This is for you, coach. You know who you are.
As you advance in the tournament this winter, or as you prepare for spring sports, find a way to play everybody on your team. At one time or another. You know how to get it done. It needn’t be done at the expense of winning. If the score’s not close, empty the bench at the end of the game. Put those kids on the floor, on the ice, or on the field. They are working as hard as the stars and the starters and you have the power to support them . . . or to demoralize them. Do not abuse this power just because you can.
Most of our winter sports teams have finished for the season. Only the best of the best are still playing, but the themes never change. Coaches have the power. Smart, caring, sensitive coaches . . . most coaches . . . know what to do. Unfortunately, there are still coaches who don’t get it. They are the ones to keep some kids chained to the bench for the entire season. These men and women are at best, clueless. But their methods can also be rooted in power-tripping, petty thinking, or in the worst cases, revenge.
I am not talking about professional sports coaches. It goes without saying that pro sports is a business and should be an absolute meritocracy. I am talking about every other level of nonprofessional sports. This includes big-time college sports, where there is immense pressure to win. It includes Division 2 softball and Division 3 volleyball. Walk-ons and scrubs get out of bed early to train just like the scholarship stars. The commitment is the same. They do just as much weight training and practicing. They sacrifice and manage their time.
This is not a politically-correct, helicopter-parent push for everybody getting a trophy and nobody keeping score. I live in a town where recess at the elementary schools features a “tug of peace” because the old-fashioned tug of war is considered too aggressive. Please. This stuff can get absurd and I feel for coaches who deal with overbearing parents who complain that their kid isn’t getting enough shot opportunities.
At its core, sports is about competition. After the age of T-ball we want our kids to play to win the game. By the time they get to high school, the best players deserve to play the important minutes and innings. That’s the way it works in life. Not everybody gets to be MVP or a Globe All-Scholastic. Just as academic excellence is recognized, athletic excellence should be rewarded.
But coaches need to be mindful of team members who aren’t good enough to play regularly.
Find a spot, coach. Make those kids feel like part of the team. Do not demoralize them, break their spirit, and cause them to lose their love for the game. Try to work them into the game organically if possible. It’s good for morale and the talent gap might not be as great as you think. If you can’t do that, work them in when the outcome is settled. Not every contest goes down to the wire. Your team will be involved in blowouts. You will have a 15-point lead with a minute to play. Clear the bench. Let those kids feel like part of the team. If somebody is offended by “charity time,’’ that’s their issue. Most kids who’ve been putting in the time all year just want to get out on the floor, field, or ice.
Super 8 high school hockey will be played at TD Garden on Sunday. Sweet. Every coach needs to make sure that every one of his kids gets on that Garden ice. For the rest of their lives, every time those kids watch the Bruins, they can point to the blue line and say, “I skated there.’’
Boys’ and girls’ high school basketball teams will play at the Garden a week from Monday and Tuesday. Same deal. Unless those games all go down to the buzzer, every kid has got to get a chance to walk on the parquet floor. Maybe some scrawny senior will make a free throw in garbage time and have his name show up in the box score.
Probably I believe in this so strongly because I was that 12th man. And I loved it. Being part of the high school basketball team was a life-changing experience for me. And I had a coach who was smart enough to get all of us on the floor when there was a spot for it. He even let me start the final game of my senior year. Just for a couple of minutes. Before I could do too much damage.
In a lifetime of being a ballplayer, a parent, and a professional sportswriter, I have seen it all, and I care about this issue deeply. The best coaches are the ones who find a way to include everybody. And the worst ones are small minds who stop seeing the kids at the end of the bench.