While the transition to seventh grade is difficult for all students, perhaps it is even more so for athletes. For the first time in their lives, kids are faced with the possibility of being cut from a team, being told they’re not good enough. Up until then, their parents paid a sign up fee and the kids were placed on a team and guaranteed playing time, usually for a coach who was one of the team member’s mom or dad.
In seventh grade, all of that changes. Only twelve kids make the basketball team. The coach is hired by the school district and there is no guaranteed playing time. Many kids who have been starters on their youth team suddenly find themselves spending much more time watching than they do playing. The time on the bench is tough for the kids to deal with, but they learn a good deal about themselves.
My daughter is going through that transition right now. I have tried to help her, using my ten years of experience as a high school basketball coach. I know Vivian is not a star player. She has a height advantage on some players. She has decent ball handling skills. She has a decent outside shot. However, she excels at none of the aspects of the game.
Before tryouts even started, I began preparing her for the possibility that she might not make the basketball team. I explained that of the four youth teams (almost forty girls) in our district last year, only twelve could make the team. We knew six or seven outstanding girls who were automatically going to make it, and another half dozen who had no chance. Vivian was among the fifteen or so fringe players. She knew she would have to make a good effort just to make the team. I told her that even if she did not make it, she should attend most of the games and lead the cheering section for her friends who made the team. I promised that I would keep working with her and sending her to camps so that she could make it next year.
I was so happy when I saw her name posted on the school door indicating she had made the team. I knew she would be sitting on the bench, and I was content just to see her get a uniform. The few times she has gotten into a game have been an added bonus, especially when she scored for the first time.
Unfortunately, I seem to be alone in my contentment. Too many parents around me constantly complain about their daughters’ playing time. They criticize the coaches, point out mistakes that the teammates make, and tell their children after the game that they would have played better than so-and-so had they been given more minutes.
Such responses do a disservice to the child. She feels justified in rebelling against the coaches. She decides not to play hard in practice, since the coach already has his favorites who get most of the playing time. I have seen four or five girls crying after most of our games because they did not play as much as they and their parents think they should. Keep in mind, too, that this team has not lost a game this year.
Nevertheless, the coaches get criticized for playing time. I have been there. Like most coaches, I tried to get most kids into every game. Sometimes, though, the game is so close that a coach does his team a disservice if he does not have his best five on the floor. I still remember getting beaten 97-12 by a local powerhouse, a team that had not lost a game in three years. In spite of the score, I felt sorry for the other coach, who appeared frustrated in spite of his team’s huge lead. The parents of his players were screaming at him because he had played the second string for most of the second half. He told me after the game that some of the parents were expecting scholarships for their daughters and needed to keep their statistics up. Sitting out half a game could cost them a $30,000 college tuition.
Parents need to accept the reality of school basketball. Few kids get any kind of scholarship, much less one worth $30,000. Parents also need to help their children deal with the reality of playing time. They should explain to the child that all players have to practice more than they play. There is a three to one ratio of practices to games. Also, practices last two hours, and games only 24 minutes.
I made that point to Vivian one game after she had played just the final two minutes of the first half and the final minute of the game.
“You played a half of a quarter, which is one eighth of the game,” I said. “Remember, a game only lasts 24 minutes.”
Even when she does not get in, I reinforce the value of being on a team and the importance of practice.
“That’s how you get better,” I say. “Besides, you should appreciate the experience of being on a team. You form friendships and memories that last a lifetime.”
As I hear the parents around me complaining about our coaches, screaming at the referees, and pointing out the mistakes of teammates, I feel sorry for their daughters. The girls know why their parents are so upset. They know it’s not because of the coaches, the refs, or the teammates. Each girl knows her parents are upset because they feel disappointed that their daughter is not good enough to start for the basketball team. Not only does the girl have to struggle with self-disappointment, but also she has to bear the burden for disappointing her parents.
I think more parents need to step back and appreciate the experience of a child growing into adolescence without applying unneeded pressure on them. I myself have to step back when I see Vivian on the bench. Sometimes she looks with eagerness when the coach eyes the bench for a replacement. When the coach looks right past Vivian and settles on someone else, I think back to the joy I experienced when I saw Vivian’s name on the school door. She had made the seventh grade basketball team. She was good enough to beat out twenty other girls. And even if she sits on the bench for 24 minutes, she’s more than good enough for me.