When your role on the team isn't what you hoped it would be

I recently had a conversation with a talented spring sport college athlete. Her team has been in season for more than a month and the roles on her team are starting to become clear. This player is very talented and she gets a lot of playing time, but she is struggling with the voice in her head during the rare moments when she is on the bench. She is disappointed that she is starting to think things like, “If my teammate makes a mistake then I will get to play” or, “if my teammate gets hurt, I’ll get to play.” She shared that she genuinely wants her teammates to be successful and she doesn’t want anyone to get hurt or make a mistake, but that voice is stuck in her head and she doesn’t know what to do about it.

I understand where that voice is coming from. If she is on the bench with a player’s mindset then she feels robbed because she can’t do her job from the bench. But I asked this student-athlete to spend some time writing her own job description as a teammate rather than a player.

As a shortstop, she knows what her job description is, but as a teammate on the bench, she needed a new job description to focus on. This shifted her mindset from, “I’m a player and because I am on the bench I am not allowed to do my job” to, “I’m a teammate and I’m fully committed to my job description today.”

Players aren’t the only ones who have shared this struggle with me. Several coaches in the last week have reached out to talk about their frustration over players who aren’t embracing the role they are being asked to play. At this point in the season, players are seeing a pattern. Some players who hoped to be starters are coming off the bench. Others, who hoped to come off the bench aren’t making the travel roster. It is always difficult when what you hoped for isn’t coming to fruition.

As coaches, we need to be intentional about helping our players to shift from a player’s mindset to a teammate’s mindset when they are on the bench.

We can help our players with this transition by doing the following:

  1. Clearly define their role: As coaches, it might be very clear to us what role someone needs to play, but we can’t assume that our student-athletes know what we need from them. Remember, they aren’t able to just “figure it out” on the field, so we need to help them off the field as well. We need to have hard conversations to define roles and we need to be specific about those roles. When we teach our student-athletes a technical skill we get right to the point and we need to approach defining roles with the same intentional clarity. Additionally, you should give your student-athletes some time to process their roles but at some point, you need to ask if they are willing to play the role you are asking them to play. If the answer is no, then you need to be prepared to part ways with that person for the good of the team.
  2. Articulate their value: If we are going to ask our student-athletes to shift from a player’s mindset to teammate’s mindset then we need to articulate the value they bring to the team in their defined teammate roles. Be intentional about articulating their value both publicly and privately.
  3. Continue to develop them as players: The best student-athletes I ever coached were willing to play their role as a teammate but they didn’t want to stay there forever. While someone’s role may be defined for the rest of the season make sure you continue to develop all your student-athlete in practice, during film, or in one on one sessions. Most people are willing to make a sacrifice for the good of the team when they feel like their coaches haven’t given up on them.
  4. Provide opportunities: It’s expected that you’ll need to play your starters or key reserves, but when the opportunity arises to give playing time to players who are further down the depth chart you should take advantage of those moments. This lets your players know that while you value what they bring to the team as a teammate on the bench you also understand that being a player matters to them.

As you talk with your student-athlete about their role please be sensitive to presenting false hope. The reality is false hope isn’t helpful or hopeful because it’s a lie. We can be compassionate without lying to our student-athletes.

If you find yourself at “that point in the season” when roles are shaking out and players are disappointed I highly suggest that you help your players to write their own job descriptions as teammates so they can spend every minute “on the job.” When game days rolls around your student-athletes can either be players on the field, a player who isn’t allowed to play because she is stuck on the bench, or a teammate who is ready to clock in and do work. If you can remove the mindset of being a player who isn’t allowed to play you will see a big shift in your team culture.

Sidenote, the player I mentioned earlier is now proud to serve as the President of the Positivity Club when she is on the bench. Her job description is awesome and she is fully committed to filling that role when she is asked to.

*If you need assistance in helping your team to value their roles please reach out. I have some great activities that will help your team to embrace their roles.