Hockey: How to Make an Impact From the Bench

It's easy to stay motivated when you're a starter, but maintaining your skill level and attitude while you're riding the bench can be a challenge for players and coaches.

Here are tips--for hockey coaches, parents and players--on how to prepare bench players mentally and physically to stay sharp and make meaningful contributions to the team.

Challenge Facing Bench Players

Dr. Deidre Connelly, sports psychology at the College of William & May, states, "There are special challenges for athletes who are non-starters that involve finding ways to believe in themselves, stay motivated and enjoy their sport even when they are not getting the playing time they would like to have."

"There are challenges for coaches in these situations that involve helping these athletes accept their roles as players with limited or no playing time while still believing in themselves and striving to improve."

I will attempt to identify specific strategies for coaches, athletes and parents to examine relating to the issues of a 4th liner.

Coaches' Approach

  1. A coach must communicate with their 4th liner with regards to the tangible and intangible contributions they make to the team. Dr. Connelly noted "the athlete who is most productive in the bench warmer situation is the one who has a good understanding of the coach's expectations for him/her and is able to accept that role." Sometimes it may be difficult to qualify the exact contribution that the athlete makes. The coach should communicate to the 4th liner intangible ways their presence enhances the team's potential for success. Such as being a role model of hard work and determination, always having a positive attitude, a model for the other athletes on how to face adversity.
  2. The coach must talk openly and honestly to the 4th-liner regarding playing time. These conversations are extremely difficult to have with your athlete, especially the 4th-liner, but not talking about the situation leads to many negative feelings and misunderstandings. The coach must meet the issue of playing time and roles with the team head-on so that all players understand their roles, know their responsibilities and accept their role.
  3. Utilize long-range goals to help motivate. It is crucial to the individual that is not getting a lot of playing time that they need to continue to work on improving their skills to be ready when they are called upon to play regular due to injuries, sickness, discipline problems, etc. Most athletes cannot think that far ahead, the present is important to them. Therefore, the coach must help them look long-term, present a vision to them and help them to be patient. The coach may need to reinforce their dedication and persistence frequently while at the same time helping them realize their value to the program. Each athlete should strive to improve their overall ability. Roles can change as players change.
  4. The value of participation. Emphasize the many worthwhile aspects of participation that are not tied into playing time, scoring goals or killing penalties.

Athletes' Approach

  1. Realize the additional work and commitment of a 4th-liner. 4th-liners often have to work harder than the other players to be motivated and feel good about themselves. You are going to need a deep passion for hockey to see you through the tough times of not getting a lot of playing time. It is important that you strive to improve, set some short range goals for yourself and enjoy the experience.
  2. Building your own self-esteem. Feeling good about yourself and having a good self-esteem is more important than a coach's confidence in you. Work hard to maintain your own self-esteem vs. being dependent on other's confidence in your abilities. Learn what you need to feel good about the role you play on the team and accept the challenge with pride and enthusiasm. Examine what sacrifices will have to be made, and are you realistically willing to do what it takes to accept your role.
  3. Only concern yourself with situations you can control and do not worry about the situations you can't control. Accept and respect the coach's decisions and try not to make them personnel. Dr. Connelly points out that "judgment about your relative athlete skills is not a judgment about your relative worth as a person."
  4. Keep the lines of communication open with your coach. It is difficult to communicate with your coach when you are not getting a lot of playing time and you feel you are not being given a fair chance. Remind yourself you are a part of the team, you are not there because someone feels sorry for you. You are a value to the team, which is not just tied to the amount of minutes played in a game or the number of goals you score.
  5. Be ready to play at any time. On the hockey bench maintain a positive image, be excited about the game and always be ready to play when given the chance. Even if the chances of playing are slim. When given the call to take the ice, concentrate on your role, do the things you do well, make the most of your time no matter how brief and do not play with a "chip on your shoulder". Do not concentrate on not making mistakes, focus on your task and stay relaxed. Remind yourself to make the most of this opportunity; put forth an effort which will improve on your last shift.

Parents' Approach

  1. Stress the value of all roles on the team. Show your interest in the process of being an athlete not just the outcome.
  2. Keep the lines of communication open with your child. Allow him/her to express their feelings, role and responsibilities on being a 4th-liner. Be a good listener. Always offer positive aspects of their situation.
  3. Resist the temptation to criticize the coach. Help your child through the process of accepting their role on the team and to maintain their trust in the coach's decision. Seek feedback from the coach regarding your child's role and how you can assist in the process.
  4. Respect your child's feelings. Do not discourage your child's feelings of being angry, hurt, embarrassed or bitter about being a 4th-liner, but maintain a healthy outlook on the situation. Assist your child in seeing the intangible value in his/her role.

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