Playing Time is Not a Love Language

Playing Time is Not a Love Language

“You want numbers in basketball, but it seems like you only really want the best seven or eight. Why should anyone besides those eight people stay out?”

The question landed like a slap in the face. As I read through the notes of one of our final exit interviews my defense mechanisms went into overdrive.

“I wanted to feel like coaches care about us.”

“You were treated differently if you weren’t on varsity.”

One of the great challenges in coaching is finding ways to convince your bench players of their value to the team. They want to know they are seen, that they matter, and in this particular case, I failed on both accounts.

Anson Dorrance, one of the most decorated college coaches in NCAA history, recently drove this point home in our conversation for an up-coming podcast.

If you can't figure out a way for the players at the bottom of your roster to know you care about them, you're in the wrong profession. 

There are a lot of different ways you can share your love and respect for these kids, and they're dying for it. If the culture is not structured properly, they measure your love and respect with playing time. If you structure your culture in the right way, they measure it the way it should be measured... "Do you care about me?"

If we are not careful, players in and out of the lineup can misconstrue playing time as the only currency a coach uses to communicate value. A star who never comes out of the game may falsely equate her value based solely on her minutes, “I matter because I play.” 

By the same token, reserves can easily come to the opposite conclusion, “I don’t matter because I don’t play.”

The coach’s responsibility is to decouple the perceived relationship between playing time and worth to create an environment where players feel loved regardless of their minutes. As we know, this is not always easy.

As I comb through the comments from other interviews, a pattern of behavior emerges. The players that felt most valued, regardless of their role, were the ones I went out of my way to connect with. In other words, my actions communicated that I cared. How?

  • By going to their non-basketball events
  • By sending random text messages to check-in on how life is treating them
  • By giving them feedback on how they’ve improved, and what they need to do to keep improving
  • By acknowledging their efforts to excel in their role
  • By having conversation about things they are interested outside of basketball
  • By sharing inside jokes about Harry Styles, chickens, blue gum, babysitting, warm drinks, and so many other seemingly meaningless things 
  • By telling them, “I know you can do this…”
  • By knowing the names of their parents, siblings, friends, etc.
  • By catching them doing something right
  • By asking good questions and remembering their answers
  • By making random basketball references in class that only they understand
  • By appreciating the sacrifices they have made for the betterment of the team

Perhaps Jon Gordon said it best, 

People know you care when you go out of your way to show them they matter.

It takes an intentional effort to overcome a player’s tendency to equate their value with playing time, and I am learning to be even more sensitive to that challenge for our reserves. As Steve Kerr said on the Way of Champions Podcast, 

I have a lot of compassion for those guys and the difficulty of their jobs. That's a big priority for me is really staying in touch with them. What can you do as a coach to engage those guys? It's conversation, an understanding of that player.”

The most valuable thing I have gleaned from our exit interviews this year is perspective, as painful as that may be at times. I am challenged to better understand every player on our roster so that I can find ways to love them better regardless of their playing time.

Food for thought.

Nate Sanderson

You Win in the Locker Room First, Jon Gordon & Mike Smith

Steve Kerr on Building a High-Performance Culture, The Way of Champions Podcast


Join Our Weekly Newsletter

The most practical insights on leadership and culture... 

  • 3 Minute Weekly Tools & Tips
  • Notes to the Coaching Culture Podcast
  • FREE Chapter of The Culture System

We hate SPAM. We will never sell your information, for any reason.