Parenting Athletes

The Lesson Behind the Bench


That simple two-word phrase can cause a coach to shudder as it lands upon his or her ears. It can be argued that playing time is the single most frequent conversation that parents initiate with coaches and athletic directors. Yet, it is also the greatest learning

opportunity for our children and for us as parents. I’d like to share a story with you from my son’s recent soccer season.

My son Max is a soccer goalkeeper. Now approaching 10th grade, he has played this position for four years. Last summer, Max’s friend Sam asked if he would teach him how to be a goalkeeper and show him the ropes. Sam, a long-time baseball player, had never played soccer before. And Max, having been trained by upperclassmen and college goalkeepers, was excited by the opportunity to change roles and for once be the teacher himself. A bonus was the start of a deepening friendship between Max and Sam.

Late August tryouts rolled around and Max realized that he would be competing with Sam as well as two other goalkeepers for one of two positions on the 9th grade school soccer team. Yes, as it turned out Max just might have trained Sam right into his own position as starting goalkeeper. Things turned out in Max’s favor as both he and Sam made the team with Max earning the starting goalkeeper position.

Several weeks into the season Max injured his wrist and was in a cast for two weeks and as such, Sam naturally assumed the role of starting goalkeeper. The cast eventually came off, yet Max was rarely put in the game again. That’s right, for the rest of the season he sat the bench. Occasionally, the coach put Max in as a field player late in the games, but he rarely went in to play his favorite position, a position that he had been committed to for the previous three seasons. Parents talked on the sidelines asking me, “What’s going on?” “Why isn’t Max playing?” “What’s wrong with that coach, doesn’t he see that Max is the more seasoned goalie?” Furthermore, I could sense that Sam’s parents were uncomfortable around me when they saw me on the sidelines.

Yet, in all actuality, if I had to be honest, I could see that Sam, a naturally-skilled athlete, was in fact a better goalkeeper than my son! I had to admit what parents on the sidelines are not always willing to accept: The best players play the most. In most cases, the kids who play regularly are those who possess the most skill. While coaches also put an emphasis on athleticism, confidence and hard work, skill is often paramount when it comes to playing time in most teams in nearly every sport.

To his credit, my son went to practice every day, worked hard and only asked, “How do you want me to suit up today coach, goalkeeper or field player?” Despite my feeling disappointed, as his parent, I had to take cues from Max! If he was disappointed, he didn’t show it. So, I let him be; I sat on the sidelines supporting him on the bench and whenever he did get on the field. When I did ask what he thought of the situation he simply shrugged, smirked and confidently said, “What can I say? I taught Sam well!” And, at the end-of-season banquet when the coach got up to introduce the team and give out the sportsmanship award he described a self-less player who supported his teammates and played when and wherever he was told. Yes, you guessed it. This year’s sportsmanship award was given to Max.

Fact of the matter is, in the end, given the choice between more playing time for my son or receiving the sportsmanship award – I’d take the sportsmanship award any day, and I think he would too! You see, I’m in it for the long haul, not just for today and ten years from now, that sportsmanship award will say more about who he is as a person than the amount of playing time he received in 9th grade. I am hoping that because he sat on that bench with some disappointment in 9th grade, when life throws another disappointment at him (and we all know life will), he’ll be able to say to himself, “I’ve been here before, I know how to handle it. I’ve got this Mom.”

Isn’t that what we all want for our kids? Isn’t that why sports are so great? It is the job of parents, teachers, coaches and the other adults in our children’s lives to prepare them for what life holds ahead. It is not our job to save them from life’s pains, sadness and disappointment. Let’s prepare our kids to manage their upsets since, in the end, we can’t always prevent them.

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