A few years ago, something great happened during basketball season for one of my sons. He sat the bench.
You may be thinking that such news sounds more like a cause for depression than celebration—and at the beginning of that season, my middle school-aged son would have agreed with you. The truth is, I did not want him to want to sit the bench. I wanted him to try with every ounce of his ability to earn a starting position. But, I do want him to know how to be a leader, even when he finds himself—despite his gut-wrenching effort—sitting on the bench.
The reality of the bench
In most of the sports leagues my son played in prior to middle school, the focus was on teaching the fundamentals of the game and giving everyone an opportunity to play. This philosophy, coupled with the fact that he was consistently one of the better players on his teams at that time, meant that he rarely spent much time on the bench. But in sports, as with other areas of life, age brings greater responsibility, accountability and a strong dose of maturing reality. On athletic teams this means, appropriately, a transition from playing time being given to playing time being earned. It also means simply recognizing that God has gifted some people with superior athletic ability.
My son was really excited as team tryouts were announced, he made the team, practices began and the team moved toward the start of the season. He decided he would get up before school in the morning and run two miles on the treadmill to increase his stamina. But when the team began playing games, he rarely got off the bench, and I began to notice his demeanor as he sat on the sidelines. He seemed disinterested and chatty on the bench. He was only engaged and focused on the rare occasion he was put in the game. When he was on the floor, he was loud and fiery, but when he was on the bench, which was most of the time, he rarely left his seat and his posture was relaxed and slouching.
I heard one parent say about their son, who was in a similar situation, “Well, what do you expect when he is sitting the bench? You have to feel sorry for him working so hard and not getting to play in the games.” I didn’t understand that mentality. I was pleased that my son was experiencing bench warming, because it would provide him with the opportunity to learn how to lead when finds himself out of the spotlight. It’s actually the same thing I expect of him when he is a starter: that he would be a leader who uses every ounce of his ability and effort to glorify Jesus Christ. No, I did not feel one bit sorry for him working so hard and not getting to play. The truth is, my son needed to be a role player on that team; and the truth is, most of us end up being role players in life, not stars—or even starters.
The commitment to leadership
One day after a game, I asked my son, “Why aren’t you being a leader on your team?” He glanced up at me with an incredulous expression. Why would I ask that when I had witnessed him sitting the bench the entire game? So, from that point on we developed a strategy on how to lead from the bench. We sought to answer some basic questions: How can you sit the bench in a way that says, I am as committed to the success of the team here as I would be if I were shooting free throws with the game on the line? How can you sit the bench and positively affect the other players on the bench and the players in the game? How can you sit the bench in a way that honors your coach?
Developing our plan began with an honest evaluation of the situation. I asked him, “Do you know why you are not playing in the games very much?” Then I responded, “It is because you are not good enough right now and do not deserve to play very much on this team. Your coach is trying to play the best players to help the team win the games. And that is okay; you can figure out your role and do everything you can to help the team be the best it can be—which is what each player should do anyway.”
I was pleased to see that my son responded well to this honest call to courage and self-sacrifice for the sake of the greater good of his team. The reminder that the team as a whole was more important than any one player and that my son should fulfill his role for the good of the team even if it was not glamorous triumphed over the selfish individualism that had reared its evil head early in the season.
In fact, he was learning about far more than basketball at that point. My son was learning a lesson about pride, grace, temptation and the wiles of the evil one.
“But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you” (James 4:6-7).
Below, I’ve listed the game plan that my son and I created. Perhaps you’ll have a child who will someday be sitting the bench—or perhaps they already are. If so, great! Seize the opportunity for the glory of Christ. Don’t forget that if you prop up the notion that your child’s wants are more important than the good of the team, then do not be surprised when he someday concludes that his wants are more important than the good of his family, his church and everything else.
The game plan for leading from the bench
“So, whether you eat or drink, [sit the bench], or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31).
- Make sure your posture communicates that you are engaged. Sit on the edge of your seat.
- Be the loudest player on the bench cheering for your team.
- Leap from your seat every time your team scores or gets a turnover.
- Get out of your seat during timeouts and go out on the court and greet the players who are in the game.
- Talk only about the game to your teammates on the bench.
- Listen to everything your coach says when he speaks, looking him in the eye.
- Be the first one to volunteer if your coach needs something done.
- Thank the referees after every game.
- When you do get into the game, remember that you may not be the most talented player out there, but you can be the toughest most self-sacrificial player: dive for every loose ball, bang and play tough and never get out hustled.
- Make the more talented players better by being tough on them in practice: challenge them, bang on them and make them fight for everything they get. Remember your team spends far more time in practice than games and that you get to be a part of that. Games and championships are won in practice, so your role is vital.