Athletes benched but not beaten

May 31, 2005, midnight | By Emily-Kate Hannapel | 16 years, 11 months ago

Warming the bench can be the toughest position for dedicated athletes working to improve

Freshman Ly Li has been there every time. She has run every lap, struggled through every drill, gritted her teeth through every sprint. With each win, she feels the joy of victory, and with each loss, the sting of defeat. And on April 29, as the girls lacrosse team took the field, Li was where she has always been: on the bench.

Michael Horne, the coach of the team, says 16 or 17 of the girls are in the general rotation, leaving nine or ten girls, including Li, sitting on the bench. Li says she "is a part of the team in every way," except she has never made it onto the field.

Yet according to Dr. Alan Goldberg, a leading sports psychologist and author of "Sports Slump Busting," this role shouldn't be underestimated. In a phone interview on May 11, he says that riding the bench is the "hardest position to play" and that it takes incredible strength and courage to stand on the sidelines game after game. This is the reality for dozens of Blair athletes, and many, like Li, tackle the challenge with dedication and optimism.

No minutes a game

Still, riding the bench can be discouraging for student athletes. Sitting on the sidelines leaves Li confused and leads her to question her role on the team. She says she constantly asks herself, "Could I have done better in practice? Why did [the coach] play someone over me? "

But Li continues to push herself, and her dedication to her team is apparent. She joined the cross-country team in the fall in order to improve her endurance. She played indoor lacrosse in the winter to work on her stick skills. She went to pre-season practices before lacrosse season to meet the girls and establish herself on the team. But even though Li has never set foot onto the field during a game, she remains optimistic. "I have to believe that if I work hard enough, it will just click," she says.

Junior Neil Flannery, who is on the varsity soccer team, also understands the difficulty of being on a team without having the opportunity to play. Flannery says that, "On average, I played no minutes a game. It's [hard] to put in your time and not get to play, but if you're not good enough, you're not good enough."
Junior Sarah duRivage-Jacobs can relate to this feeling of disappointment. DuRivage-Jacobs, who played JV field hockey as a freshman, remembers sitting on the bench and playing "once or twice, probably less than five minutes" in the entire season.

For duRivage-Jacobs, sitting on the sidelines didn't encourage harder work; rather, it discouraged her. "Sitting out embarrassed me. I felt helpless," she says. After one season with the team, she realized that she had joined for the wrong reasons and chose not to try out again the next year.

Goldberg says that these feelings of self-doubt are normal, since benchwarmers often question their worth on a team or their ability. "Being negative doesn't make you feel better. It doesn't get you on the field faster, " he says. Rather, Goldberg advises players to focus their anger more positively to improve their performance. "Use your frustration and channel in — work harder, " he says. "Take your feelings of resentment and let it fuel you. "

Go Blazers!

On the sidelines of the girls lacrosse game, freshman Laura Mirviss stands next to Li, watching the game intently. Mirviss says that she chooses to keep a positive attitude, adding, "Just because we sit on the bench doesn't mean we're any less a part of the team." Li nods in agreement. "I think ultimately I'll be a better player if I don't think of it [negatively], " she says.

Many coaches tell players to focus on improving their skills rather than on getting playing time. "Nobody gets a starting position by showing up, " says Horne. "It takes extra running, lifting, summer leagues and commitment. "

Horne cites sophomore Dana Ballard as a prime example of what extra practice can do. As a freshman, Ballard sat on the bench all season. Coming back this year, she knew that there was an opening on the field. She says she "worked harder, practiced on [her] own, ran, hit the wall" - anything that would give her the advantage over another player. Ballard's efforts paid off: At the April 29 game, she started at forward and scored a goal.

Goldberg says that the real test of a winner is how he or she responds to sitting on the bench. Some athletes respond like Ballard did, working harder after sitting out. Others are merely discouraged. Goldberg explains that every person on a team has a role. "Your role may be to be a support player," he says. "You don't have to like it, but you have to accept it."

Brook Franceschini, varsity field hockey coach and health teacher, reiterates that it takes hard work to get a starting position. "Some of the most dedicated players have worked their way up from sitting the bench to starting games," she says.

As an athlete who played field hockey in high school and college, Franceschini has been on both sides of the bench. When she was a freshman in college, Franceschini was benched for most of the season. "The bench was hard because I had to attend every practice knowing I wouldn't play," she says. "But it taught me a valuable lesson, that sometimes it takes hard work and persistence to reach your goals." Coming back as a sophomore, Franceschini was a starter.

Getting their shot

At the lacrosse game, sophomore Jessica Hallberlin gets her chance to go play after about fifteen minutes on the side. A minute later, fellow sophomore Lily Fischer follows. The girls on the sidelines cheer especially hard for Fischer, and when she nearly scores, the bench once again explodes in excitement.

Standing on the sidelines, sophomore Karla Berberich says that last year, she got very little playing time; "maybe 30 seconds all season," she recalls. After last season, Berberich went to camp and played indoor lacrosse to improve her skills.

This year, her work has paid off, and she has played in nearly every game. "It's definitely hard to be a benchwarmer, especially if the team is doing really well or really badly," she says. "At the end of the game you want to be a part of that. You want to feel how everyone else is feeling."

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Emily-Kate Hannapel. If Emily-Kate were to die tomorrow, she would want to be eating ice cream when it happened. Ben & Jerry's Heath Bar Crunch, to be exact. She is the president and sole member of Blair's Vegetarian Club, a captain of the Varsity Field Hockey Team, … More »

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