Put Me In Already, Coach!
Updated: May 10
Being stuck in COVID-19 is kind of like being a reserve athlete
It’s been several weeks, how are you holding up?
Me… I’m doing ok. While the circumstances of the pandemic remain sobering on a societal level, I’ve been trying to appreciate the silver linings. I’ve gotten to network with new people and organizations from elite sport. I’ve been invited to webinars and teleconferences that might never have taken place under “normal” circumstances. And for these opportunities I am quite grateful.
But I have to tell you, I miss sports. I miss the opportunities to build and strengthen relationships in the “natural environment” of team practice facilities. I miss watching my daughters challenge themselves through competition, among teammates and coaches who play meaningful roles in their lives. I miss the cadence of the spring sports season, and the temporal connection between events like the start of baseball season with the smell of cut grass.
Even as I appreciate health and relative safety and hope for the future, there's plenty of disappointment to endure.
As I talk with athletes, coaches, parents, and fans across sports, I’m realizing that maybe the hardest part of this experience is the uncertainty around how long it’s all going to last. Most of us feel uncomfortable, if not downright anxious, when we find ourselves out of our routines. As any athlete knows, competitive sports are all about seasonal benchmarks; setting goals, honing skills, building up, tapering down, and following predictable schedules over the course of a season.
One comparison that’s being made with this experience is that of being injured, which is apt in a lot of ways. But as I’ve talked with sports-minded people over the last several weeks, another analogy has emerged: Being “stuck in quarantine” is like being stuck on the bench.
Most athletes, even the all-time greats, have been reserve players at some time in their careers. Although it comes with a lot less glamor than a starting position, coming off the bench, especially the deep bench, requires a certain skill set of its own. Consider what it takes to fulfill that role effectively…
Many a great athlete has paid their dues going for whole games or even whole seasons without seeing playing time. It takes definite patience to put in every bit as much practice prep as every one else on the team, only to spend game day watching the action from the end of the bench.
To persist long-term in the face of limited playing time, you have to maintain the confidence that your contribution as a team member matters, and that your focus on the process will eventually get you to the outcome you want for yourself.
When you don’t have the thrill of the spotlight and the glory of the headlines, it’s your self-determination that is a primary source of energy and enthusiasm to keep grinding.
Being a reserve player requires the insight to recognize that you are part of something that is bigger than you as an individual, and broader in time than a single game or athletic season. That’s being humble, which is a lot different than being “weak” or a “pushover.” Ultimately, humility means loving your sport for its own sake, not just for how it feeds your personal ego.
As opposed to a fixed mindset, which assumes I’m just either good at something or bad at it, growth mindset recognizes that success comes through a process of learning. Moreover, that process takes time and involves a willingness to make mistakes and learn from them. Consider how the circumstances of stay-at-home provide ample opportunity to try new approaches to sports skills, and to build new technique through trial and–that’s right–error.
Great reserve players… the ones who persist through to stardom, as well as the ones who make a career of being a skilled backup, share the ability to keep their head in the game, even from the sideline. How do you do that when your season has been put on hold or even cancelled? One way is to develop your mental skills so you can simulate competition and stimulate your brain in a way that cannot otherwise be done while you are away from the dynamics of team practice. One example of such skills is mental imagery.
Right now under the circumstances of COVID-19, every athlete is a reserve player. If you want to stay connected to your sport and hungry to succeed through this uniquely challenging time, take the opportunity to reflect on how you can foster the above qualities within yourself as you await return to play. When that time comes and your number is finally called, you’ll be the better for it!