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Dealing With the Frustration of Lack of Playing Time, by Thomas Emma

From the Coach’s Clipboard Basketball Playbook
"Helping coaches coach better..."

Tom Emma was a graduate of Duke University, where he was a three-year basketball starter and captain his senior year, and was later drafted by the Chicago Bulls in 1983. He held a Masters degree from Columbia University, specialized in sports conditioning, was the owner of Power Performance, Inc. and published several books. Tom authored several other articles on this website. Sadly (after the original posting of this article), Tom died on June 8, 2011... Coach Gels.

Dealing With the Frustration of Lack of Playing Time

Through the years I've written hundreds of articles and four entire books relating to the sport of basketball. The subject matter has ranged from skill development and basketball-specific conditioning methods to sports psychology and the extreme challenges college basketball players face in the classroom.

I even wrote a long, involved piece concerning how basketball players can best handle difficult coaches. One topic I have never touched upon, however, is how to deal with limited, or in some cases nonexistent, playing time.

In my opinion, the major reason why playing time matters have not been covered adequately in the basketball improvement media (including by this author) is because most players, with their ego-oriented positive attitudes (not an entirely bad thing, by the way), don't ever see themselves riding the pine. Thus their interest in the subject is generally minimal.

But the facts show that upwards of 85% of athletes participating in college basketball today will have playing time issues at some point during their careers. As such all players, regardless of talent level or their position in the current rotation, are best served preparing for the possibility of receiving less court time than they feel they deserve.

Players on the bench

To give some perspective on how difficult sitting on the bench can be for a dedicated college ballplayer think of putting absolutely everything you have body and soul into something day in and day out, five to eight hours per, for more than half of your life. Then when you reach your goal, say being recruited to join a Division 1 basketball roster, you find yourself not able to show your wears on the court when it counts during game time.

The feeling that all the time and toil were for not can be nearly impossible to bear for most. Needless to say, your self image takes a staggering blow as well. Basketball to a large extent has become your identity, and when it is taken away, albeit hopefully temporarily, through lack of playing time, it can be a bitter pill to swallow.

Making the situation even worse is that chances are you probably like and respect the individual or individuals playing ahead of you. You take no solace in him or them playing poorly.

But you find out quickly that playing time is the life blood for the dedicated team sport athlete, and without consistent minutes in basketball, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to support your teammates wholeheartedly and at the same stay optimally motivated on earning more minutes.

Fortunately there are some proven strategies you can implement that will help you deal with the challenges and strong emotions that accompany not playing as much as you would like. They are listed and explained in detail below.

Ask Coach

Without complaining or making demands, reasonable or otherwise, ask your coach what you can do to improve your chances of earning more minutes. This will accomplish three things:

First, and most obvious, you will get a better feel for what you need to focus on in order to impress the coach and receive those precious extra minutes. This will erase any confusion you may have concerning why you're not playing, along with saving you the time and energy of trying to read your coach's mind.

Second, it will establish that you have a professional attitude. Instead of complaining to others or brooding around the locker room, you show your coach, the entire staff, and your teammates that you believe in the straight forward, no nonsense approach. Tell me what to do and I'll do to the best of my ability it will be your motto.

Third, and perhaps most important, it will let your coach know how serious you are about contributing on the floor. All coaches want athletes on their rosters who want to play and help the team win. This will show you are this type of player.

Keep Working!

The advice to keep working diligently despite your travails would seem to be a no-brainer, but when you're not playing and deep frustration (or even depression) sets in continuing to give your all becomes quite a challenge for most of us.

In addition to following your coaches suggestions, it is imperative that you work as hard as ever (or maybe even harder) on improving your individual skills and body on a daily basis. This will entail staying after practice working on your own and/or with assistant coaches on the court, hitting the weight room consistently, and getting in extra running to maintain game type conditioning levels (very important when your not getting many minutes).

Adhering to a nutritious diet, keeping a regular sleep schedule, and following an appropriate treatment regime are also important factors in maintaining peak performance levels whether you're playing or not. All this work will ensure that you're ready to go when your number is called, along with keeping your general improvement process on track.

Always Remain Engaged and Ready Emotionally

During one of my seasons as a college basketball player I was penciled in as the first guard off the bench at the beginning of preseason practice on October 15. While I felt I played well enough during the preseason workouts to earn a starting spot, my third guard status remained in tact when the regular season commenced.

Needless to say I wasn't happy, but I resigned myself to coming off the bench and giving it my all when it was my time to play. My mind set for the first time in my career was that of a reserve, which as any bench player can attest requires a much different mentality than that of a starter.

Players on the bench

Just a few things that a bench player has to deal with that a starter doesn't, include: 1) Not being involved in the game plan or scouting report. 2) Never quite knowing when you're going to enter the game. 3) Playing with players you likely don't share much court time with in practice. 4) Entering the action cold when all or almost all the players are warm and in the flow of the game. 5) Playing substantial minutes when games are out of reach one way or the other (i.e., garbage time.)

Low and behold during the first few minutes of the first game one of our guards missed a few jumpers, turned the ball over, and failed (in the coaches opinion) to step in front of a driving ball handler on his way to the hoop.

As such, my number was called early. And as luck would have it (I'd like to say as skill would have it!), I immediately got a few good looks at the rim and knocked down the shots, dished off for a couple of assists, and made a steal that led to another bucket. I continued to play solid for the rest of the game as well, and our team came away with a convincing victory after a sluggish start.

After the game I was pleasantly satisfied with the victory and my performance. What happened the next day at practice, however, was surprising to me. After six weeks of practice, two intra squad scrimmages, and one preseason game playing as the third guard, I was suddenly inserted into the starting lineup.

Not that I didn't think that I deserved to start (as mentioned above, I always considered myself a starter), but this drastic change within a 24 hour period would take a bit of adjusting to. It didn't help that I was taking the place of one of my best friends on the team, who after this game would be buried deep on the pine for the next 10 games or so.

My point here is that I wasn't 100% ready emotionally to start. Although it turned out okay, and I continued to play reasonably well throughout the season, I would have served myself better if I had kept a bit of the starter's mentality from the beginning.

I learned through this experience to never resign yourself to coming off the bench or to receiving limited minutes. Always keep hope alive, and prepare yourself daily as if you're going to play the entire game. It just might happen!

Keep it Quiet

Other than asking your coach for suggestions concerning how you might receive more court time, it is generally best not discuss your plight of lack of playing time with anyone. Talking too much about your situation, whether it be with teammates, family members, or friends, will, in my experience, lead only to more frustration and anger (what you talk and think about tends to expand).

It may also expose you to well meaning but bad advice from your inner circle of supporters. These individuals want the best for you at all costs, which leads them to not always see things with 20/20 vision when it comes to your playing time situation.

Keeping mum, of course, is much easier said than done. Human nature, not to mention society, encourages us to communicate when something is bothering us. As such, it will be extremely tempting to look to others for support during this difficult time. But rest assured all the venting in the world will not improve-and will probably hinder-your chances of moving up in the rotation. So if at all possible, keep it quiet!

Commit to Traversing the Razor's Edge of Being a Good Teammate

On the surface the idea of being a good teammate would seem relatively simple. After all, teammates share the goals of winning and competing cohesively against a common opponent.

layers on most teams also tend to be friendly off the court as well, as similar interests, backgrounds, and schedules breed closeness and loyalty. But when you're not receiving what you feel is just playing time being a solid teammate is much more complicated than meets the eye.

One of my favorite authors, W. Somerset Maugham, wrote a book titled, The Razor's Edge. Without going into extreme detail, let me just say that the book's protagonist, Larry, chose a path in life that required him to border two very different worlds. The challenge this posed parallels walking on a razor's edge, thus the title of the book.

The idea of moving forward on a thin razor's edge is not dissimilar to what a player must face when dealing with a lack of playing time. It is very difficult for a young athlete to straddle his ultra-strong desire to play and contribute to his team's fortunes with his duty to be a supportive teammate, especially to players who are likely poaching his precious minutes.

My advice in the above case is to take the situation as a challenge, one that is met with the same focus and intensity you exude when competing on the court. Reach down deep and endeavor with everything you have to traverse the razor's edge.

