and bad.

 

Thanks for sharing!

John Isel

 

2010