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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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!