Second-String Stars

Getting the most out of your bench players means communicating with them, challenging them, and preparing them to make an impact on a moment’s notice.

By Kenny Berkowitz

Kenny Berkowitz is an Assistant Editor at Coaching Management.

Coaching Management, 13.5, April 2005,

Down two games to one against the University of Southern California, the University of Washington Huskies found themselves trapped in a rotation. Losing points rapidly and unable to sideout, Head Coach Jim McLaughlin sent in substitute middle blocker Egan Metcalf.

"We knew we were stuck," says McLaughlin. "I told Egan, ‘This is what we need done, and I know you can do it because we’ve rehearsed it over and over in practice.’ She went in, immediately got a couple of kills, and bang! We’re on our feet again."

Washington went on to win the Sept. 25 match in five games, continuing its undefeated season and propelling the team to a No. 1 ranking in the nation 10 days later. "Egan hadn’t played much, but she’d had some really good practices," says McLaughlin. "Our subs are prepared to enter the game at any time by the way they train. We teach them how to move, what to look for, and how to be ready."

Metcalf made a dozen more appearances in the Huskies’ run to the NCAA Division I Final Four, and even though she never matched the impact she’d had against USC, the team’s lesson was a powerful one: Subs always have to be ready to come off the bench and immediately start playing at the top of their game.

"Having depth on your bench and knowing how to use it is a huge factor in winning a championship," says McLaughlin. "If you’re going to preach the importance of teamwork, you have to work with players who are going to contribute at different times in different ways."

Roles & Goals
Working effectively with bench players means keeping them in your plans in various ways—and letting them know that you are. This requires open lines of communication: talking about your subbing philosophy with players and their parents, demonstrating your commitment to each of your student-athletes on a regular basis, and letting them know what you expect of them.

Jim Boos, Head Coach at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, addresses playing time before players even join the team. "When you’re recruiting, it’s important to find kids who have the philosophy that you preach in your program," says Boos. "If you bring in an athlete whose first and foremost thought is, ‘I have to play,’ but she’s not going to play until her third year, then you’re going to have a very unhappy person sitting on your bench. That’s not good for your team and that’s not good for the kid."

Boos explains to his recruits that even as sophomores, they may not make the team’s starting six, and may be asked to sub for a number of different positions during a season. "Your subbing philosophy has to directly connect to your recruiting philosophy," says Boos. "Are you bringing in a 5’10" middle who can play all the way around? Or are you bringing in a 6’2" middle who may have to come out when she reaches the back row? It’s about being honest and making sure the prospect has a clear understanding of your expectations."

Once athletes arrive on campus, the honesty continues with a clear explanation of your goals for each player. At Williams College, Head Coach Fran Vandermeer begins the preseason by meeting individually with each player to identify reasonable, attainable expectations. For her stars, the conversations revolve around kills, digs, and how they’d like to improve their on-court performance. For her bench players, the goals are equally clear, but the dialogue is more often about the spirit that everyone needs to bring to the team.

"Whether they’re All-Americans or they played 12 games last season, we expect the same work ethic and the same level of commitment from everyone, and those expectations are clearly communicated before the season starts," says Vandermeer. "We’ve got an expression: ‘If you’re not giving, then you must be taking. There is no neutral.’ If you’re moping around practice and not working as hard as everyone else, you’re taking energy away from the program.

"Our bench players buy into that concept," continues Vandermeer. "They know that our team’s success hinges on them, and even if they’re not getting a lot of playing time, they need to come to practice with positive energy. And they need to use that positive energy to practice the skills that will improve their opportunities to help the team."

Hand in hand with goals is talking about players’ specific roles on the team. "Everybody in our program has a role, and as head coach, my job is to clearly define that role so each player understands exactly what’s expected of her," says Jenny McDowell, Head Coach at Emory University. "That may be starting, or it may be serving the lights out of the ball in practice to prepare our primary passers. It may be leading the team in the weight room. The key is to give each player a role, so that everyone views themselves as critical to the success of the team."

At Hebron (Texas) High School, Head Coach Karin Keeney also believes that talking about everyone’s roles honestly is the best policy—even when they’re teenagers, and even when it makes them cry. "As a coach, your job is to be brutally honest with your bench players," says Keeney, whose 2004 team won the school’s first state championship. "Sometimes it’s hard, and sometimes there are tears. But I don’t think that kids want to be pumped full of lies, even at the high school level. They’re smart. If you’re just blowing smoke at them, they know.

"It’s not a conversation that I look forward to," she continues. "But if you can clearly communicate your expectations to them, the ones who stay around will accept their roles. And once they understand their roles, they’re so much happier. It’s like you’ve taken a weight off their shoulders."

Keeney keeps her roster small, usually around 10 athletes, and by the time she’s chosen her starting six, her substitutes all know their place on the team. "At the beginning of the season, I’ve sat down with players and told them, ‘I see you as third behind so-and-so,’" explains Keeney. "Because if that’s the truth, that’s what they need to know. I want to be really honest about where I see them, but I also tell them, ‘This isn’t etched in stone. If you improve your skill at such-and-such, your place could change. It’s entirely up to you.’"

