Coaching the End of the Bench

Playing time is one of the hardest issues of coaching. Last season, I struggled with my commitment to play every player, as it is hard to make that many substitutions in a game and to give players enough time to get comfortable on the court. While there are reasons to play everyone, when I started as a coach, I tended to stick to an eight-person rotation.

When I took over a women’s team in Sweden, I essentially said that I would use an eight-person rotation. I said that the rotation would be in flux, but each game, only eight players would see consistent minutes. I started the season with 10 players, so this was not a huge deal: Only two players would be on the outside.

While I guaranteed the team that it was a new season, and everyone had to earn their playing time rather than relying on the previous season’s performance, when I mentioned the eight-man rotation, the two younger players looked dejected. As I learned, they looked forward to a new coach because of an opportunity, but the eight-man rotation appeared to glue them to the bench where they had spent most of the previous season, combining for 40 minutes in the entire season.

I spoke to the two and gave them simple goals. I promised that I would give them opportunities when they met the goals. They were a little skeptical at first, as I think they had had promises of playing time in the past. However, they trusted me.

My first piece of advice was to stop guarding each other in practice. I told them to pick out the girl ahead of them in the rotation and outplay them in practice. They had to improve, so they had to challenge players better than themselves. Also, to prove that they deserved to play, they needed to do more than outplay the other woman who wasn’t playing.

Next, I built from their strengths: One was a very good defensive player, but traveled all the time and could not shoot; the other was a better shooter, but was smaller and not as strong.

I told the defender that once she showed that she could catch and square aggressively to the basket, she would get a chance. The second player did not have a stand-out skill, but she did not have a giant weakness either. However, because she had not played in a meaningful game in so long, she was less aggressive. I focused her on being more aggressive and looking for her shot more.

With simple goals, these girls started to work out on their own. The defender came to sessions that I ran with a young men’s player who I was hired to train. She matched up well size-wise, so she got the opportunity to do the same drills and play 1v1 against the young men’s player. This obviously helped to hasten her development. The shooter happened to be the younger sister of my best player, so the two of them worked out, as my best player had access to all the gyms because she coached three youth teams.

When the defender earned her chance, I told her to penetrate as hard and as fast as possible to the rim – stopping was not an option: As soon as she dribbled, she was committed. No second guessing herself. She was going to score, get fouled or get whistled for a charge. Simple goals. We made the game easy and gave her a chance to be successful. She earned her playing time through her defense, but she increased it by gaining confidence offensively.

The younger sister did not view herself as a full member of the team; she was known more as the little sister than as a player in her own right. She challenged the starting shooting guard who was the previous coach’s favorite player. She looked to shoot the open shot in practice rather than deferring all the time to the other players.By working on her mentality, she turned a corner and earned more and more minutes.

The process was nothing revolutionary. However, many times, coaches ignore the bench players because they do not want to hurt their feelings or they want to avoid confrontation. Most players understand that not every player can play every minute. Like these women, they just want a chance. Deci’s & Ryan’s Self-Determination Theory posits that we want to demonstrate competence, have autonomy, and feel a sense of belonging or affiliation. When a player is marginalized as a bench player with no role on the team and no opportunity, they lose that sense of belonging, which happened with the younger sister. When a player never gets a chance, they also question their competence and feel as though they do not have the opportunity to develop or demonstrate their competence. When given some basic goals and an opportunity, players quickly regain their motivation, provided that they trust the coach and the coach follows through. Had I never given the players an opportunity in a game even after they accomplished the basic goals, I would have lost their trust, and they likely would have quit the team or given up mentally and emotionally.

Unfortunately, the communication often breaks down in this process as coaches get defensive when a player asks about playing time, rather than honestly assessing the player and then giving the player the opportunity that she earns by doing what the coach asks. Rather than allow waning confidence to affect motivation and sap mental energy, work to build up all your players through improve and honest communication.

By Brian McCormick, M.S.S., PES
Coach/Clinician, Brian McCormick Basketball
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

1 thought on “Coaching the End of the Bench

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *