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life of a substitute

something that hardly ever gets covered within sporting communities is how to navigate a life on the bench. it's one of the most brutal positions to be in as a player, but how you navigate it quite often determines the cohesiveness within a team. so how do you go about being a substitute? what's important for coaches and players alike to know about navigating a crucial but often neglected part of competitive sports?

please note these experiences are written specifically about soccer as i think all sports have their own unique challenges with substitutes.

let's go over some basic rules for soccer - 11 players start and quite often there's five players on the bench, one of those being a keeper which leaves four field players. during the game, a coach is able to make a total of five subs, but through 3 separate substitutions. so what's the likelihood of being subbed on? chances are higher for strikers, wingers, and full backs, sometimes even for midfielders. but central defenders and goalkeepers rarely get subbed on unless one of the starting players gets injured. why is any of this important? because it's important to understand the psychology that goes behind being a bench player. in other sporting codes, like aussie rules football, the bench is interchange meaning all players get used somewhat equally. everyone will come off at some point and everyone will play. in soccer however, it's not uncommon for multiple subs to not play. again, why does this matter? and how does it affect culture?

in aussie rules football, i've heard very good things about the culture. girls seem to get around each other in trainings and games. and i've often wondered why? i think a lot of it comes down to the way in which substitutes are used. in aussie rules football, even if you start on the bench, you still get an opportunity to contribute. you still get to play. you're still viewed as an equal. in soccer however, you might not get that opportunity. so how do you support a teammate who is playing your position, essentially preventing you from doing what you want to do - to play? i think this explains why in a lot of soccer teams i've been a part of, bitchiness and cattiness results. because it's hard to feel a part of a team that you're not actively playing in. it's also important to note that this is a different psychological challenge from that of being injured - being injured means there's no chance of you playing. when you're fit and healthy but aren't chosen that means accepting the potential reality that you aren't good enough (yet or in the coach's eyes). it feels like rejection.

so how do you navigate this, especially if it's your reality every week?

i think one of the most important things is to be honest with yourself. be honest with where you sit in the pecking order of the team. i think quite often a lot of our frustrations come from being disillusioned about our abilities in comparison to others. i think it's also important to look at the players playing your position and ask why are they playing ahead of you? again, be honest here. don't just put it down to the coach having favourites, which occasionally has its merits. but look at what do these players do well? what do they have that i don't? is there any way that i can develop these skills? sometimes the reason you're not playing isn't because you're not good enough, but because the two people ahead of you are more experienced than you, or have potentially had more opportunity to prove themselves than you. although frustrating, sometimes it just isn't your time on that team. luck plays a MASSIVE role in whether you get an opportunity. and that's something you can't control, but it is something you can make sure you are prepared for when you do eventually get an opportunity.

so how do you prepare as a sub? how do you prepare yourself mentally? physically? emotionally? mentally it's challenging. because you need to get yourself up and ready as though you are going to play, especially because things happen - players get injured in warm up, players wake up sick, players et sent off, cars break down. life happens. but the problem with getting yourself amped up is the disappointment that follows when/if you don't get to play. this is a reality you have to prepare for. you have to acknowledge, every game, that there's a very real possibility you might not play. but i don't think you can assume this is the case. preparing in this way means you might not be psychologically prepared when/if you get an opportunity to play.

in regards to physical preparations, this is hard. i think one of the worst thing coaches get players to do is run after a game in which they haven't played in. why? because they've already had to sit through an entire game, not playing, they then are almost being doubly punished by having to run after the game. i don't know about other players, but i don't play soccer to run. and having to run to make up for not playing is the cruellest form of 'punishment'. as a coach, can you organise for these players, instead, to play a mini game? a conditioning game, during training? this way they're still feeling a part of the team, rather than being isolated by doing extra after a game. also see if there's an opportunity for these players to play for a reserves side or something alike so they're still maintaining match fitness - something that no amount of running can make up for.

but probably one of the hardest things to adjust to as a substitute is knowing how to fuel yourself. realistically, you have to fuel yourself as though you were going to play 90minutes. but what do you do with all of those extra calories when/if you don't play? how do you psychologically navigate that? i think this is why coaches make players run after a game rather than on a separate day. but i don't know if that is the best solution. admittedly this is something i'm still trying to navigate myself - to let go of being able to control consuming excess calories i haven't been able to burn off. i'm not entirely sure how this would contribute to weight gain, if it would, but it's something i know i've been concerned about as i know others have too.

what's important for a coach to do when handling substitutes? honesty. honesty above all else. how likely is it for a player to play? finding a way to communicate this to a player without destroying their hope, but also not giving them false hope is a skill. telling players to 'keep doing what they're doing' isn't helpful nor honest. telling a player 'your opportunity will come when/if one of the centrebacks gets injured' is frustrating, but it's honest. a player is more likely to be able to accept their situation knowing where they stand. it's when players are given false hope, when players are told 'the team will be chosen based on training' but players who miss training still start, that's what causes frustration within a team. because the reality is, most coaches are choosing their 11 based on previous performances. if a player hasn't done anything 'wrong' in a game, they're probably still going to start. how though, can you keep these substitutes motivated when the reality is no matter how hard they work, it's not going to change their playing situation? this, i think, is an art.

an art that partly comes down to the management and how coaches communicate with their players. an art that comes down to the team culture and how they make these substitutes still feel valued and a part of the team. how these players are communicated to and with from their peers. but it also comes down to an individual. how well can an individual accept their situation? how well can they still support the team, even if they're not actively contributing? i think this is what separates an average teammate from an excellent one.

it is IMPERATIVE from a coaching perspective to prioritise their substitutes. just because they aren't in your starting 11, how are you developing them? how are you making them better? how are you involving them in the team? are you acknowledging their role? their positivity? because when players do everything 'right' but are still overlooked, that's when they get frustrated. when starting players 'abuse' their position of being a starter, whether that's by attendance, commitment, or effort, that's when substitutes get frustrated. it's human to get upset when people putting in less, get more, when you're putting in more and getting less (adam's theory of equity).

bench players are the most important players on a team. they determine your culture. but in order to have 'happy' substitutes, you have to nurture them. you have to value them. and you have to be honest with them. that's not just the coaches, that's the other players too.

so how do you decide whether to stay and work harder or leave to play somewhere else? that's the million dollar question. how you go about answering this depends on many factors - e.g. where you are in your playing career, what you're wanting to get out of your playing career, and what's important to you. for me, if i'm learning in an environment, if i feel valued in an environment, if the players around me are better than me, if i see a potential opportunity in the future, and if there's logic to the coach's choices, i'll probably stay even if i might not be getting played. but if the aforementioned aren't fulfilled, i'm more than likely looking elsewhere where i am valued, appreciated, respected and challenged.

the final thought i have, as i currently find myself riding the bench, is that this isn't a novel experience for a soccer player; it's almost guaranteed. every team, in every country, has substitutes. and some of the best players in the world currently find themselves occupying the space next to their coach. so before making a hasty decision to leave, remember players all over the world navigate this experience too - no one, no matter how good, is immune to accepting a role as a substitute.

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