At Washington, McLaughlin also lets his players know where they place in the order, but he insists that they commit themselves to changing that order. "We tell our bench players that the best way to help the team is to improve individually," says McLaughlin. "We say, ‘You have to be ready at all times, you’ve got to manage your game, you’ve got to improve. You’ve got to be connected—not just emotionally or physically, but intellectually. You’ve got to be mindful in everything you do to improve your game, and you’ve got to take the individual responsibility that comes along with it. And if you’re doing it right, it becomes a powerful thing, and the whole team benefits collectively from your effort.’"

The key to getting players to embrace their roles and continue to work hard is keeping communication strong. "As coaches, the most important thing we can do is to develop individual relationships with our athletes, whether they’re bench players or stars," says Mika Robinson, Head Coach at Buchholz (Fla.) High School. "That way, the lines of communication are always open, and if an athlete feels she’s not being appreciated, she’s able to talk to you about it."

At Williams, Vandermeer and her assistants make sure they find time to talk to their athletes every day. "Our coaching staff makes a point to check in with our athletes as people, not just as volleyball players," says Vandermeer. "A lot of times, if we’re in the middle of a run towards a title, there’s a tendency to get too volleyball-oriented. So before the start of every practice, each athlete takes a minute to tell us about what her day has been like outside volleyball.

"It may sound small," continues Vandermeer, "but that’s one of the ways we make sure all our athletes feel important, even the ones who aren’t reaching the court. They see that we care as much about them as we do about the players who are putting up the big numbers. Every year, we get feedback that it’s really made them feel like an important part of the team."

Assessing Progress
Along with all the talk, successful coaches continually assess the progress of their bench players, ideally giving them criteria to measure their improvement. At Washington, McLaughlin compiles each athlete’s statistics into a single figure, updating the numbers after every practice and awarding his players a computer-generated score from one to 100. He uses the scores to create a plan for each athlete at the beginning of the season, and to talk about how she can improve from one day to the next.

"People here compete every day and there’s something very healthy about that," says McLaughlin. "I tell my players, ‘It’s up to you. I’m going to put the best players out there at each position, and I’m going to measure progress every day. Every hit and every serve is going to be recorded, and at the end of the day we’ll all know where you are.’"

Like McLaughlin, Boos keeps stats during practices, and uses them to focus his second team on improving the skills they need to get playing time. "I want to clearly communicate what the starting player is doing better and how the bench player needs to improve if she’s going to get that starting position," says Boos. "To stay motivated, she needs to know what to work on, and she needs to feel you’re giving her every opportunity to improve."

Boos also puts his starters and non-starters in head-to-head competition during practice. "When I’m running a wash drill, I make sure to have that non-starting outside hitter go up against the starter," says Boos. "We play a game to three, and if the outside hitter on one side gets a kill, then the outside hitter on the other side has to get a kill. If she doesn’t, it’s a point for the other team. The drill gets everyone on the court to rally around their outside hitter, working together to get her the win, but ultimately, those two outside hitters are competing, and that’s the score I’m keeping."

However, McLaughlin does not have his starting six compete in practice against the bench players. "I’ve heard coaches at clinics say, ‘Your players have to get used to the people next to them,’" says McLaughlin. "That’s a bunch of baloney. They’re got to learn how to play the game. Very rarely do we have the starters together on one side. We’re keeping track of points and stats, and we’re measuring progress every day. We’re working on our mechanics, the systems, and understanding the demands of those systems. Across the board, everybody understands how they can make this team work at a higher level."

Vandermeer also rarely combines the first team during practice. "We’re willing to sacrifice a little gelling among the starting six to make the whole team stronger," she says. "It provides a more competitive atmosphere for everyone and helps our younger athletes improve. It doesn’t matter that our best player is standing next to our number 12 player. What matters is that they have a job to do together, and whether or not they’re used to playing together day in and day out, they need to communicate. And whether or not the play was successful, they need to connect with each other."

Preparing for Pressure
Along with assessing progress and keeping all players in sync with each other, coaches spend practice time simulating going from bench to court. In some team drills, Boos brings his bench players to the sidelines for 10 or 15 minutes before sending them back onto the court, giving them the experience of having to play cold, which prepares both the athletes going in and the athletes already on the court.

"For the subs, it simulates the pressure they’re going to feel in a real game," says Boos. "For the players on the court, it’s a chance to rally behind these athletes who are just coming off the bench. And for the coach, it’s a chance to see how your team responds to the situation. Are starters encouraging the sub? Are they keeping her involved? Are they stepping up their game to help her, or are they pointing their fingers?

"Building that team chemistry is more important than focusing on any one individual," continues Boos. "If you can get the members of the team to support each other, it really doesn’t matter who you bring in from the bench. What matters is how your team responds to uncertainty and how well you’ve prepared them to face the unexpected."

