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Voices from the bench, part one

“As research has accumulated on coach-athlete interactions, it has become clear that coaches can have either a positive or a negative impact on the lives of athletes at all levels of competition. A positive coach-athlete relationship can enhance athletes’ psychological and social well-being, foster the development of self-efficacy, positive values and coping skills, and promote continued involvement in healthy physical activity. In contrast, negative coach-athlete relationships create distress, foster the development of dysfunctional attitudes towards achievement and competition, create needless interpersonal distress, and contribute to sport competition attrition.” Frank Smoll & Ronald Smith, University of Washington.

This is a two part interview that begins with the reflections of an athlete who made the high school soccer team yet hasn’t been called off the bench to play during league games even though he keeps trying to win over the coach and have a chance to prove himself. Part two is the opportunity for his parents to voice their concerns as they attempt to figure out how to participate in problem solving their child’s high school athletic experience when they see how much participating on the team and being part of a team means to their child.

This interview is not designed to solve any issues but to give the athlete and his parents a voice as they know they are not the only family that has experienced this type of situation. It’s a reminder for coaches to keep in mind their power and influences on the population of athletes they oversee. High school is a vulnerable developmental time for youth. It’s more than sports. It’s the bigger picture of personal development, inclusion in groups, and learning from adult role modeling.

Examiner: How long have you participated in competitive soccer, both at school and leagues outside of school?

Athlete: I’m a junior and have been playing in the high school program for three years. I began playing soccer when I has in the fifth grade and played CYSA through middle school into the beginning of high school. The first two years I participated on the junior varsity team. As a junior I’ve made the varsity team roster.

Examiner: So your soccer skills are developed. Were you an active player when you were on the Freshman and Sophomore junior varsity teams?

Athlete: Yes, I actively played my Freshman/Sophomore years. Freshman year I started every game. Sophomore year I was team captain and started every game. I was honored at years end by being given the Defensive Player of the Year Award. When I made the Varsity team, my junior year I wasn’t given much playing time.

Examiner: Was there a different coach?

Athlete: Yes, there was a new coach.

Examienr: Prior to this last year you were experiencing a lot of playing time. The school doesn’t have a no cut policy, you actually made the team.

Athlete: Yes I made the Varsity team by trying out for it.

Examiner: Did you have a falling out with the coach?

Athlete: No, he and I actually do well together. We don’t have anything against each other and I’ve never talked back to him or done anything to upset him.

Examiner: How does the coach explain that you were an active participant prior years and this year you are not put into any league games?

Athlete: Our Junior Varsity coaches from last year are the same. I guess the new Varsity coach hasn’t talked to them to learn about how my skills can help the team. I would think that a new coach would talk to past coaches to hear what players are like and get to know them.

Examiner: Are there a lot of new players on the team?

Athlete: No, the team is made up of mostly juniors and seniors.

Examiner: How often do you practice as a team?

Athlete: We practice Monday through Saturday. Wednesday’s and Fridays are game days.

Examiner: So the team practices/plays six days a week. Do you participate in the scrimmages?

Athlete: I did play in scrimmages. Those were mainly in the beginning of the season when we scrimmaged against other teams, so the coach could see us play and decide on how to best use our skills.

Examiner: Did you play in whole games during the scrimmages or just parts of the game?

Athlete: Usually I’d play a half then be taken out. I’d be put in from time to time in the second half.

Examiner: How many official games and tournaments are there during the season?

Athlete: We have one tournament in the beginning of the season, four pre-season games then about fourteen team league games.

Examiner: Did you play in some of those?

Athlete: Yes, I was given some playing time but not a lot.

Examiner: Do you attend all the team practices?

Athlete: I’ve never missed a practice. I attend each and everyone of them.

Examiner: How does your coach explain to you you’re not having an opportunity to play in actual competitive games?

Athlete: He says, “I haven’t seen product from you.” Meaning in the time I am in I haven’t made a goal or an assist. That’s all he care about, “Is a player making daily product for us?”

Examiner: Are other players experiencing the same situation, where they made the team and they aren’t being put into the real games?

Athlete: There are quite a few of us on the bench that are not given playing time.

Examiner: The field of youth sport psychology talks a lot about sport as teaching youth life skills. What life skills lessons are you learning from your current athletic experience?

Athlete: This current athletic experience makes me want to drive harder and harder and become better and better because if I am not getting playing time there must be something wrong that I am doing. I mean the coach says, “I just need to put out product.” Well that advice is not really going to help the player on the bench. If the coach needs “product” put me in the game so I can make “product.” But the way it is now leaves me to where I have to do stuff on my own outside of practice and see if that will help me so he notices. Where he notices and thinks, “Oh he’s making product now.”

