What To Do When You’re Not Getting Proper Playing Time In Sports



No one joins anything — a family, a business, a volunteer organization, or a sports team — to not be involved in the action. Even if we’re not the best in the room at whatever the job is, we know there is something we can contribute to the cause, and it’s not fun to never get that chance.

This feeling is most acute in sports, with playing time.

Sports teams are set up to have reserves, people who are on the team and can contribute but may not always get the chance to play: not everyone can play at the same time. Maybe you’re not very good. Maybe the person playing ahead of you is doing really well. Maybe you have to pay your dues by sitting the bench. Maybe the person in charge — the coach — isn’t very good at his job.

Even if you’re not the starring role type, if you’ve joined a team, you still want to participate. And it sucks to never get that shot, or to feel like you’ll never get it.

Athletes come to me with this playing time challenge every day, and it always sounds one of two ways.

  1. The coach plays favorites, and I’m not one of them. Some lesser player(s) is playing more than you, even though their extra playing time has not been earned meritoriously. You’re a victim of politics and no matter how much skill you display, nothing changes.
  2. The coach hasn’t given me the chance to show what I can do — and what I can do is a lot. Maybe you’re being forced to play out of position, or having your freedoms restricted (i.e., you’re told you are not allowed to shoot threes or dribble too often, with the punishment of being removed from the games and having your playing time reduced).

I’ve played on many teams in my life, several where I wasn’t afforded the playing time I felt I should have been receiving. And many times, I went about handling it the wrong way.

Here are some of those wrong ways.

Wrong Way #1: Talking shit to or about your coach.

This is the dumbest thing you could possibly do; it’s also the quickest way to find yourself buried on the bench or off the team completely.

Listen to me: On a sports team, the coach is boss.

The only place this is not always true is in the NBA, where a max-contract player can leverage his power position (long term commitment, soon-to-be-free-agent status) to get a coach replaced (think LeBron James in Cleveland). And then, even a max contract guy doesn’t usually have this kind of power (see LeBron in Miami).  

On 99/100 pro teams, and all college and high school clubs, the coach calls the shots. To put yourself in direct opposition to a coach is basically your last act before you’re off the team. I suggest doing this only as a parting shot after you’ve decided you’re done playing on this team this season, and for this coach forever.

It’s almost as bad to talk shit about your coach behind his back. Your energy will infect your performance and communication, and you’ll end up in the same space: Buried on the bench or off the team.

 

Wrong Way #2: Directing negative energy at the teammates who benefit from the coach’s (supposed) idiocy.

Stephen Jackson was a key role player on the San Antonio Spurs’ 2003 NBA championship-winning club. Moving around the league for the next 10 seasons, Jackson found himself back with the Spurs again in the Spring of 2013, albeit with a different role.

The Spurs had developed two new wing players by this time, Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard. Danny and Kawhi were eating up minutes at Jackson’s wing position. A lifelong competitor who had fought his way to NBA legitimacy, Jackson wanted to fight for his minutes in this situation, pushing hard to prove himself worthy by strategizing to out-play the young wings in practices. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich confronted Jackson, telling him in a private meeting that Green and Leonard were not only the future, but the present — and if Jackson wouldn’t admit that these young guys were simply better players than he, Jax would have to be let go by the club.

Jackson refused to admit anyone was better than him, and was released before the Playoffs (where the Spurs lost to the Miami Heat in 7 games in the NBA Finals).

There’s a reason the non-stars on sports teams are called role players. Everyone has a part to play, big or small, and those who cannot fit into their role for whatever reason will be replaced. Stephen Jackson was unwilling to play what he considered to be a lesser role, and with the coach being the boss, Stephen Jackson paid with his roster spot.

Negative energy is often palpable: People can tell feel it coming from you, and it often disrupts teams. A smart boss will get rid of the problem (the unhappy team member), and fast.

Unless you have a solid plan for where you’re going to play next, don’t be Stephen Jackson and find yourself on the outside, looking in.

 

Wrong Way #3: Developing a bad attitude that poisons the team.

Bad apple players are referred to as cancers in sports. Their negative energy is allowed to fester and breeds other negative players, causes cliques to form, and maybe out-and-out hostility between teammates. A wise coach catches and addresses the issue early. Less-wise coaches don’t, and it causes the core of the team to rot from within.

Neither outcome is good for you. After all, you’re still not playing much, even if the team is doing badly.

