They Don’t Speak Bench

food for thought

“Do you want to know what the coaches are talking about when it comes to your playing time?”

The question lingered in the air for a moment as I stood by the player after practice. 

Finally, with a voice that sounded like she was convincing herself with her answer, she said, “Yes, absolutely.”

We were about a month into the season and this player was bouncing back and forth between the first and second team. I was an assistant coach at the time, and I sensed she was confused about why her status kept changing. 

She was a good athlete and did some nice things, especially defensively. However, she had a tendency to hang her head after a mistake which often led to negative body language and a drop in energy. 

That was something the head coach could not tolerate. 

Whenever it happened, she was sent to the bench. 

He thought the reason was obvious.

She was completely oblivious. 

He kept getting mad. 

She kept getting sad.

The bench wasn’t doing its job.

"The greatest motivator in the world is your (fanny) on the bench." - Bob Knight

Over the years it has become obvious to me that the bench can serve as a great motivator, but on its own, it is a terrible communicator. It might cause players to want to do better, but it does nothing to explain what needs to improve. That’s my job, and one I neglected for years.

We assume players can speak bench. We expect them to know what we’re thinking - haven’t we said it a thousand times?!?

However, think of bench as a foreign language. Players will understand your tone of voice. 

Take a seat, Nerbun! 

We are good at making our displeasure obvious, but without a proper explanation, players are too often left to their own devices to interpret why their fanny is suddenly on the bench.

And they desperately want to know. So where do they turn for answers?

Do you trust their parents to interpret bench on your behalf? Do they understand what you were thinking at the moment, or leading up to the game?

What about their friends who aren’t on the team? You probably know a few of them that used to play, but have since quit because they were convinced the coach didn’t like them. Do you want them explaining bench to your players?

Of course not, you want the player himself to get it. Nevermind that his prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for rational thought and emotional regulation, won’t fully develop until age 25. Maybe then he will look back on his experience and understand your intentions, but that’s not going to help us before tomorrow night’s game.

Whatever then are we to do?

Frankly, it’s up to us to interpret bench for our players.

What does it feel like when we neglect this responsibility?

Our school district recently went through a significant round of budget reductions. No one was spared as we slashed expenses. Teachers, paras, substitutes, administrators one and all will see a reduction in take home pay next year. Frustration abounds.

To his credit, our superintendent communicated with all stakeholders throughout the decision-making process. Can you imagine if he didn’t?

What would it feel like to find your paycheck hundreds of dollars short of what was expected? You would be enraged. All trust would be lost; morale destroyed. 

In many ways playing time is the currency of competitive sports. Players grow to expect their paycheck to be a certain number of minutes. When that changes unexpectedly, they feel the same as you would discovering a pay cut for the first time. They ask themselves the same questions you would.

Why is this happening to me?

What have I done wrong?

What do I need to do better to restore my salary?

Bench should be a language used to instruct as well as motivate, but that requires a skillful interpreter to help make sense of the change. The goal is improved performance, not simply punishment to make my anger go away. 

As I walked away from that player years ago I was dumbfounded that she had no idea why she was being benched. No one had bothered interpreting it for her, and so she kept making the same mistake over and over. The bench was motivating her frustration because it offered no explanation.

During a difficult situation, our superintendent communicated five HERE’s that offer a useful template to help coaches in interpret bench for our players. 

1. Here is where we are. 


What is the problem we are trying to solve? Are we getting killed on the glass? Are we giving up too many straight line drives? Do we struggle to create advantages? What is the problem you are trying to solve, and why does it matter?

2. Here is what we need (and the values we will work to protect). 


I will never forget the moment I first read that the school district needed to find nearly one million dollars - nobody knew what it meant and everyone feared for their job. However, that number came with a promise: We will do everything we can to keep cuts from directly affecting students. While that meant sacrifices in other areas, our values were clear - we would do whatever we could to protect the student experience.

Sometimes that means the bench to protect our values. I remember another situation a few years ago when I benched a player for having a horrendous practice the day before a game. We needed rebounding, defense, and an inside scoring threat from her position, and she was unquestionably the best player for the job. However, her attitude and lack of effort disqualified her from being eligible to start the next game. Our way of life would not be compromised even for our best player.

Though I made the decision the day before, I did not explicitly communicate the benching until we arrived at the gym before the game. She did her best to hide her tears through our pre-game warm-up as she tried to make sense of the move. That was my first mistake. After the game, rather than have the follow-up conversation myself, I dispatched a trusted assistant to interpret the benching for her on the bus ride home. My cowardice knew no bounds. However, at least someone from the coaching staff had the conversation, and the player hasn’t had a bad practice since.

3. Here is what has been decided and why.


I have botched this one more times than I care to admit. Once a decision has been made - clear communication is vitally important. It is best to explain the plan moving forward with the individuals involved. This is not a time to be vague, to “hope they figure it out,” or to let the bench do the talking.  

I asked a few of our current players how they would want me to address a demotion if they were to lose playing time or a starting position. They all said the same thing…

“Just tell it to me straight.” 

The majority of players want the truth even when it hurts because they want to have agency over their improvement. Be clear in what has been decided and what is expected of them in their new role. 

During one season we had a sophomore starter get injured for a couple weeks. It was early in the season and with her out of the lineup we started to play better as we became more familiar with each other. When the player came back from injury I told her we might platoon the starting position, even though in my mind I had no intention of starting her again unless the other player faltered. I left the door open to hope that wasn’t realistic. As a result, I lost that family’s trust for the rest of her career. 

4. Here’s why.


I remember another instance where we lost a starter to injury with seven games to go in the regular season. Rather than promoting the first player off the bench, I decided to move a JV player into the varsity lineup. We needed a consistent 3-point threat, and she was shooting over 40% from the arc at the JV level. She was also the second best individual defender in our program and I thought it would improve our defense which would be important after losing one of our leading scorers. As a result, Emma went from being #8 in the varsity rotation to a varsity starter.

The conversation with Emma was an easy one. She was thrilled with the opportunity. The decision was vetted through the captains and they thought it was important to explain to the entire team why we made the decision including the stats that influenced our thinking. I didn’t want there to be resentment that might torpedo the rest of our season. Before our next game we took 15 minutes to talk through the changes in the lineup and how we were going to approach replacing the starter. 

We ended up winning five games in a row (all by double-digits) after the lineup change before losing in the regional semifinals to end the season. Transparency was the key to getting buy-in, especially when working with a generation of athletes who crave to know the why.

5. Here’s where you can find me.


Throughout our budget crisis, the superintendent went out of his way to make himself available for questions. He held “office hours” in each district building where employees could stop and ask questions. He encouraged people to email him directly to dispel any rumors that might be circulating in the community. He offered to meet with any group that had questions. I am certain not all of his conversations were pleasant, but much to his credit, he was willing to talk with anyone who wanted more information. 

There are numerous ways to facilitate communication with players before, during, and after playing time decisions have been made. Creating a system of periodic check-ins, following up with players after the fact, and making yourself available for questions demonstrates a high level of care for each individual and can help you continue to frame the situation. One conversation is rarely enough for a player to fully understand bench. It’s a complicated language that often requires an on-going conversation.

Food for thought.

Nate Sanderson

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