Examiner: Is your situation and relationship with the coach motivational?

Athlete: I guess for an average kid probably not. But I make it where it has to be motivational. I can’t make it bring me down. I just use it to boost me up, but it can be very demotivating. Like okay, I’m just sitting here everyday watching all my buddies play and I’m sitting here. It can be very demotivating.

Examiner: Coaches are highly valued role models. What are you learning from your coaches role modeling?

Athlete: His style is very precise. He’s had a long soccer coaching path. He grew up playing soccer and played in college. He’s very experienced but his coaching style is where it has be precise all the time. Yes, we want to win a championship and everything but with that you have to have a little heart in it too. Like let kids who aren’t very good play. And sometimes even when they are good players the coach doesn’t let them play. The coach just wants “product” all the time. Like, it’s high school Varsity soccer but then again it’s high school soccer where kids are playing to have fun, make friends and be better human beings.

Examiner: From this experience what are you learning about adult behaviors, and attitudes around team and youth player development?

Athlete: There came a time in our season when we were playing an important game. We were down 1-0 in the second half and the team kept fighting and fighting because our fitness was so high compared to everyone else and the coach pushed us to our limits we were able to fight to the end. The team scored to go into over time and ended up winning 2-1. The game can get to a point where you move from being a boy to a man.

Examiner: Fast forward three years. If you were to look back on this athletic experience in three years could you see this as something positive or something that could have been done differently?

Athlete: Something that could have been done differently. Because flashing back, all those memories of the team winning games, then thinking, “Wow I don’t really care about it. I didn’t get to contribute in it so it’s not really a memory for me. Only other people got to play and have that moment.”

Examiner: If you were coaching this team what would you do differently?

Athlete: Know it’s a game and you want to put in the strongest team to win. But in situations where the team is up 2-1, that’s not a great lead but when your team is strong enough defensively to keep the lead, put guys into the game. Have the guys participate for enough time to make “product.” In my current situation the coach puts one of us from the bench onto the game for like five minutes just to give the others a break.

Examiner: This word “product” is gonging me in the head each time you say it. You’re not a “product.”

Athlete: I feel like I am harping because when I do play I feel like I’m making “product,” by playing well defensively. I know I am not making goal “product” but I’m hustling to every ball, getting to them and I’m hustling on defense. I know that other guys are making “product” but I’m the one that created those opportunities for them because of my defensive play. I got the ball to other team members which made the “product.”

Examiner: It’s team work.

Athlete: Yeah but the coach doesn’t acknowledge or notice the little things. He just wants the big stuff, boom~goal!

Examiner: What’s your relationship with your team mates? What do they say to you if anything about the bench sitting situation?

Athlete: My relationship with my team is really good. We are all good friends. I always talk to one of the captains who I am close with. He tells me I just have to work harder and I definitely deserve playing time but that like coach says, “We need product out there.” The coach just looks at the bench like, “Okay, who is going to be my answer.” He’s looking for that type of player. It’s all about whether the player can be the final “product” or what not.

Examiner: The word “product” is still gonging me in the ear when you say it.

Athlete: It’s a gong in my head too because he always says it, “product, product, product.”

Examiner: So that’s how you would run the team differently. You would allow the players to connect together as a team and give everyone playing time. What does this coach need to know about how it feels to be an active participant on a team, work hard each practice and not have the opportunity to engage in the action?

Athlete: I would tell him, I wish you could be in our shoes. You were probably a player who received a lot of playing time growing up. I wish you could be on the bench looking at all your buddies play but you’re always on the bench. I wish you could have the feeling of that in your head of being on the bench and realize, that’s a good memory for the guys on the field but I’m not making a lot of shared memories from this experience. That’s what I would want him to know and how we feel. I wish he could be in our shoes.

Examiner: Has this experience changed your attitude about sport participation?

Athlete: It definitely has changed me personally. It makes me want to train harder so I can be a step ahead. It might not get there but I’ve just got to keep on grinding and everything because there’s always going to be that natural born soccer player with natural speed and everything.

Examiner: What if this coach is not going to acknowledge your talents, drive and desire even as you work harder and harder.

Athlete: I try not to look at people like that. They have to do something to really get me mad. What would hurt me is if he never noticed me at all. Because at practices he definitely notices me. He doesn’t really acknowledge the other guys that are on the bench during the games. If he didn’t acknowledge me that would make me angry. The fact that he does acknowledge me makes me feel a little bit better.

Examiner: I am impressed with your persistence, attitude and composure. Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts about your high school soccer experience.