The Benchwarmer

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Being a benchwarmer ultimately led to my verbal commitment to Binghamton University my junior year of high school.

Though the gym was a comfortable seventy-three degrees, I shivered. Whistles chirped at odd intervals across the length of the gym. Cheering reverberated across the cold walls and snapped my attention back to the volleyball court in front of me. I tugged on my jersey’s sleeves until the ends were balled up in my slightly purple fists.

Brrr…

Self consciously, I sidestepped in front of the three teammates that clapped enthusiastically beside me. I sifted through the pile of warm up jackets on the chair adjacent to them until I spotted a label with a hastily written, “#13”.

That’s me, I thought.

The number didn’t stand a realistic chance of making the regular starting lineup sheet yet, but I felt a little flutter of pride all the same.

A few months earlier, I accepted an offer as an outside hitter on the top club volleyball team in the state of Wisconsin. Though I had experience as an integral part of my previous club and high school teams, I now found myself ridin’ the pine on a regular basis. Feeling deflated, I realized I had gotten accustomed to watching the sport I loved most from the sidelines.

***

My sophomore year at Binghamton University.


Being identified as a “benchwarmer” is not an easy concept for every athlete to learn. It doesn’t matter if you’re sixteen on a club volleyball team, twenty on a Division 1 team, or thirty on a professional team. It can be an intensely emotional experience, especially if communication between an athlete and coach breaks down.

After reminiscing about my club volleyball experience, I was curious to see how my colleagues’ experiences on the bench compared with mine. Admitting they weren’t always the star player or part of the starting lineup, many launched into personal recollections that included rejection, increased motivation, shame, confusion, and bitterness.

Even though I’ve been involved in athletics since the age of five, I never considered giving the psyche of the benchwarmer much thought. To me, it just seemed like a self-pity party I threw for myself on the sidelines as an angsty teen in high school. After more deliberation, I realized my time on the bench impacted my life more profoundly than I had previously given credit to.

The semifinal game at the America East Tournament. We won the championship game and received the automatic bid to go to the NCAA Tournament in 2012.


Two social psychologists from the University of Virginia had a similar interest into the psyche of the benchwarmer and decided to study the phenomena in more detail. In their article, “The Social Psychology of the Benchwarmer”, Robert J. Rotella and Douglas S. Newburg come to the conclusion that some benched athletes “may experience [an] identity crises, the impact of which may be long-lasting and far-reaching for them”. In their report, the psychologists also offer suggestions for athletes, coaches, and sport psychology consultants to help respond to these situations effectively.

Overall this article has great intentions which I can give credit for piquing my interest. On the flip side, the authors come to broad conclusions based on a small sample size of athletes from the late 1980s. It also may have been supplemental to mention the possibility of an athlete who can learn positive lessons while sitting the bench. As always, hindsight is 20/20.

While the combination of prolonged bench time and poor communication will not likely impact the athlete positively, a lack of playing time can serve as an opportunity for some athletes.

This in mind, I can find no better example than former Ohio State basketball player, Mark Titus (of blogsite Club Trillion). He scored nine points during his entire four-year career but established a way to become indispensable off the court. He served as a practice and “pump up” player to the starters that won an NCAA Championship. His book Don’t Put Me In Coach is hilarious account of his journey “from one end of the bench to the other”. I’d highly recommend it.

On a more personal level, my experience offered opportunities to learn valuable lessons that easily translated to the workplace. Now that I’m about three years removed from the volleyball court, I have the ability to see how my role as a benchwarmer during high school impacted my life on an athletic and personal level.

Signing day, my junior year of high school.


After spending time as a six-rotation, front row and practice player through both club and high school, I decided to verbally commit to a mid-major Division 1 school as a high school junior. Overjoyed, I verballed because there was an opening for a four-year starter at this prestigious university.

The offers I had from universities with more competitive volleyball programs didn’t offer a four-year starting position like Binghamton University (NY). Though it’s nice to be a part of a winning program, I decided I’d like to have an immediate impact as a freshman. Without my time on the sidelines, I can’t say with certainty I’d make the same decision again. This is definitely a positive takeaway I wish co-authors Rotella and Newburg took into account in their article.

During my later club volleyball years, sitting on the side was tough. I felt cheated and unimportant, but I will maintain those who coached me had valid reasons for playing others before me if I wasn’t on the court. To this day, I hold no bitterness towards any of the people who impacted my journey as a player, whether I played or not. Feeling like you’ve been rejected is a hard aspect to swallow, especially at the ripe old age of sixteen, but it’s something that offers countless opportunities to learn from.

