How to keep players on the bench happy?

Why keep players on the bench?

If you run any sort of team, you will know that not all players can play all the minutes, as players miss games because of other commitments (yes, in non-professional sports that’s the most common reason), illness, or injuries. So, players sit on the bench but get subbed in. With unlimited substitutions in most cases of youth soccer, they all play equal time across the team. Doesn’t matter how soccer players differentiate from one another, they all play. Having happy players on the bench is easy then because nobody sits for too long.

However, if you run a competitive team, the mindset changes. If everybody gets equal playing time, you lose more often and your best players leave. But if you play only your best players, the other players will quickly become unhappy and leave the team. Furthermore, you are running the risk of injuries to your soccer players, either by overplaying or underplaying them. How do you handle that? It’s more of an art than science, so mastery comes with experience, but there are steps that you should always follow.

Steps to handle rotating players

Communicate expectations early

You want the players to communicate well, so you have to be the role model. If you don’t tell players and parents that not everybody gets equal playing time, they will expect and even demand that. Tell them before joining the club, especially if you see the player’s current ability below the average. You don’t want to attract players that want to sit on the bench. However, if you find soccer players that get motivated to practice better when they compete for a spot, you are on to something great.

Reward effort, not just performance

I often give more playing time to players who practice well even if they are not performing as well as others who don’t practice. It will only be a matter of time before the player with more effort will surpass the other one. Your playing time decision will hopefully encourage both players to improve their effort during practice. Make sure you don’t use the word punishment and you say that playing time is a prize that anybody can win if they practice well. It is important to keep players on the bench happy, so they give their maximum in case they get in.

Only invite players to a match if they can play any minutes

My team played against another team at U11 level, so we were playing 9v9. The other team had 16 players on the team, which was the maximum for that cup. Both teams played well and the game was tight until the last 5 min. So, the other coach didn’t play the 3 of the subs until then. I assume he wouldn’t have played them at all if there was a chance for them to come back. I can imagine how those three players felt. They were sitting on the bench for the entire game and then were asked to do a miracle. If you can’t guarantee them minutes, don’t invite them to the game at all. It’s a much easier conversation to have before the game than after not giving them any playing time.

Find other playing time opportunities

“Finished games”, when you are winning by a large margin or losing by a large margin, are always possibilities for players to get playing time. Your best players will understand why you are doing that. Similarly, your bench players will be happy with the minutes. Another opportunity is to organize a friendly game and give everybody equal time. It can even be an excellent opportunity for your assistant to lead the team while you just provide support.

Don’t offer spots to players if you don’t believe in them

I’ve seen it many times when coaches after tryouts give spots to players just to make the numbers. Don’t do it – the players will be unhappy, both those players that won’t get the playing time and the other players that are objectively better. Finances can play a role here, where each player pays and you cannot fund the team to the fullest without the numbers. However, if the team is solid and your work is solid, have faith that the right players will join the team over time. Consequently, you will do a better job than the other clubs and players will see that. When that happens, you want to have spots on your team and a few months of reduced revenue won’t cause a big problem.