We’ve all experienced the situation. Our son or daughter has prepared for the BIG game. We invite relatives to come watch. Anticipation runs high. This is going to be fun. Our child doesn’t start, but that’s not necessarily unusual, we know he or she will be called in soon. The minutes tick away and turn to quarter hours, then it’s half-time, and still no movement from the bench. Eventually, as the time dwindles, our player is called onto the field, but after only the minimum amount of time required for "equal" play our child is brought back to the bench. The game ends. The amount of anxiety over a team win gets replaced by the anxiety of "will she play?" We watch the coach keenly to see if she looks over to the bench. Our hearts sit like lumps in our throats and leap whenever the coach approaches the bench and talks to the players. "It has to be soon," we believe. But all hope is dashed as the time tick, tick, ticks to its final whistle.
One time we traveled to Cincinnati for a tournament for Robbie. He had been playing really well, so we expected he would play most of the game or possibly even start. We invited our daughter, her husband and their two small boys to come watch since they lived only two hours away in Columbus. The tournament was in March, and we awoke that first day to a rather nasty snowstorm and temperatures in the teens. But it would all be worth it to watch Robbie play. We sat on metal benches and watched an entire game where Robbie sat across from us on his own metal bench. The grandkids froze, heck, we froze. Deana and family had to head home after the game, so it was a frost-bitten disappointment all around.
The amount of emotion invested in the game, the level of anxiety over waiting for our player’s participation, and the bitter taste left in our mouths afterward make for an extremely tense ride home. No matter how great your player may be, I guarantee you’ll have at least one, and most likely several, of these frustrating games. We don’t have any insight into what the coach is thinking. We also don’t usually have any knowledge of what might have gone on in practice that ended up warranting a "benching." All we see is the evidence of a decision that hurts and confuses. How can we handle these experiences?
First of all, don’t start the conversation at the field, on the way to the car, or on the trip home unless your child brings it up. Let all emotions cool down. While it may seem futile, finding something positive to say would be a good idea. Don’t patronize, but find a general positive you can offer such as "this field was in great shape" or "I liked the way you passed to Billy." If your child voices the opinion that he didn’t care if they won, or that the coach is a jerk, then you should address the concern. Ask why and then listen as long as it takes to vent. The hurt your player feels is not only natural, but deserved. Add to that embarrassment if friends and relatives came to watch her performance and you can understand why the pain is intense. Listen carefully for clues as to why your child didn’t play. For example, she might say, "Just because I was hanging on the goalposts, the coach benched me" or "Everyone made fun of Molly, not just me. I don’t why I got picked on for that." Keep track of those clues for a later discussion. For now, it’s important just to focus on the bad feelings and helping smooth those over.
Second, avoid knee-jerk reactions. Your child may threaten to quit the team as that is a natural reaction to the perceived humiliation. But it is not okay for you to suggest that. In the first place, quitting is never a solution to a tough situation. The lesson our children need to learn is one of persevering through and overcoming adversity. It is also important to remember that most state soccer associations have rules about quitting a club mid-season that include that the club doesn’t have to release a player to another club until the season is over. That would mean that if your child quit, he or she could be without a team for several months. At the very least, staying at the club that isn’t playing your child is preferable to sitting at home because the player still gets the benefit of practices. So, cooler minds need to prevail when the discussion of quitting comes up.
Third, when things have calmed down you can find out from your player if he was aware of any reason the coach wouldn’t play him. Chances are your player knows something. He was either warned during a practice or found out just before the game what was going to happen. Sometimes it can be something as innocent as the coach believing the team could win with a weaker line-up on the pitch and was giving players who usually sat a chance to play. However, if it was an important game, then the reason is more significant. Most coaches want to field the best team possible, so decisions on who to play and who not to play are made with careful consideration. If the coach had to invoke some type of consequence on your player, your son or daughter may not want to fess up to it. Hopefully you can discover what happened eventually from their comments or confessions. If you drive the carpool, listen to what the kids are talking about in the backseat. It’s amazing how much you can learn just by listening. "Coach really got mad at you yesterday." "Yeah, he thought I wasn’t paying attention, but I was." Occasionally players can be benched for having too many yellow cards since many leagues have a limit and coaches don’t want anyone to hit that limit.
Finally, if you feel the situation was totally fickle, then have your player talk to the coach. You can stand nearby for moral support, but the conversation should be between coach and player. Only if you feel that the coach isn’t taking your child’s concern seriously should you consider approaching the coach yourself. Like any "Get Out of Jail Free" card, you need to use this tactic sparingly. Pick your moment/battle wisely. Coaches don’t like getting hammered by parents since coaches make their decisions based on factors, which may not be obvious to someone outside the framework of the team. If you do talk to the coach keep questions open-ended and not accusatory. Ask, "I noticed you didn’t play Megan on Sunday. Is there something she can do to improve her playing time?" Don’t ask, "How come you didn’t play Megan when she has been working really hard and got two goals in the last game?" Putting the coach on the defensive only insures he or she won’t be on your side.
There’s nothing worse than throwing a party where the guest of honor is a no-show. The guests you invite all look at you for explanation, and you usually don’t have one to give. If your child doesn’t play in the game, let everyone who came know that you and your child are grateful they supported the team by attending. Don’t offer any half-baked excuses just that this was the game your player sat out and you hoped the guests would come back for another game. As frustrating as the experience can be, it is important to focus on the team aspect of the sport. While we all profess to be supporters of the team, it’s also a reality that if our child didn’t play on the team we probably wouldn’t be attending the games. So naturally we want to see our kids play. And if we invite guests, then we want to have cake and ice cream and throw confetti.