 

***

Maybe you’re at the end of your rope with your coach right now. Maybe you’ve even tried one of the above, know it doesn’t work and that’s what brought you here. Either way, what follows are what you must do, ANY time you’re not getting the playing time you want on any team, in any sport.

Violate this advice at your own risk (to what’s left of your playing time, your spot on the roster, or even your career).

 

Option One: Have a Conversation With Your Coach: How Can I Earn More Playing Time?

I once went to my college basketball team coach with a gripe: I wasn’t playing as many minutes as I felt I should’ve been playing.

What did I need to do to get more playing time?

The coach corrected the phrasing of my question: You don’t get playing time. You earn playing time.

His suggestions centered around my practice habits, playing harder, and the rest. The mandate may be different for you, but first you have to ask the question — and before that, you have to initiate the conversation.

Repeat after me: Coach, what do I need to do to earn more playing time?

Some coaches will share proactive answers — you need to be a more reliable shooter. Be on time for practice. Learn the plays and execute better. Stop turning the ball over. Do better in your classes.

Some coaches will not. Keep doing what you’re doing and your time will come. There’s nothing you can do; these other guys are better than you. Don’t worry about playing time. You’ll get it when I give it to you.

Either way, you’ll never know the answer until and unless you ask. Have a private, respectful conversation with the boss about your work performance and ask for feedback. Remember the emphasis points of the conversation and question(s).

What do I need to do to EARN it?

Not asking what the coach can do for you, but what you can do for the coach — and by extension, the team.

 

Option Two: Situation Impossible? Find a New Team To Play For.

Maybe your coach is an idiot.

He would rather play a player who you’re clearly better than, and lose games with that guy.

Maybe he wants you to play out of position and not be able to help the team as you best could.

Maybe he doesn’t want to see all the skills you have and wants to pigeonhole you into playing a certain way that is not the optimal use of your abilities.

And, maybe, there’s nothing you can really do about the coach’s foolishness. What do you do then?

Get the hell out of there.

Transfer. Request a trade. Quit and go looking. If the situation is really as impossible as you say it is, find a new team to play for.

Finding a new team may not be so easy to do, I know. But, like you said, the current situation is impossible and isn’t going to change no matter what you do. So you’re better off with an uncertain situation that could turn good, than a certain one that’s doomed.

If it’s impossible, you must move on.

 

Option Three: Can’t Leave This Team? Can’t Get On A New Club? STFU And Keep Working.

But maybe you can’t leave this team. Maybe you can’t afford to transfer, don’t have any other scholarship prospects, can’t see another team in the area you could play for, or are otherwise stuck with either this team or no team at all.

Well then, here’s your mandate, the piece of advice most players who complain about playing time need to hear and follow.

Shut The F*ck Up and Keep Working, or STFUAKW for short.

Truth: There are more players thinking they should be playing more than there are spots on the floor for all of them. Sometimes the players on the bench need to STFUAKW until they’re good enough to command that playing time.

Truth: Many complaining players are simply not as good as they think they are. If you really are that good, see Option Two above and prove it. Or, STFUAKW.

Truth: Sometimes the players playing ahead of you are ahead of your for a reason. Be honest: are they better than you? If so, STFUAKW. If not, see the above Truth.

Truth: If you have yet to prove your game with actual live game performance, you have no grounds for claiming playing-time bias. I don’t care what the other players are doing or not doing. STFUAKW until you’ve proven yourself.

Truth: It takes time to work your way into a coach’s rotation. You may not be starting at the start of the season, but could find yourself doing so by the end of the season, so as long as you don’t do or say anything stupid. STFUAKW.

Truth: A winning team may want to ride the wave of what’s working, even if that means keeping a good player (you) from playing more. Winning is the objective of the game, after all.

Truth: If you’ve exercised Options One and Two and haven’t evoked change, you don’t have any other options. Complaining is never an option. STFUAKW.

***

Through all this, remember that basketball is a TEAM sport.

The coach’s #1 job is to win games. If he happens to help you get better in the process and you get a ton of playing time too, great — but that’s not the priority. The coach doesn’t work for you, he works for the program, and the program wants to have a winning team first, help individual players second. A winning team attracts money, invitations to face better and better teams, and — better players who want to be a part of the winning.

If you’re not playing as much as you’d want to be play, you now know your options and what to do about it. Get in where you fit in.

#WorkOnYourGame

 

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