Not only has my time on the bench impacted my life athletically, but also personally. It’s nice to be an integral part of a team, but it helps to learn humility and perseverance as a player. This translates well into the professional world and your coworkers (and anyone you encounter, quite honestly) will thank you.

Squad of 2013.


As my mother told me from a young age, you’ll find ninety-nine point nine percent of the time there will be someone out there more talented than you. Sometimes you’ll be the star, other times not. Whether this is true in the athletic, real world, or both, there can be many opportunities to grow from.

If I could go back in time and tell my 16-year-old self anything, it would be to 1.) stop using so much eyeliner, 2.) invest in Apple, and 3.) let this time on the bench serve as motivation, not a sign you’re not good enough.

This isn’t to say every coach will have reasonable cause for keeping one athlete on the bench as opposed to another. As I’m sure we’re all aware, coaches are also human. Some humans have better intentions than others, but sports have seasons that end. This lesson certainly comes in handy in the real world while dealing with difficult managers and bosses. As my college sports psych professor often claimed several times per class, “sports are a microcosm of society”.

I had to include this photo, grainy or not. I’m now living in Providence so it’s a small coincidence!


In the short term, riding the pine may seem disappointing. Long term, I can say it eventually made me a stronger person and helped determine where I’d be happiest during my undergraduate degree. It’s exciting to be a starter or to feel important, but there’s also a chance to grow while off the court. What you learn through athletics often translates well into the professional world. I can definitely vouch for this!

Whenever you’re feeling bummed out about playing time, just remember you have the power to make what you can out of a situation. Sports have seasons, seasons end, you grow older and your knees and back will sometimes fail you. It’s times like these when I appreciate the lessons I learned on the bench more than I could’ve realized when I was sixteen. Though a very slim amount of players can say they aspire to sit on the bench if given the chance to be on the court, it’s not always a bad place to be.

Ride that pine with pride, athletes!

#12 was my favorite player to play against. She now coaches at University of Albany.


A Reflection on My Sister and My Time Together as Humans: She’s Old AF Now

It was March 17th, 1995 and let me tell you, it was a day that would change my world forever. The British freakin’ pound hit 2.4545 to the Dutch gilder (a record!), a few weeks ago Jodi Foster won Most Dramatic Motion Picture, and I had just belted out TLC’s “Creep” in the car on the way to the hospital. Swag money! I was three years old and had never felt so alive.

The buzz I had been feeling as I took a swig out of my ladybug sippy cup was all feels, man. It was the 90s and I had been living it big. Peep my Oshkosh B’Gosh overalls! I heard Michelle on Full House had the same pair!

I was suddenly jolted out of my haze of good vibes as my grandpa pulled me by the hand. We stepped out of the elevator and into a wide, bustling hall. Did I hear babies crying? I looked over at Grandma who was carrying a small sized one-year-old Logan (he’s now 6’4″). My little brother always bawled his face off before he threw up. We called him “Up-Chuck” at home because he literally couldn’t keep his mashed green beans down. What a waste. Green beans are so bitchin’.

“Kristin, are you excited to meet your little sister?” Grandpa asked as he patted me on the back. Grandma followed in tow, fussing over Logan.

I took a long pull on my apple juice thoughtfully, enjoying the attention.

“Yeah, yeah. Logan is all right even though he never seems to respond to the books I read him. He just farts on me instead of having an academic discussion about Barney’s ability to play the trumpet. In my humble opinion-”

Grandpa grunted, “Aww, good stuff. Good stuff.”

He pushed his way around the curtain in a room off to our left and I followed haphazardly. Where were we going? I loathed hospitals. Where were mom and dad?

I poked my head around Grandpa’s legs.

Soft pale pink walls enveloped the bed Mom was chillin’ in. Dad sat alongside her bed and was preoccupied with whatever Mom was holding in a fuzzy blanket. As we shuffled in, Mom and Dad both looked up and smiled.

“Come meet Allison Paige,” Mom said.

What.

I eyed the bundle she held very suspiciously. If this thing was anything like Logan, it was going to be quite the attention-sucker, I thought. I took a deep breath, took another pull on my apple juice (for courage), and peered over the edge of the bed.

The mini human had bugling, closed eyes and small tufts of hair strewn about her little head. Instantly, I was captivated. I would be the best big sister ever, I told myself.


Fast-forward many years later, and that little burrito in the blanket is now twenty-one years old. She’s now going to have her Senior Night for volleyball in a few days and would now make a much larger burrito. Her eyes are no longer bugling, her hair grew in, and she’s stunningly pretty now.

