Originally published in the summer 2015 edition of VolleyballUSA (edited for length)

To my knowledge, no one has ever actually uttered the words, “playing time, schmaying time.” I know I didn’t when I was sitting on the Iowa State University bench my senior year after starting as a sophomore and junior. But whether you’re the go-to player in crunch time, a coach staring at a blank lineup sheet or the father of the last player on the bench, it’s a good idea to address a subject that everyone wrestles with regularly.

Playing time is not an easy topic. It involves the opinions, feelings and choices of imperfect people and holds incredible potential for bitterness, hurt and angst. But if starters, reserves, coaches and parents intentionally approach playing time and individual roles with a team-first mindset and true empathy, everyone can feel like a valuable – and valued – contributor.

Everyone Has a Role

Pursuing a team sport requires players to embrace team dynamics. But as a culture, we’re all about the highlight reel and not enough about the countless hours in the practice gym. Everything is about starting and starring. We obsess over it. We strive for it. We praise and reward it. We even sue coaches who don’t give our children enough of it.

We forget that PT is just the public, flashy manifestation of a specific role on a team. When we put playing time on a pedestal, we undermine the team and its goals by devaluing the other roles necessary to success. And that’s a bad choice we’re consciously or subconsciously making that doesn’t help the team.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Why not reframe the conversation in a way that helps everyone say, “Playing time, schmaying time?” Why not focus on how the roles of starters, non-starters, coaches and parents can mesh to create positive, competitive experiences?

Let’s hear how people in each of these roles maintain that mindset.

The Starter

Worry more about your teammates than your stat line.

Hard-working reserves don’t necessarily get glory or validation, and that’s difficult, especially when starters make the story about their success instead of the team’s success. Rather than fixating on her stat line, Anna Moss, who played middle blocker for the 18 Blue team at Triangle Volleyball Club (Morrisville, N.C.), embraced a team-first attitude.

“Each player has their own way of contributing to the success of the team,” Moss said. “But realizing that can be hard, especially because different roles come with different amounts of playing time. Success comes from embracing that reality and completing a role with maximum effort. Selflessness is arguably the best characteristic a starter can have while playing a team sport. With a team-first attitude, great things will happen.”

Everything is a gift. Act like it.

You’re not entitled to your starting spot. Your coach has placed you in that role because he or she thinks it gives your team the best opportunity to succeed. Those who are placed in reserve roles are there for the same reason: to help the team succeed. Acting entitled prioritizes playing time over team success, elevates your role above those of non-starting teammates and takes the focus off team goals.

It’s better to embrace the appreciative approach adopted by Jennifer Hamson, an AVCA All-American opposite who led Brigham Young University to the NCAA Division I championship match in 2014 and also played basketball for the Cougars.

“Whether they are on the court or not, everyone gives off a vibe,” Hamson said. “I always try to make my vibe positive and team-focused by listening to and acknowledging my teammates when they offer help or advice and by cheering for my teammates when they do well. I try to find ways to show my appreciation to my teammates on and off the court. It’s about the team. One of the best feelings is when you win together and get to celebrate together.”

The Reserve Player

Remove the word “fair” from your vocabulary.

For four years, Eric Wiles, who played for Coastal Volleyball Club in Virginia, had opted to be a reserve on the first team rather than a starter on the second. Why is he okay with little to no court time? He didn't see playing time as a fairness game. He wanted to compete at the highest level possible. He wanted his team to win. He wanted to push himself.

He recognized that his role and playing time had nothing to do with fairness and everything to do with what the coach determines the team needs to win.

“The mindset I always have is to do what’s best for the team, even if it’s not exactly what I want to be doing,” he said. “Volleyball is a team sport, not an individual one. If you can’t do what’s best for the team, you aren’t giving it your all. Playing time isn’t as important as what you have to contribute to the team. I get to push the starters in practice, making all of us better players. I have to be ready to go into the game at any time – and for most positions – and be able to play at my peak. My role on the top team is too valuable to leave. Knowing that keeps me motivated to stay on the team and be part of our successful seasons.”

The Parent

Enjoy the movie. Don’t try to script it I am the oldest of four volleyball-playing kids – two boys, two girls. Collectively, we have taught my dad that reality rarely plays out like we imagine it will. When my siblings and I have been in reserve roles, my parents have encouraged us to keep competing as hard as we could, keep contributing as much as we could and keep as calm as we could.

“Like me, I’m guessing many parents are constantly writing Hollywood screenplays in their heads,” says my dad, Bill Stadick. “We cast our superstar sons and dear daughters in the lead role and conclude each film with credits rolling over an obligatory freeze frame of our kid getting swarmed by teammates, coaches and fans after winning the big game. Reality has a more complicated plot line. But often, a more complex story also has a more satisfying ending, even if it’s not the one we would have scripted. Judy [Debbie’s mom] and I try, not always successfully, to enjoy the movie no matter how it plays out.”

Ask proactive, team-centered questions.

Sports mom Sonya Hodson has spent nearly a decade in the trenches following her daughter from club to high school to USA Volleyball events. Sonya is a firm believer in positive, team-centered
questions that keep everyone engaged, regardless of role.

“I’ve seen a lot of parents quietly hurting on the sidelines when a coach’s choices don’t make sense to them,” she says. “Silently stewing about playing time can be lonely, self-defeating and, at times, divisive to the team dynamic. Each situation is unique, but I do believe that it’s appropriate for players to ask questions about how they can contribute to the team, support the team and make the team better, as well as request feedback and tangible ways to engage in the cause. Being positive and proactive with the coach and team by choosing to live out a team-first mentality is one very real way to be a team leader. The reserve players who embrace their role, however disappointing it may be, can often have a deeper impact on the team in the long run than any starter.”

The Coach

Manage expectations early and often.

No matter how petty or self-serving it may seem when a player strolls into your office to complain about playing time, remember this: Desire isn’t a bad thing. You want your players to be competitive and eager (even desperate) to contribute on the court. They just need guidance on how and why they should want it.

Functioning and contributing in a non-glory role is one of the hardest skills. During my senior year at Iowa State, my coach, Christy Johnson-Lynch, talked about my reserve role regularly. They weren’t easy conversations, and I can’t say I walked out of her office on cloud nine, but I knew where I stood, why I was there and what I had to do.

“Roles need to be explained and revisited with athletes several times throughout the season,” said Johnson-Lynch, who was an AVCA All-American setter at University of Nebraska. “Never assume a player understands why you make the decisions you do. What is obvious to you is not always obvious to your players. Even a brief conversation after a practice or match with a player about her role can help relieve her stress and can be a huge help in keeping her focused on the team and how she can contribute.
Empower team members.

If players can function and thrive in their roles, the team is in a better position to succeed. The coach sets the tone when it comes to empowering reserves. Highlight the importance of every role.

Non-starters don’t have stat lines or match outcomes as guides, so coaches should give them reference points for improvement and contribution milestones. Remember, you’re asking competitive, driven players to develop a selfless, ego-tabling, team-first mindset that many adults struggle with. Give them tools to succeed and offer praise for their efforts.