McDowell also likes to use practice time to prepare her bench athletes to play well under pressure. "If you’re going to send a sub into a game to serve on match point, you’ve got to make sure she’s done it in practice," says McDowell. "I make our practices feel as game-like as I can, so if I’m sending in a new server at 28-28, I’m going to have an assistant coach blow the whistle, I’m going to shout out the sub’s name, and I’m going to make sure I speak to her the same way I would if she were entering a real game: ‘This is a critical time, and we need you to perform.’

"As a coach, you can’t wait until the conference championship to put pressure on your bench," continues McDowell. "You’ve got to keep looking forward and preparing your bench as early as you can. You have to be able to look into the future and predict what you’re going to need at the end of the season."

Playing Their Parts
During a game, Boos will make a substitution if one of his student-athletes is struggling on the court, if a player has lost her cool, if he’s found a hole in his opponent’s defense, or if he just needs to shift the momentum. But even bench players who don’t get put into the game still have important roles to play.

"We have bench athletes keeping statistics, not only because it gives us feedback during the match, but also because it keeps them involved in what’s happening on the court," says Boos. "We chart each pass, each serve, each hit, each reception. We chart points per rotation, so we know our strengths and weaknesses. It’s another opportunity for our bench athletes to learn about the game and to understand why we do everything we do.

"We also put the bench in charge of cheering, making sure that the team energy on the floor doesn’t start to dwindle," continues Boos. "This year, I think we had the loudest bench in the world, and it made a huge difference in motivating the team. As soon as the bench started cheering, it was like turning on a switch. It was actually part of a conscious choice we’d made to recruit some high-energy athletes after last season."

To foster their leadership, Boos lets his bench athletes come up with the cheers themselves, with only three simple rules: Keep the cheers lively, positive, and focused on your own team. Other than that, he gives his athletes free rein, and they keep coming up with new cheers over the course of the season, borrowing chants from opponents, and tailoring them to fit their teammates’ personalities.

Along with developing their cheers, Boos expects his substitutes to continually scout the opposing team, and during timeouts, he steps aside for the first 30 seconds to allow his bench players to help coach the athletes on the floor. "We want the bench athletes to feel like they’re part of our success and that they’re using their knowledge to contribute to the win," says Boos. "So we tell them, ‘This is the time to give some feedback about what you’ve been seeing from the bench.’

"As a coach, I might give those players the same information," continues Boos. "But coming from their peers, it means more. When that peer is telling them, ‘You’ve got to be out there to set that block,’ it makes a real impression. And if I have to bring in that bench player, I know she’s been watching the game very, very closely."

At Emory, McDowell uses a similar approach, assigning her bench players to watch individual players on the opposing team and pass on their observations during timeouts. "Our middles watch their middles, and our outside hitters watch theirs," says McDowell. "As coaches, we can see the big picture, but we can’t possibly watch every single position on every single play. So I trust our bench to find weaknesses on the other side, analyze the situation, and use that information to help coach their teammates."

Recognizing Effort
By the end of the season, when your first team wins, your second team wins too, and at Hebron High School, Keeney makes sure to publicly thank the bench players for their efforts, whether or not they ever make it to the court. "Everyone contributes, and everyone gets recognized," says Keeney. "Last year, I had three seniors on the bench, and they were the hardest workers on the whole team. Everyone on the bench contributed in some way, whether it was in the weight room, on the track, or on the sidelines. And at our banquet, I made a big deal about them, talking about how important they were in getting us to the state tournament."

Robinson does the same. "I try hard to recognize our bench players’ contributions, especially when they’re doing things that the starters don’t tend to notice, even if it’s as simple as hustling in a practice drill," she says. "Giving them recognition in front of their teammates is an important part of helping them feel appreciated. And it’s interesting, because usually when I do that, the starters add their own recognition. So the bench players get positive feedback not just from me but from their teammates as well.

"The key to using bench players wisely is to keep up their sense of confidence, even in the seasons where they’re not going to see a lot of playing time," continues Robinson. "Keep recognizing the things that they do well, keep recognizing their improvements, and make sure they understand exactly what they’re working toward."

Talking to a bench player’s parents can be one of the hardest parts of being a high school coach. At Buchholz (Fla.) High School, when parents raise questions about playing time, Head Coach Mika Robinson always invites their daughter to join the conversation. Even though Robinson has clearly communicated her expectations to each of her athletes, she’s learned that her players don’t always bring that information home.

"A lot of the time, a parent isn’t getting the true picture of what’s going on in practice until the three of you sit down together," says Robinson. "The player knows why she’s not playing and how she needs to improve, because I’ve told her. So when we all sit down, it’s usually pretty enlightening.

"Whether they’re happy with their daughter is another story," continues Robinson. "But after talking with me, they know I’m trying to help. By the end of the conversation everybody is on the same page, and the parents walk away feeling a lot better about the situation."

If there’s a particular athlete who needs some extra encouragement, Robinson may initiate a conversation. "I may ask the parents to give her a hand," she says. "If I want her to keep working hard and not get discouraged, I may say, ‘I know your daughter isn’t getting a lot of playing time right now, but I want you to keep encouraging her, because she’s right on the verge.’"