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Look at how fabulous we’re being! LYLAS! Sisterz!

Though I’d love to say I honored my wish to be the best big sister ever, there have been quite a few times where I know I could’ve been a better one. As I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts, my sister and I had some trials and tribulations, especially when we were in the midst of our Chemical Romance/Fall Out Boy teenage years. She once broke into my LOCKED treasure chest to get into my diary to find out who I liked. After awhile, I sensed she knew who my crushes were (<3 Alex ❤ and ❤ Mason <3) and I wrote to her in my own diary to let her know I knew…she knew. I’d retaliate and break into her diary and make fun of her for liking ❤ Jeff <3. It was the best of times!

Even though I sometimes doubt I’ve been the best sister to her, I know I can always make her laugh and I live for it. I still brag to anyone who will listen that I once made her laugh so hard during a game of foursquare that she peed her pants. Lovingly, I then forced her to get the hose to spray off the pee from the “Baby” square. Oh, the irony.

Another one of my favorite memories of us doing hoodrat stuff is the day our brother, Logan, ripped his leg open on a tree in the backyard. Alli and I were taking disposable photographs of our cats in various doll clothing (this is something I should probably tell my therapist) when our Mom yelled at us to stay in our room. Naturally, we wanted to see what was up. Unbeknownst to us, Logan’s leg lay grotesquely cut open in the kitchen a few feet away and our Mom didn’t want us to see and accelerate the situation any further.

Naturally, as anyone else would’ve done, I grabbed Alli and we both started screaming hysterically. We ran back to our room, I snatched the Youth Bible laying on the floor, and ran into the bathroom and locked Alli and myself inside. We continued to scream in the bathtub and clutched the Bible like it was a buoy keeping us afloat.

Weirdly, Jesus himself didn’t answer our prayers and come down from the heavens to join us in the shower. I wonder why. Several minutes later, Logan was on the way to the ER and Alli and I felt as though it was safe to unlock the bathroom door and venture out.

It’s memories like this that make me feel so #blessed to have Alli.

Not only did we have the chance to scream in a bathtub together in the early 2000’s, but we had the opportunity to play volleyball together for four and a half years. I grew up as the bigger, taller, and “I got a letter from Texas my sophomore year of high school” type recruit* while she was continually told she was “too short” to play D1 (this should make anyone angry, Alli is 5’9″). Alli was always the level-headed player while I could become a different person at the flick of a switch. Alli was a solid passer, great digger, and had a great jump-float serve (when she graduated she held the record at our high school). She could also still hit a ball inside the ten foot line no problem. On the other hand, I was more of a “just blocking and hitting”-type player. I’d be angry if every ball I hit didn’t land inside the ten foot line. Alli would play six rotations, I would play three. Alli is the type of player you can always count on to both perform on the court as well as lead on and off the court. You could count on me to either play out of my mind or completely self-implode.

Though we were two different molds of players, we played for the same high school and eventually, the same Division 1 school. Not to my surprise, she enjoyed great success at Binghamton University. Her Freshman year, she earned a place on the America East All-Rookie Team. Alli’s Sophomore year, she followed up a great Freshman year with All-America East First Team honors. Her Junior and Senior season have been riddled with injuries but every time I’ve talked with her, she’s remained positive despite discouraging circumstances. She’s been a two-year captain and finishes off a storied career with 569 kills and 458 digs in just two years, holds a career high of a 19 kill match and has recorded numerous double-doubles over the course of her Freshman and Sophomore years. Her height hasn’t stopped her in the slightest and I couldn’t be more proud of Alli as both a player and my sister.

Though we’ve each gone through our own personal struggles, we each know we always have each other’s backs in the end.

So even though I once skeptically looked at a little burrito Alli swaddled in blankets at the hospital, I couldn’t be more happy to have her as my sister and best friend. In fact, I’m not even embarrassed to be Facebook official as her sister! She’s come a long way from reading my diaries and peeing on the pavement during foursquare games and there isn’t a single day that goes by where I don’t think God I have her.

Here’s to celebrating your senior year, Al Bob. Thanks for being the calming presence to my hot mess-ness. I love you to pieces!

xxx

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The happy sibz circa 2013~

*It was my sophomore year, Texas always has a huge budget and can send many, many letters out to recruits so don’t read into this and think I was ever capable of playing here. The point is that several Division 1 schools began sending me mail my freshman and sophomore year just as they did with many other players at this age.