7 Ways to Support Your Reserves

build team culture

In Training Soccer Champions, UNC's Soccer Coach Anson Dorrance tells the story of Tracey Bates. Tracey played on the national team for some time as a starter, but the year before the World Cup, she lost her spot to a new player named Kristine Lily.

One night, Dorrance was heading out for a run and heard Tracey on the hotel phone crying to her mother. While Dorrance couldn’t hear Tracey’s mother, it was clear to him that her mother was upset that Tracey had lost her spot. He heard Tracey say, “No, I am working hard and Coach isn’t mad at me! Don’t you understand? Kristine is just better than I am, and she deserves her spot.”

As Dorrance’s story shows, we will never make it painless for the reserve player who sacrifices so much and works so hard only to have to watch and cheer from the sideline. But we can create a culture in which they understand, accept, and appreciate their role — a culture in which they feel valued. But it all starts with us.

Be Intentional

You know most of your team’s success will come down to how you have prepared them, not your game time decisions. And regardless of your sport, on game day, playing time is the area in which you as the coach have the biggest influence on the outcome. So, who starts? When do you sub? How do you rotate players?

When deciding who plays and who doesn’t, we face a lot of challenges. Your most talented or skilled players rarely make your best lineup.

Statistics are being used more and more in sports to determine “the best lineup, depth chart, or side”, but even they fail to address other important factors like: Do 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 you give someone else a chance?

Coaches could argue about the answers to these questions ’til the grave! But what is equally as important — and what is discussed infrequently — is what you should do after you decide who will play.As coaches we need to start focusing more on how we can support our reserves in their current role.

7 Ways to Support Your Reserves

1. Language

Stop calling or referring to your reserves as “bench” or “role” players. Nobody wants to be a “bench” player and everyone is a “role” player; they all have roles. Instead, use the term “reserve player” or “non-starter.”

2. Culture

Does your culture see the players as people or just athletes? In my article 3 Reasons You Need to Care More For Your Reserves, I tell the story of Alabama Softball’s Coach Murphy who invested in helping his players grow as people, not just athletes. His reserve catcher Jordan described the team culture in this way: “There was no way you could play there and not be a better person.”

3. Clear Role

Everyone needs to clearly understand their role on the team and how it is important to the overall success of the team. Coaches far too often assume that a player knows their role and they end up avoiding these hard, honest conversations. It is the role of the coach to clearly communicate the role to the player, and to continuously do so throughout the season to everyone within the program. Clarify their role when it comes to the minutes they will play, the shots they will take, and everything else you expect from them.

Jocko Willink, former Navy SEAL Commander, calls it “leading down the chain”. He says, “It is paramount that senior leaders explain to their junior leaders and troops executing the mission how their role contributes to big-picture success. This is not intuitive and never as obvious to the rank-and-file employees as leaders might assume. Leaders must routinely communicate with their team members to help them understand their role in the overall mission.”

When it comes to games, continuously look for ways to expand their role and influence beyond just cheering. If you can’t give them more playing time, then find areas where you can give them more responsibility and ownership. Giving them a voice in team meetings, film study, and half-time discussions are just some areas where they can feel valued.

4. Opportunity

Especially early in the season, every player should have an opportunity — and believe they have an opportunity — to compete for a starting role.

Be VERY intentional in how you select your practice teams early in the season, so as to give everyone a fair chance to prove themselves. Why is this important? So that when you select your starters, everyone feels like they had an opportunity, and your starters won’t feel entitled to their position. Not only will this create a better culture, but it will also help create a more competitive practice.

At some stage, you may feel it is important to have a “set lineup” and stand by certain players, even when they are struggling in a game or over the course of a few games. But everyone should feel as if they had their time and their chance.

Before every game, a player should understand when their opportunity for playing time will come. Honest conversations must be had. If they are only going in when the game is clearly won, then they should know that beforehand. If they are only going in if certain players are hurt, penalized (such as foul trouble, flags, or cards), or playing poorly, then they deserve to know that as well.

5. Path to Mastery

Along with autonomy and purpose, “path to mastery” is the third key ingredient that researchers have identified for intrinsic motivation. People will struggle to show up every day if they feel it is not helping them grow as a player and a person. If they can see that there is a path to development laid out for them and the coaching staff is invested in their continued growth, they will become more motivated.

As often as possible, avoid designating reserves as the water boy, rebounder, ball girl, or “practice cheerleader”. Avoid letting players stand along the sideline as much as possible. I used to laugh when I would hear football coaches complain about their reserves’ attitudes, but when I would observe their practices, the reserves were expected to do all the required conditioning, only to stand on the sideline in the freezing cold for hours during the team’s practices. Feeling and knowing that they are improving largely motivates players; don’t deprive them of that!

6. Appreciate

Everyone should feel equally valued and cared for. In fact, we should expend more energy and effort to appreciate our reserves.

In front of tens of thousands of fans in 2015 at Ohio State’s National Championship celebration, when Urban Meyer stepped up to the podium, the first player he acknowledged was not the starting quarterback. In fact, it wasn’t any starter on the team. He called up and spoke about reserve Nik Sarac and the selfless sacrifice he made for the team in giving up his scholarship to another player because Nik’s parents could afford to pay tuition at OSU.

Alabama’s Jordan Patterson recalled that one of her most memorable moments in her collegiate career was when Coach Patrick Murphy started his speech at their National Championship Ring Ceremony by looking at Jordan and saying, “Your ring is just as important as Kelsi Dunne’s ring.” Kelsi was their star pitcher.

Appreciate your reserves in little moments, but don’t forget to do it in the big moments as well!

7. Empathy

A lot of coaches find it difficult to empathize with the struggle and challenges of being a reserve due to the fact that many coaches were the “star” or key players for their team. For an athlete, it’s not easy to accept the possibility that someone else may be a better player. It’s hard to sit on the end of the bench and “stay ready”. It’s hard to face parents, fans, and friends after games when they haven’t played a single minute and these people do not hesitate to share their opinions on why they should be playing more.

Keeping a great attitude, working hard, respecting your teammates, and appreciating the opportunities you do have is not easy when you have to sit and watch every game. Think of it this way. Can you imagine showing up for work every day and not collecting a paycheck? Would you still work hard and have a great attitude if you were told that you might get paid later on down the road, but there were no guarantees?

Works Referenced

Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink

Training Soccer Champions by Anson Dorrance


The Playing Time System Training Course

The course will train you on a variety of strategies to effectively determine, communicate, and support player roles. You need to proactively address the #1 source of conflict in team culture. This system is a compilation of strategies to address the majority of playing time issues. These strategies include:

  • Team Activities
  • Coaching Tools
  • Team Processes and Procedures

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