How to stay hungry when you're not on the court.
If I could think of anything worse than losing while being a competitive athlete one thing comes to mind…
Sitting on the bench
This has ALWAYS been one of my least favourite parts of being on a team, and at some point most of us have experienced this in some capacity. Whether we are subbed out of a match, we start the match on the bench or going into the match we are simply a 'specialist'. It’s hard to be selfless and respect a coaches decision when you feel you belong on the court, you’re better than that or whatever your own ego is saying to you about the situation.
Whatever it is it totally stings and it’s taken me a while to learn that it’s ok to be a bench player, and that those players are crucial to a teams success. There is not always equal opportunity in team sports. Almost always the better player will be playing, that’s the reality, but there are chances for all players to succeed in every role.
When it comes to volleyball I’ve been inherently selfish, and feel that I bring a lot to the table which translates into ‘I should be on the court, duh’ (I've had to work on this). This has helped get me to where I am today manifesting itself as confidence, butttt it’s been a big downfall when my ego had to sit itself on the bench with me.
I spent more time on the bench during my 2 professional seasons in Germany than I was on the court. This uncertainty in my role caused a lot of stress, anxiety and anger in those moments that I was playing, therefore, I played worse and the vicious bench cycle began. But, I came out the other side a better person through some difficult lessons, many tears, and hard work to reframe my thoughts.
During University, with the exception of my first year, I was a starter. I knew my role and I relished in it. As a senior, I was a co-captain and helped us to our 6th straight national championship. I was rarely taken out of games, and held a key role to the team and our dynamics. I graduated feeling like a boss.
So I went to Germany with a lot of confidence in my skills and ability to contribute on the court with my new team. Through preseason and our first few matches I was playing really well, until I wasn’t. One awful game and I became a player who would just warm up and had glimpses of court time. Thrown into games in the dire moments with pressure to perform, or starting games with so much anxiety because I knew as soon as I messed up I would be right back on the bench. Womp womp.
Needless to say my confidence took a big hit, the ability to play MY game lacked because I became so stressed out by what the coach would say, self talk went in the crapper, my actions became jittery and hesitant - everything I was not. I spent months working my ass off in practice, only to have it not translate to games because I was all up in my head.
If my mom could have quoted me in our much needed talks after my games it would be something negative that came out of my mouth - “I can’t pass a ball”, “My hitting is shitty”, “I can’t serve” “Im a horrible player”. During this period I made a goal to reframe my self talk in order to give myself a chance to get out of the slump. I had a really hard time playing relaxed and an even harder time accepting my role when I knew what I was capable of. I had to work every day to fight my negative thoughts and it's something I’m still working on it today.
The year wasn’t all horrible though. Our team made the finals both years, some injuries unfortunately happened to teammates and I was given the chance to play during the championship. I can only sum it up as a fairytale end to both years, I said screw it to my insecurities and doubts, played without fear to prove to myself I could do it, and we ended up with back to back titles. Pretty inspirational, right?
So, I wanted to share what has helped me make the most of being a bench player, so you can succeed when given the opportunity to ball on the court.
Keep your head up and work hard
I can’t stress enough how important it is to remain positive when a situation is less than favourable. As we let our emotions take control of our thinking our perception of the situation can become very negative and irrational. Mindset is everything. Think about a moment in a game or practice when negative thinking clouded your mind and what was a seemingly simple action became ridiculously hard. I am a natural pessimist, and easily fall into a negative headspace when things don’t go my way, I often need to check myself and my thinking, or my negative thoughts become poor actions and it’s a quick downward spiral. From bad to worse and worse to shit.
I find a really easy way to remain positive through the slumps is to work out my frustrations in practice and do my best to leave the gym with a clean slate. If I work my ass off and feel like I outperformed myself from yesterday than I know I’m doing my job and regardless of starting or not I am doing my part to help the team and that’s completely within your control. Chin up, head down, your moment will come.
Stay mentally prepped
It is too easy to sit on the bench, gaze at the clock, think about what’s for dinner or whatever mind numbing thoughts creep into your head, for me it’s almost always about food. But this won’t make you a better player. Use the opportunity to analyze the other team and consider ways you might be effective if you get into the game. How can you score? If you’re a serving sub, where are their problem zones in receive? What are the hitter tendencies of players you will be matched against? Whatever it is, look for it and when you get into the game you will be able to contribute because you know what will work and what won’t.
If you spend those moments on the bench doing nothing and are thrown into a match you will feel ill prepared, maybe inadequate and will likely remain in a negative mindset about the game and your contributions. But, if you use your time to really analyze what is happening in a match you can pass that information along during a team huddle and help those players who are on the court. Or maybe you’ll pick up on something that the coach missed, who’s the boss now?
Be an extra pair of eyes for a teammate
On many teams that I have been a part of specific positions work as smaller units. The players on the court are given strategies to focus on during the match, and it’s more than helpful if those players on the bench are able to give information to the starters on adjustments that can be made. If I’m on the court and I’m having a hard time scoring it is SO helpful when one of my teammates says something like, “she’s late on her block try swinging down the line off her hands”. Coaches can’t see every detail, and that could be something they wouldn’t pick up on for me, but if one of my teammates suggests it you can be sure I’m going to test it out. Before the game grab a buddy and know you're going to be extra eyes for her while she's playing and vice versa.
This also helps to create a role when we aren’t on the court, and removes the stress and negative thoughts we may be feeling since we aren’t a key contributor to the outcome of the game. If you’re going to be on a team, you might as well be a real team player - nobody likes a negative Nancy, trust me I’ve been that miserable person. It’s toxic.
Cheer your butt off and be the most excitable player in the gym
I truly admire those athletes who celebrate the loudest for points regardless of whether they are on the court or on the bench. I’m really quiet by nature so this isn’t my strong suit, but when you have a bench that’s really into the game it makes the experience not so bad.
Some of you may know Team Canada athlete Dana Cranston and if you’ve ever been to one of our matches she’s the loudest person in the gym (or her mom) whether she’s starting or not. It’s infectious for the teammates on the bench, and gives energy to those on the court. She spent every moment on the bench celebrating exactly the same way she would if she was on the court; the ultimate teammate no matter the role.
Keep yourself and your teammates energized by having a good time in the box, celebrating the points and supporting your teammates when they are down. Nothing bad will ever come from extra celebration, and if anything you’ll probably keep the crowd entertained with how lively you are. The extra energy can provide a boost for your teammates so do what you gotta do to get yourself in a cheerleader frame of mind. Have a dance party, create cheers for specific team members and have fun with it!
Control the Controllables
Can't tell you how much this has saved me in sport, and it’s applicable for most situations in sport and life. Focus on what you can control. You don’t have control of who is on the starting lineup, but you do have control of what the experience is to you. Control your effort in the gym and prove that you are hungry and ready. Control your attitude towards your coaches and teammates, be approachable and coachable. Control your willingness to learn, and energy for growth. Be a great teammate. The outcome of your career is completely within your control.
Now I’m not saying I’m perfect - there are always moments where I find myself on the bench furious about it - but I do my best to keep my ego in check and work on being a team player. All for one and one for all right?
Good luck to those starting their club seasons, to those in the middle of their pro seasons and to everyone else in between.