Teaching players how to properly behave in all situations of sport is just as important as coaching game strategy.
This is the first of a few posts on elements that lead to team success or failure which sometimes get overlooked as being of primary importance. I have also done a short video version of the post that highlights a few of the key points in the more-detailed written post below. Click here if you would like to watch the short video on “Bench Behavior.”
For those of us who are “team sport” coaches, so many of the things we do to prepare ourselves and our teams for a season are involved in the strategy and performance areas. We learn offenses, defenses, special situations, plays, drills for building skills, small-sided games, etc. These are major areas for us to learn and to get good at. The better we (as coaches) are at these and at teaching these, the better chance we have of helping our teams be successful.
However, I have long felt that those areas are secondary to a number of other areas. Things like: developing team standards, instilling a team-first attitude, emphasizing strong work ethics, building confidence, gaining trust with teammates, displaying positive behavior and rewarding good sportsmanship are all elements that would fall into this category.
Ironically, as much as I believe (and from what many people say, others believe) these to be more important in the long run, many coaches treat these as secondary to what they consider more important. In fact, some coaches don’t even treat them in any fashion – they just expect or hope that their players will have those things.
It is critical that we learn, teach, emphasize, correct, re-teach, and reward those types of elements that some might consider to be secondary to the skill-building and strategy components. We must be intentional and purposeful about instilling these elements into our programs. If not, all the greatest #XsOs and drills in the world won’t matter. If we can’t get kids to show up, work hard, be great teammates, and follow standards of behavior, then the skills and strategies won’t work as well as they should.
There are many areas which we could choose to discuss these types of topics, and I will do so in future posts. However, today I want to talk about one place that can become a microcosm of all that is good and right or all that is bad and wrong within our teams – the bench.
How do your kids handle themselves on the bench? How are they during timeouts and huddles? Are they engaged, supportive, and into it? Do they pay attention to what is being said? Do they help out teammates? Do they cheer their teammates on? The list of questions about this important place for our teams is endless. However, the answers to those questions are not.
Each of those questions will spark one of two answers – a positive or a negative. Players will come down squarely on one side or the other when it comes to their bench behavior. Of course, there will be times when specific players will behave in certain ways that are not consistent with who they are normally. That happens in a lot of areas of our lives and for a variety of reasons. Players who are normally great teammates and models when it comes to bench behavior may have moments when they have just come out of the game where they are upset with themselves and need some time to decompress and get back to normal. That is natural.
The problem players, when it comes to bench and huddle decorum, are the ones who consistently exhibit bad team behavior. They are not hard to spot. While I will not go so far as to say that every team has them, I will say that these players are easy to see during most games, as benches are filled with positive examples of how to behave. Because of that, those who are poor examples stand out.
Body Language/Facial Expressions
We hear all kinds of statistics on how much of our communication comes from our body language and facial expressions. Some say that upwards of 85% of what we communicate is done with things other than our actual words. We are constantly sending non-verbal messages to people. This happens on team benches and in team huddles all the time.
Just watch the players (and coaches) in a team huddle or sitting on the bench during a game. Who is looking the coach directly in the eye, nodding understanding, or asking questions? Who is looking out onto the court or field instead of at the coach or at the whiteboard? Which players not currently in the game are standing behind the coach leaning down watching and listening to the instructions? Who is looking up into the crowd or talking with a fellow team member (or coach), therefore not hearing what is being said? Who is totally into what is going on? Who is pouting and sulking?
Each of these scenarios is extremely obvious when you watch a bench or a team huddle. You can almost guess what certain players are like as teammates or what is happening at that moment with specific players based on their behavior. We see it all the time. We also make judgments all the time based on these type of behaviors.
Two Recent Examples
This past basketball season, I watched one particular player continuously not be engaged in timeouts, huddles, or on the bench when he was not playing. He was a really skilled player, one of his team’s best statistically speaking. But he was a poor leader and a bad example for his teammates of how to behave, especially in these types of settings. Oftentimes, he would sit on the end of the five players being talked to during the timeout, looking down at the ground, and not paying attention. When he wasn’t one of those five players, he was rarely engaged in what was being said in the huddle, standing behind everyone and often looking out towards the court.
I also watched a different team and a different player recently. I had seen this individual play the last couple of years, and I had already made some assumptions and judgments about him based on my observations. Again, this was a good player in terms of his skills and abilities – he might be the best player on his team. But what I saw would quickly turn me off to ever consider wanting him to play on a team I coached.
He picked up two really quick fouls in his game. He then spent the entire first half sitting on the end of the bench leaning back with his arms crossed, feet sticking out, and only showing mild interest in the game and in his teammates. When there were timeouts, he would saunter into the periphery of the timeout, not really listen or pay attention, and then walk back to his seat before the timeout was over.
Now, I fully understand that we head coaches can’t always see everything that players are doing on the bench or in timeouts (although this player’s coach was sitting two seats away from him most of the first half). We are busy coaching, instructing, drawing things up on whiteboards, etc. However, we need to instruct our assistant coaches to monitor the players in regards to these things and report what they see. We need to empower them to address those players not behaving accordingly.
His coach put him back into the game with about a minute to go in the first half. If I were his coach and I had I seen that bench behavior from him, we would have had words immediately about whether he wants to play again and if he did, then he better change his attitude on the bench or he would not see the floor the rest of the game. Then again, I would have probably had to have similar conversations earlier in the year (or earlier in his career) with him, so it would never get to the point that it did this particular night. His behavior on the court was kind of a mirror of his behavior off of it – yelling at teammates, pouting when he missed shots, telling his coach to take him out when he missed shots, etc.
I am not, nor have I ever been, a college basketball coach. However, I have been involved in the game for over 30 years. I know a lot of college basketball coaches. When they come recruit a kid, they rarely ask about his skills and his abilities. They are already interested in him because they have seen those areas are solid enough to play at their level. The first questions they ask are: What kind of kid is he? Is he coachable? Is he mature? How hard does he work? How does he treat his teammates? How does he handle pressure? Adversity? Success?
I have heard college coaches say they have stopped recruiting kids after seeing their behavior on the bench at their games. I’v heard one college coach say he stopped recruiting a kid after watching how he behaved in the weight room, bossing younger kids around, not re-racking his weights, and leaving before everyone was done cleaning up the weight room, so he didn’t have to help out.
Imagine being talented enough physically to to play a sport in college, but not getting recruited because of how you acted on the bench, in the weight room, in the halls at school, or in any other of a myriad of places. Yet this is happening all across the country all the time. Coaches and parents need to help kids understand the ramifications of their behaviors that seemingly have nothing to do with their sport and team experiences, and yet have everything to do with them.
Athletes – What are you telling the people in your program by your actions and behavior? Are you telling them you respect them and care about them? Are you totally invested in them and in all that your program stands for? What are you telling others who are not in your program by your actions and behavior? Are you creating excitement and interest for people to get to know you better and have you join them, or are you turning them off by how you handle yourself?
Coaches – How much time are you spending teaching these important aspects of being a team sport athlete? Are you teaching and then emphasizing proper bench decorum? Are you holding kids accountable for their actions on the court, off the court, and on the bench? Are your assistants invested in this aspect of the game, so that they help you and help your team be the best it can be in these bench situations?
While our success is often judged by what happens “between the lines” with the clock running, so much of what leads to that success happens outside the lines with the clock stopped. It is critical that players know how to behave in these important moments and then behave that way. It is imperative for us as coaches to make sure that our players are doing just that. Open your eyes, your ears, and your mouths and address this extremely important element of your team’s experience. It could prove to be a major difference between success and failure.
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