Prep Sports

Successful teams include ALL players, not just starters

Justis column: Being a good teammate isn't about being the star

Being a good teammate, whether in the game or on the bench, is important. (The Gazette)
Being a good teammate, whether in the game or on the bench, is important. (The Gazette)

There is nothing more difficult for athletes, coaches and parents to navigate during a youth sports experience than the role of the reserve player.

Successful teams are not just made up of stars and starters. Many reserve players work harder, go the extra mile and support all their teammates better than those who are lazy at practice, show up late and still get more playing time. Great teams are made up of people who accept their roles assigned them, who don’t care about who gets all the credit or reward.

Being a great teammate includes accepting their work ethic may not always be recognized.

“If you couldn’t play at all, would you be a valuable teammate every day?” Boston Celtics Coach Brad Stevens said. asks athletes if they can be a great teammate every day when they get injured, when they foul out, when their coach pulls them following a mistake, when a teammate beats them for playing time, when they think their coach should be playing them instead of someone else, and when friends and family think they should be playing more.

Thrive also asks if kids can be a valuable teammate in and after practice, in the weight room, on the bench, during warm-ups, in the locker room win or lose, on social media and at school, when life is unfair and when coaches make mistakes.

Will your body language, energy, conversations and actions serve the team? Or is it just about you?

Being a great teammate matters because there will be days when you are treated unfairly. The value of a teammate and his or her character is most revealed when things are hard, not easy.

Coaches and parents will never be able to make it easy for those athletes relegated to watching from the sidelines. But a culture within which the reserve can understand, accept and appreciate the role they play can help them feel important and part of the team.

Thrive gives the following suggestions on how that culture can be achieved.

— Be intentional. A team’s success comes down to how coaches have prepared their players with it not being a game-time decision. On game day, playing time is where a coach has the biggest influence on the outcome and when deciding who plays and who doesn’t is a challenge. Should you reward a player’s effort and attitude with playing time? How long do you stand by a player who is in a rut before substituting for him or her? Coaches need to start focusing more on how they can support reserves in their current role.

— Stop referring to your reserves as “bench” or “role” players. No one wants to be a bench player and everyone is a role player.

— Each player needs to understand their role on the team and how it is important to the overall success of the team. The coach must clearly communicate what that role is and clarify it during the season. When it comes to games, look for ways to expand a reserve’s role and influence besides sideline cheerleading. If you can’t give them more playing time, find ways you can give them more responsibility and ownership, such as a voice in team meetings, film study and half-time discussions so they can feel valued.

— Early in the season, each player should have an opportunity, and believe they have an opportunity to compete for a starting role. A coach should give every player a chance to prove themselves. Besides creating a better culture, this will help create more competitive practices.

— Along with autonomy and purpose, “path to mastery” is a key ingredient for intrinsic motivation. People will struggle if they feel showing up every day is not helping them grow as a player and person. Avoid having players stand along the sideline as much as possible. Make sure they feel they are improving.

— Appreciate reserves in little moments as well as in big moments. Publicly acknowledge the effort and contribution of the reserves in front of their teammates, parents and fans.

— Empathize with the struggle and challenges of a reserve. It’s difficult to sit on the end of the bench and stay ready for when their number is called.

Finally, parents will always complain about their child’s playing time. It takes parents longer than their children to accept the athlete’s role. Thrive suggests:


— Ask questions and listen. “Hopefully, you already have communicated how you determine playing time at the start of the season. Remind parents throughout the season.”

— Share your perspective. It’s important to share more information with parents, including statistics and fitness information. Share the truth about their child and let them know you have communicated all this with the player. Provide specifics on how the athlete can increase playing time, such as staying after practice to work on specific deficiencies, getting eight hours of sleep every night to help with energy levels, and showing up early to do an additional warmup and mental routine.

— Avoid conflict by asking how you, the coach, and parents can support the athlete together, taking an athlete-centered approach. Be more transparent, have more one-on-one discussions, and change the way you are giving feedback. Compromise and collaborate.

Nancy Justis is a former competitive swimmer and college sports information director. She is a partner with Outlier Creative Communications. Let her know what you think at

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