9th Man

I have often been asked, “What is the toughest part of coaching?”.  Over the years, I have heard many coaches answer this question in various ways.  Is it the time away from your family? Is it dealing with overbearing parents who are only interested in their son?  Is it dealing with administration or school boards? Is it dealing with losing? All of these could be possibilities.

In my case, it has been none of these.  Without a doubt, the toughest part of coaching for me has always been handling the situation of having a kid who has done everything our program requires and yet, he still is just not good enough to consistently be in the regular rotation….he’s the kid that doesn’t get to play.  Of all things, it is this situation that has cost me the most sleep over the years. It’s for this reason, I usually never carried more than 9 players on the varsity because, ultimately, all kids want to play. Now, let me be clear, I’m talking about the kids that by my definition of doing all our program requires is still not good enough to play….not necessarily the player or the player’s parents interpretation.  

For me, it is the senior that played the role of 9th man on our team that I respected the most.  First of all, if he was a senior on the varsity, that meant he had met the standards of our program up until that point.  I’ve never bought into the theory that states being a senior automatically means you were on the varsity. If I had seniors that hadn’t met our standards, they would be placed on the JV.  Because I always tried to be upfront and honest with my assessments of a player’s standing within our program, this rarely occurred. If they had not measured up by their junior year, most decided to invest their time in other areas.

Secondly, he had proven that he was willing to work every day in practice with the understanding that he needed to be prepared in case he was suddenly thrust into the 8 man rotation.  This is much easier said than done when the requirements in practice are demanding and the coach is holding you to the same standard as everyone else…everyone is required to earn their uniform.  Also, this can be very frustrating when gameday rolls around and you are not getting to play much or at all. It’s tough to go home that night and hear family members question your commitment to the team or students at school the next day ask if you got to play and the answer is no. Even though this kid knows his role on the team, it’s tough to remain loyal to the team and coach under these circumstances because you’re fighting human nature that says to be selfish.

Thirdly, just because he was 9th man on the varsity, it didn’t mean he was the next best player.  On occasion, this senior may be playing this role on varsity to allow an underclassmen to get playing time on the JV instead of sitting on the bench for the varsity.  If a varsity player was out for an extended period of time, a JV player may be moved up for the next game if he was a better player or played a different position. Ultimately, I was responsible for putting the best team possible on the court within the parameters of our program.  If this scenario were to playout, this would be a very difficult situation to deal with and another reason why I believe this is the most difficult role on the team to play.

It’s because of these circumstances, I had the utmost respect for my kids who were willing to play this role…they were the epitome of unselfishness and being a team player.  They were the epitome of the “I Believe” philosophy. It’s also the reason I was determined that these young men would know the respect that I had for them and their teammates had for them.  It’s because of players like our 9th man that I was determined our program would be about more than just basketball. Our program would give them the opportunity to become better people….good husbands and good dads.  I owed them that.

So how do you do this?  First of all, teach the value of roles and that all roles are important to the success of the team and that success will largely depend on the respect that everyone on the team has for these various roles.  Basically, players have different roles but the same status with a shared result. In my mind, it’s a lot easier to play your role when you are getting plenty of playing time but part of that role was also being a good teammate to the player who played behind you. As coach, it was part of my job to point out the value of being a role player, especially the most difficult roles.  I would constantly look for ways to show the value of our 9th man to the team and point this out. One of the best ways to do this was to stop practice to praise this player. To point out the fact that he was busting his butt just like the guys who got to play alot and doing all he could to be prepared as well as making the team better. If I took time out of practice to do this, our team knew it must be important.  

After games in which our 9th man didn’t play, I would reference how he stayed engaged in the game by encouraging his teammates, paying attention during time outs, and being ready if I called his name.  It was during these times, I believe our other players showed their understanding of the value and difficulty of this role by nodding their head in agreement or verbally expressing their appreciation for someone playing this role.  I was blessed to coach so many unselfish kids with character and it was times like these that their light shone brightest.

For many years, I wrote a weekly column in our local newspaper during basketball season called “The Coach’s Corner”.  This was another opportunity to express the value of this role (along with many other aspects of our program) to people in our community as well as being another way of me being able to emphasize the character it took to play this role.

Finally, in our athletic program, we only had one award that each program gave at the end of the year which was our Attitude & Effort Award. For our program, many times the senior who played this 9th man role would be the recipient of this award because of the value I placed on being willing to play such a difficult role.

During my last season we had a senior, Jeremy Patak, who was the perfect example of how to  play this 9th man role, though he earned more minutes than many who have played this role. Jeremy was a kid who loved basketball and more than anything wanted to wear a White Oak jersey alongside his senior teammates.  Jeremy came through every part of our program progression from 3rd grade on and though he was never one of the more physically talented players in his class, he hung in there and continued to work to achieve his goal of being a varsity basketball player.  As more and more players in his class, often players more talented than Jeremy, dropped out for various reasons, Jeremy continued to hang in there and work toward his goal.

Fall and Spring offseason were particularly difficult for him his freshman and sophomore years because he was not a very explosive athlete. This made conditioning and plyometrics very difficult for him and I know there had to be many times that he questioned whether or not it was worth it.  During his end of season evaluation after his freshman and sophomore years, he sat in my office and heard the same message….if you ever hope to play here, you must make yourself a better athlete and improve your skill set.  Fortunately for Jeremy, he was fairly tall (6’3” by his senior year) and he had long arms so he had the capability of being a solid rebounder and low post scorer. From his junior year on, he worked as hard as any kid I have coached to improve himself.  Investing in the weight room, putting in time on the track and in the bleachers, and working his butt off in the gym put him in the position to be a varsity player by his senior year. For this reason, he was one of the most respected and valued players in our program.  Jeremy Patak was what White Oak basketball was all about.

In summary, I was very blessed to have numerous players who put the team above themselves in order to play the role our team needed them to play.  As a coach, make sure your players know they are valued and respected. Make sure your program teaches the lessons of life. Make sure you Coach With A Purpose!    

Thanks for reading.

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