One tough issue for coaches is utilizing bench players. These players play several pivotal roles:
- Often, these players form the nucleus of the program’s future, whether they are underclassmen or rookies on a professional team;
- If a player is injured, someone must step in and step up to maintain the current level of success;
- Non-starters must challenge the starters in practice to keep the starters (and key reserves) sharp throughout the season.
During my rookie season as a head coach, I had seven solid players, but players 8-10 were unproven. Like many teams, players 8-10 were the youngest players.
Player 8 was a rookie reserve point guard who was more of a shooting guard. Player 9 was 19-years-old and in her fourth year with the team, though she played a total of 36 minutes in the previous season. Player 10 was 17-years-old and in her second year, though she played a total of 32 minutes during the previous season.
The team was somewhere between going for one last play-off run with its core (though we were picked last in the pre-season) and needing a youth movement to build for the future.
Without a guaranteed contract, I needed to win, but I needed to develop the players on the end of the bench, as our 37-year-old starting PG and 41-year-old back-up center planned on retiring sooner, rather than later.
Unfortunately, at the outset of the season, players 8-10 were in no position, talent-wise to help us, and in some cases, provided mere fodder for our starters in practice. However, I knew our lanky 17-year-old could be important, as she had the athleticism and length we lacked on the perimeter. I also believed that the neglected 19-year old could help us if she gained confidence, which was hard to come by for a player who had not played a meaningful minute since she was 14. The back-up PG abruptly left the team after four games despite playing her best game because of a contract dispute with management.
At the outset, the young players were excited for a change of coaches, and the potential to play, but their hopes were dashed early in the pre-season. I was close to losing one, if not both, so I confronted the players.
First, I explained that I generally stick to an eight-man rotation so they needed to be in the top eight to see considerable playing time. However, I said that the rotation could and would fluctuate as the season progressed. I challenged them to be better than the seventh man, and to guard someone ahead of them and not each other during practice. I set goals for each player that were realistic and backed with promises of playing time.
The 17-year-old needed to show that she could be a lock-down defender, which I knew she could be. However, she needed to be effective enough offensively that I could play her without fearing that she would commit a turnover when she touched the ball. This meant playing on better balance, learning to use a jump stop and simply squaring to the basket every time she caught the ball. She never even had to shoot or score to earn minutes, though the more she could offer offensively, the more her playing time would increase. Instead, I gave her a role (defensive stopper) and the motivation to improve to see tangible results (playing time).
Consequently, she showed up at every guard workout that I did with the club’s men’s team to work on her ball handling. She improved and earned playing time, and probably defended the league’s top point guard better than anyone in the league because she matched her length and quickness.
As her confidence and playing time increased due to her defense, her offensive skills improved. She accepted her role and worked on her own to improve her deficiencies, as she understood that would lead to more playing time.
Second, I gave the players a role during games. A popular coaches’ mantra is “A loss is only a loss if you fail to learn from it.” The same goes for a lack of playing time. A player can sulk on the bench or use the time to prepare for an opportunity to play.
I challenged them to watch the players and scout. They assisted our players by pointing out opponent’s offensive tendencies or an opportunity to be more effective offensively. This kept the players mentally in the game, in case they played, and increased their basketball IQ, as they learned to see the game better, which ultimately helped them when they earned their playing time. In this way, the lack of playing time was not a loss, just a setback from which they learned.
Ultimately, the success of a team in a game or season depends upon play from the bench. At some point, the bench must step up for an injured player or a player in foul trouble. The quality of depth on the bench is pivotal to keep the starters fresh during tight games and throughout the season.
Bench players must be mentally into the game, be made to feel a part of the team, remain motivated and be given attainable goals for which to strive. Every player has a role and in order to have a happy, successful team, players must embrace their roles and feel that they contribute to the team’s overall success.
By Brian McCormick
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League