Seeing the view from the end of the bench with fresh eyes

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It is one of the undeniable truths about sports. Not everybody plays.

When kids first start in youth sports, particularly at the recreation levels, equity is the rule. Splitting playing time, making sure that everybody gets out on to the field or the court or the pitch, it's as standard as orange slices at halftime.

But it doesn't take long before all of that sporting socialism is out the window in favor of competitive teams, travel rosters, school sports and there's simply nothing equitable about any of it.

The most talented kids play. The coaches' kids play. The league president's kid plays. There are starters and benchwarmers, role players and garbage time players. The playing field becomes thoroughly uneven.

And the view from the end of the bench isn't a particularly pleasant one. The kids can feel disappointment, isolation and frustration as they watch while others play. Their parents can experience their own frustration, sometimes taking an understandable urge to advocate for their child and turning it into damaging interactions with coaches, other parents and even their young athletes.

Sports psychologist Sheriece Sadberry said the issue is often about expectations.  

"Parents and athletes believe they have worked hard and are still working hard and they deserve to play," Sadberry said. "There's a lot of 'I deserve this' intertwined in it.

"But really, it's about getting to a place of acceptance of the situation and sometimes that acceptance is really hard to swallow."

So many of us have had this experience with our kids, and it hasn't always lead to our best parenting moments, whether it's the phone call to the coach you aren't sure you should have made, or your kid begging you not to say anything lest it lead to even less playing time. Sometimes we've listened, sometimes we haven't. Sometimes it makes things better and sometimes it really, really doesn't.

It's so much harder to make a conscious effort to gulp back our own feelings while trying to encourage them to continue to work hard, to be positive and to be a good teammate even when they aren't playing a lot.

But I would argue that these are some of the most valuable and important lessons of the sports experience your kids will ever have.

This is, very often, your child's first experience with adversity, at least as it pertains to their experience with sports. It is where they learn that hard work doesn't always come with a reward -- or at least an obvious one. It is where they learn that not everyone is treated the same. That things aren't inherently "fair." Just like in life.

But the lessons only stick if we believe them, too. The definition of success only expands for our kids if we expand our own definition.

As a parent, you can step back from viewing this experience for your child as an investment and focus on what other things your child can get from being an athlete.
Sheriece Sadberry

"How a parent reacts can bleed over to their child," Sadberry said. "Parents can make it better for a child. Or they can make it worse. And it's hard when they don't get what they expect in return for what they've put in.

"But as a parent, you can step back from viewing this experience for your child as an investment and focus on what other things your child can get from being an athlete, the benefits for playing a role, being part of a team dynamic, helping the team even if you aren't a starter or a star. It's worth asking, what's the big picture as they get older and grown and develop?"

The big picture can often take a while to reveal itself.

Five years ago, I was embedded for a season with the Stanford women's basketball team to chronicle their season. Toward the end of the year, as the Cardinal were preparing to make another run to the Women's Final Four, I wrote a feature about one of Stanford's bench players, Grace Mashore, a senior guard who was well-loved by her teammates and had barely seen the floor in a meaningful game in four years. She was a regular on the scout team during practice and a spectator in a uniform for the majority of her collegiate games.

She was honest but guarded about her disappointment. She tried to be philosophical about the benefit of the experience of being on the team, but the regret in her voice wasn't hard to hear. Her parents also talked about how difficult it was to see her struggle with her lack of playing time, but how they also thought she'd learned valuable lessons from the experience that would serve her well in life.

More than a year after that piece ran, I ran into her at another event. She pulled me aside to tell me how that the piece changed how she viewed her experience as a college athlete. She no longer defined it by what she didn't get to experience; she found a deeper appreciation for the opportunity to be a collegiate athlete and the relationships and friendships she built. She thanked me for telling her story.

It was a lovely moment, and a wonderful compliment. But the realization and the perspective was all hers.

The lessons were hard, the value not obvious until later. But it showed up eventually. Just like in life.

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