People always debate the highest-pressure position on a sports team. Most sports have a more or less consensus answer — for hockey, the goalie; for football, the quarterback; for volleyball, the setter. But the answer is actually the same for all sports — it’s the bench-warmer. There are no articles written about them, no glory, no recognition and, most of the time, fans don’t even know who they are. But what the outside world fails to recognize is that without these crucial players, no team could be successful.
I found myself in this undesirable position during my freshman year. I had been a starter on every team I had ever played since I was 13. Going from a position of glory to a position of anonymity was one of the hardest things I had ever went through. It’s really easy to get excited about practice and working hard when you see games on the weekend as the reward. But as a bench-warmer, you go to practice every day, work just as hard and put forth the same effort as your teammates, and your reward is simply to watch. And then, on top of watching, you have to cheer on your teammates, be supportive and put on a happy face. To a newly benched player, this appears to be a lackluster reward for your hard work.
The mental aspect of being a bench-warmer is definitely the hardest part of the position. Every person on the team has the ability to go to practice and give it their all, day in and day out. But for a benchwarmer, it’s about both doing that and coming up short week after week. Mentally, you have to tell yourself that you’re preparing to play against some of the best competition in the nation. But, as each week goes by, the chances of that happening become smaller and smaller. When the game does come around, you can’t check out and not pay attention. You have to be mentally invested in the match and know what’s going on in case your name is actually called.
Playing in a game actually releases a lot of the mental stress and anxiety built up during practice. But if you don’t get to play, you experience the same stress and anxiety without the release and satisfaction that you contributed to the win or loss.
What any player on a team must realize — starter or bench-warmer — is that every single person is crucial to a team’s success. Competition in practice is one of the driving forces behind players improving. It’s easy to become complacent when you have a solid lock on your starting spot. But if there’s another player nipping at your heels, that complacency turns into competition and a drive to perform at your best. The real source of a team’s overall improvement during practice comes from the people who don’t play at all. The non-starting players must raise their own level of play and challenge starters. The higher the level of competition is in the gym, the more successful the team is going to be during actual games.
People always talk about those who graduated and who will fill their role. But it’s the ones people don’t talk about that may actually carry a bigger role. Cassie Petoskey was the volleyball team’s leader among non-starters this past year. Cassie set the standard for contributing even while not playing. Every time we competed, her goal was not to challenge the other side, but to beat them — and badly. Cassie knew she was not going to see a lot of playing time, but her integrity and character kept a lot of other players from going down a path of self-pity. She united the benchwarmers without separating them from the team. That takes a special kind of person, and that is going to be hard to replace this upcoming year.
Nobody plays a sport so that they can practice — they practice so they can play. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work out that way. There will always be starters and bench-warmers. But it’s the mentality, attitude and work ethic of the bench-warmers that make the good teams great.
Courtney Fletcher can be reached at email@example.com.