Aspire to be both genuine to yourself in your desire to play and a genuinely supportive teammate to your fellow athletes. Dealing with these conflicting emotions successfully will not only make you a better player and teammate, but ultimately a better person as well.

Always Maintain Your Passion for the Game

Most of us who reached high levels as basketball players began the fascinating journey as fans. I for one rarely missed a televised NBA or college game growing up. (Keep in mind these were in the days before cable TV, so games were broadcast in limited scope compared to today.)

It is of paramount importance that you maintain your love for basketball despite your playing time woes. One way to accomplish this is to continue to be a fan. Watch and enjoy other teams and players perform whenever you can.

When I was playing less than I thought I should during my freshman year in college, I found that watching NBA games regularly not only kept my interest in basketball high, but it also allowed me to learn different techniques and skills that led to my improving on the court.

I still remember as if it were yesterday watching and subsequently emulating NBA guard, Gus Williams, and his court long, full speed dribble drives to the hoop. After a productive summer of working on this aggressive style of attacking the basket, I found myself whipping by opponents with regularity and getting to the rim with relative ease.

This newly acquired skill led to helping me earn a starting job, as our team was in need of a penetrating guard who could make things happen off the dribble. (Thanks Gus!) So regardless of how down you may be about not playing, keep your passion for the game alive and well. You'll be glad you did. I guarantee it!

Help Your Direct Competition as Best You Can

Okay, so you have remained positive through your frustration, implemented your coach's suggestions, worked diligently on your game, kept your playing time travails to yourself, maintained your passion for the game, and cheered your teammates on with gusto. But you are drawing the line at providing improvement oriented insights to your direct competition. It is just too much! Or is it?

Believe it or not, this high road approach, as counter intuitive as it seems at first blush, has many rewards.

First, it will let you contribute meaningfully to your team's success despite the fact that your court time is limited (or perhaps non-existent). After all, who better to help the player in your position than you? I guarantee the sense of satisfaction you gain by being thoroughly involved and useful will be well beyond your wildest expectations.

Second, it will keep you fully engaged in the action on the court, especially on the position you play. Many of us when we're not receiving meaningful minutes tend to zone out and not follow what's happening right in front of us on the floor. The insights you recognize and provide to your teammate(s) can also be used by you when you enter the game, thus helping you become a better player, one who is deserving of more playing time.

Third, it will make you look at the game more as a coach than as a player. This approach is sure to improve your basketball IQ. And should you ever decide to pursue the coaching profession as so many former players do, the experience will prove invaluable.

Finally, don't think for a minute that your coaches won't recognize how you are selflessly helping the team. They will respect you greatly for your efforts and strongly consider you for more minutes over other players who stew in the background when not playing.

Take This Opportunity to Release From Self Absorption

Let's face it, most young athletes (and young people in general) are self absorbed. It's not a criticism but a fact that can be traced back to ancient times. It doesn't help that today social networks such as Facebook and Twitter promote self absorption to the nth degree by encouraging users to post their every move, photograph, and thought.

Part of growing up and evolving as a human being is shedding the self absorbed state. Sitting on the bench for more minutes than you feel you should gives you a great opportunity to begin this process.

Instead of focusing on your own problem, in this case lack of playing time, you can choose to look at the bigger picture, things like team success, other player's plights, and yes even your coach's challenges and stresses (many young athletes and their supporters neglect to realize the tremendous pressure today's basketball coaches are under to win).

Like many of the suggestions in the article, this will not be an easy proposition. Self absorption has a strong grip on most, especially when you're young, athletic, competitive, and used to getting almost everything you want. But getting a head start on breaking the ties of self absorption will ultimately lead to better relationships, more helpful insights throughout life, and a peace of mind you'll never achieve by focusing solely on yourself.

There you have it, eight productive strategies that will help you through the frustrating dilemma of lack of playing time. Implement these ideas to the best of your ability and you'll see your time on the bench become more tolerable, not to mention likely shorter!

Also see: The Role Player

Your kid is complaining about not enough playing time? See this from Doc Rivers: