There are no small parts — only small actors!
This phrase has been uttered countless times when it comes to acting, but it also applies beautifully to your team. You could easily say there are no small roles, only small athletes.
A car is made up of many parts, from the chassis to the motor to the tires to the lug nuts. Even though some may appear more important than others, each component of a car plays a vital part to its’ operation. An expensive luxury car doesn’t get very far if the $5 spark plug isn’t working properly.
In a similar way, all team members are important. Though some team members may get more attention than others, everyone has a vital role to play. As coach, it’s your job to figure out how to use the strengths and weaknesses of each team member so the team can perform at a high level.
It’s not enough to pay attention to your top athletes if you want to maximize your team’s potential. You must learn how to keep your reserves motivated, as well. You must help them become stars … stars in their role!
Though you may not be selling used cars, insurance, or appliances, you are all salespeople. You are always trying to sell your athletes on something. You might be selling them on touching the lines during sprints, sitting in the first three rows of class, or knowing the scouting report for an upcoming game. You’re always trying to get your athletes to buy what you’re selling when it comes to sacrificing for the team and accepting their role.
As world championship basketball coach and NBA executive Pat Riley says, “The key to teamwork is to learn a role, accept that role, and strive to become excellent at playing it.”
Here are 8 ways to get your athletes to buy into a backup role …
- Clearly communicate their role
- Show you care about their role
- Provide hope about their next role
- Help each athlete succeed
- Connect with your backups
- Reward great teammates
- Equip them
- Include parents in the process
Even though an athlete might be sitting at the end of the bench next to the water cooler and athletic trainer, they are still a valuable member of the team and impact the team both positively and negatively.
Clearly communicate their role
You can’t assume they know what we’re thinking or how to be a backup. It doesn’t matter if they’ve always been a backup or if they seem to be okay with their role on the team. You need to communicate your thoughts and expectations in a way that is clear to them, not just to us.
Be patient and explain it multiple times in different ways. This is crucial to the success of the team. A disgruntled athlete can destroy a team. Healthy communication is also a two-way street — give them an opportunity to ask questions.
When you buy an expensive item at a store, you might ask the salesman a number of questions. You might want to understand the product better or just feel better about your investment. Our athletes are no different. Just because you’re selling something doesn’t mean they’ll buy it. You need to take a little extra time and effort so that they feel good about their “purchase”.
Show you care about their role
We all know the saying:
“People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
It’s not that you care for your athletes, but rather that they KNOW you care about them. They need to perceive that you care. Your body language, tone, and words you communicate with should demonstrate your care for them.
Be empathetic to their feelings and situation. Even though it might be a business decision when you do what’s best for the team, the athlete will fight feelings of being unimportant. They might not feel valued. They might attach the athletic setback to their identity as a person.
You make so many decisions on a daily basis that you sometimes get desensitized to the feelings and emotions your choices may have on others. They need to know you care about them.
Provide hope about their next role
Helen Keller used to say, “The only thing worse than being blind is having sight and no vision.” People get discouraged and negative when they don’t have hope. When it seems like things don’t matter, people start to lose interest.
As a leader, you are a dealer of hope. Leaders provide a vision of what can be.
As coach, you give your athletes something to look forward to. Whether it’s achieving an individual or team goal, you help them see what the future can bring. Paint the picture for them of what could be accomplished and how you can walk alongside them during this process.
When you provide them a vision, you provide them with hope. When they have hope, they often stay interested, positive, and engaged.
Help each athlete succeed
Success looks differently for all people, but every athlete has goals. Every athlete can improve. Every athlete can experience positive outcomes. It’s up to us to help our athletes feel a sense of accomplishment even when they’re in a backup role.
You need to know their individual and team goals so you can help them achieve those. You need to look for ways to set them up for success. It might take a little extra work on your part, but it’s worth it.
In the 5 Levels of Leadership, John C. Maxwell talks about a leader as being someone that gets things done. Your athletes will follow you when they believe you can produce results and positive outcomes.
Connect with your backups
When you have difficult conversations or make tough decisions, it’s imperative that you have strong bonds. The more your athletes trust you, the more likely they’ll embrace the role you’re asking them to play.
Building trust is a proactive process. In the same way, you shouldn’t wait to fix your roof when it’s raining or build a water well when you’re thirsty, you need to build trust before you need it. Make deposits in your athlete’s emotional bank account before you need to make a withdrawal.
