View From The Dugout

A College Coach's Perspective

Sit On The Bench? I Don't Think So!

Delaying gratification in competitive sports.

"I want it all and I want it now." Those lyrics have been featured in a recent television credit card commercial but were actually written with some rebellious prescience in the late 1980's by the rock group Queen. They imagesang of a desire to see young people seize the day and march boldly into an unknown future. Little could Freddy Mercury and Co. have known back then that their somewhat innocent assertion would become an unspoken mantra in the new millennium.


The regularity with which coaches are witnessing the "I want it now" impatience of young people with regard to the payoffs of sports has become at best a talking point and at worst a nagging headache that promises ongoing challenges for the foreseeable future.


Patience was once considered a virtue and the notion that "good things come to those that wait" was a folksy truism that validated the ability of young people to postpone rewards and gratification and to equate the ideas of hard work and earning what one gets.


In the modern athletic arena we are dealing with youngsters who have been raised on and geared-up for immediacy; the speed and access of information via the internet; the constant and unfettered contact that comes with cell phones and text messaging; the virtual 24/7 availability of just about any and every conceivable service and resource. Their world is exciting, it's fast-paced and it's always in the now.
The problem is that sports, not unlike the world of work, are geared to a different pace where building up one's abilities and experience and establishing credibility over the course of time are the norm. Unfortunately the idea of starting at the bottom i.e. the substitute's bench, the JV team or the entry level job and working one's way up seem to be alien and even offensive to many young people.

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Colleges have moved to scrap JV sports because students accustomed to being rewarded with playing time and recognition regardless of their level of ability would rather not play if they are not going to be on the best team. They want the status and payoffs associated with being at the top of the tree without necessarily having to climb it and the days of the happy and content JV athlete seem to have gone the way of the dinosaur.


The acquisition of immediate playing time and the prestige and personal validation it provides has become almost as desirable as winning to many athletes and more frequently coaches are being confronted with kids whose actions suggest "I don't mind whether I win or not as long as I'm getting playing time." An exaggeration? Not really.


I recently asked a group of athletes if they would rather play a full game and lose or play ten minutes and win. Predictably they all asserted they would take the victorious ten minute option. While that sounds good imagein theory it is rarely borne out in action and almost any coach will tell of kids who are high-spirited, committed and zealous teammates while they are getting regular playing time but who become sullen, self-interested and disconnected when they are not, even if the team is playing well and winning.


It would be simplistic to suggest that athletes should be happy if they are not playing but the frequency and degree to which some kids and their families are over-reacting is troubling and their responses run the gamut from pouting to quitting the team altogether. If there's nothing in it for them, many would rather take their proverbial ball and go home. For some, sitting on the bench of a collegiate team may be the first time they are confronted with the idea that their sporting rewards will be gradual, conditional and based entirely on merit and performance. In other words you can't have it all and you can't have it now.


As coaches we are presented with the challenge of integrating a generation who want immediate gratification into an environment where slow and steady often wins the race. To us, winning the race is important and the satisfaction of an individual is often a secondary consideration to the greater good of the team and the outcome of the game. However, one can't help but feel that through this collision of values the goalposts of coaching, teaching, managing and yes, even parenting, are moving and we will have to continue to recalibrate our aim in the years to come.

Brian Tompkins is the Head Coach of Men's Soccer at Yale University in New Haven, CT.

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