When you ask them to perform a role that is uncomfortable or not glamorous, you’ll need them to trust us. If you haven’t connected with them, you’ll have no trust.
Building a strong connection with your athletes is a never-ending process. Just because you knew them last week, last month, or last year doesn’t mean you know them now. You have to constantly connect with them so that you understand each other now.
Reward great teammates
Junior College Hall of Fame basketball coach Denny Lehnus used to say, “What you do is what you believe, everything else is just talk.” You get what you reward or reinforce, not necessarily what you say.
When you talk about the value of teamwork and the importance of each role on the team, you need to back that up with action. You need to reinforce the value they bring to the team.
You need to reward the athletes who maintain a good attitude when sacrificing for the good of the team. It doesn’t need to be something huge, but you do need to toss your athletes a bone, so to speak.
Awarding them the game ball, giving them extra playing time, letting them pick the music at practice, letting them select the restaurant to eat at after a game, or sending them out to do an interview with a reporter are just a few of the ways that you can reward them for embracing their role.
You can’t expect your athletes to always make sacrifices out of the goodness of their hearts. That only goes so far. Even something as small as pointing out their value on a radio interview, in front of their teammates in the locker room, or mentioning their contributions to a reporter can make the athlete feel better about their role.
Most athletes think they can only be helpful to a team when they are competing. You need to train them how they can be great teammates and positive leaders even when they are on the bench. They should clearly understand your expectations but also realize the value they bring even when they aren’t competing.
They can positively influence their teammates regardless of their role. However, a young athlete won’t understand this at first. Show them how they can encourage their teammates, provide a good example to their teammates, and be ready when their opportunity comes. Backups often think they aren’t valuable or needed. This is natural — fans (and oftentimes, coaches) place the most importance on the leading scorer, starter, or award-recipient.
Give them the necessary tools to do their job right. Train them and equip them to successfully execute their role. Provide opportunities and equip them to be prepared in whatever role they are asked to play. You can’t just assume they know how to be a backup or take on a lesser role.
Include parents in the process
You don’t always like talking with parents, especially when it comes to their child’s role on the team. However, whether you like it or not, parents are a part of your program. Embrace this reality and make the best of it.
When you avoid discussing certain things, you create a void. This void will never be filled with positivity. Parents rarely give you the benefit of the doubt when you avoid conversations about their child. When you communicate with them, you get the opportunity to proactively explain the situation.
Even if your athlete understands and embraces their role as a backup, the parent may not, which can lead to all kinds of issues. You shouldn’t be afraid to ask a parent for their help or even a suggestion as to how to best motivate and coach their child.
You should be patient and understanding when they express disapproval at their child’s role. Be prepared to calmly address the situation. Be ready to talk about a plan as to how their child can improve and develop as both a person and athlete.
Just like having a strong connection is crucial to a coach-athlete relationship, building trust with a parent is just as valuable. A tough conversation requires a strong bond.
You’re in this together
Phil Jackson, who won 11 NBA Championships as a head coach, liked to say, “The strength of the team is each individual member. The strength of each member is the team.”
The best teams are not always made up of the best talent but the right talent. As coaches, you need to find the right pieces that fit into the puzzle. Not only do you need to get the right people on the bus, as Jim Collins says in his book Good-to-Great, but you need to get them in the right seats.
Sometimes, this means making difficult decisions about who starts and who has a backup role. Each individual is important to the team. Each team member plays a valuable part in the program. You can’t maximize the team’s potential unless you come together with a shared and common purpose. You win together. You lose together. You celebrate successes together. You overcome challenges together.
It’s your responsibility to help your athletes understand, embrace, and excel in their role.
Jamy Bechler is the author of four books including The Captain and The Bus Trip, host of the Success is a Choice Podcast, professional speaker, and trains organizations on creating championship cultures. He previously spent 20 years as a college basketball coach and administrator. The Leadership Playbook is Bechler’s online program that helps athletes become better teammates and more positive leaders while strengthening culture. As a certified John Maxwell leadership coach, Bechler has worked with businesses and teams, including the NBA. Follow him on Twitter at @CoachBechler. To connect via email or find out about his services, contact speaking@CoachBechler.com. Subscribe to his insights on success and leadership by clicking here.