Chapter 50: THE RESPONSE – ROOKIE: Surviving Your Freshman Year of College Soccer
As we discussed, the tiers on a team are fluid. Players move up and down the ladder. Mostly we’ve been discussing how to get to the highest tier. But what happens when you reach that top tier and then get bumped down? This can be the most frustrating and emotionally charged experience of your college soccer career. Handling it with dignity is much easier said than done, so let’s prepare your response before you’re caught by surprise.
Telling a regular that she won’t be in the next game’s starting line-up is one of the most difficult things a coach has to do. But when he does it, you can bet that he’s looking for a certain type of reaction from the player who was just relegated to the bench. Believe me when I tell you that the proper reaction to this adversity can go a long, long way in getting you back on the field sooner rather than later.
Earlier we mentioned that there are times when you’re just going to have to be a good actor, and this may be one of them. When the coach gives you that news, swallow the lump in your throat, look him in the eye, and in the most sincere voice you can muster, say, “Ok Coach, whatever you think is best for the team.” That’s it. There doesn’t need to be any more conversation and frankly, you probably don’t want there to be. As soon as the coach says, “Thank you,” turn and walk out of that room and find a quiet place to calm yourself.
In these situations, many players feel betrayed. I guess that’s just natural because you’ll inevitably feel a sense of ownership over a starting spot. You’ll begin to think of it as yours and yours alone. However, as we’ve said from the very beginning, no one owns a starting spot; everyone is just renting, and that includes you. Moving players in and out of the starting line-up is just part of the business. And let’s face it; when you were the starter, you weren’t feeling sorry for the player behind you, so don’t expect anyone to feel sorry for you either. Remember, your teammates all have their own battles to fight.
When the rug gets pulled out from under you, the worst thing you can do is give up hope. Not starting this one game doesn’t automatically mean that you’ve lost the starting spot forever. Sometimes a coach will drop a player from the line-up just to send a message, particularly if that player has been dragging at training. The hope is to light a fire under the player and hope that she responds with enough fight to win back her spot.
I’ve seen many cases where the replacement starter had a horrendous performance and the position defaulted straight back to the player who had been benched. The problem is that you just don’t know if or when things will turn back in your favor. So what do you do? You go back to positioning. You go back to fighting for the #2 spot.
I had a college teammate named Eduardo Ibanez who was a regular starter for our side. One Saturday afternoon, Eddie scored two goals, including the game-winner, in a game we won 3-2 over a national Top 20 team. When the coaches reviewed the video and charted the passing percentages of our team, they discovered that Eddie’s passing percentage was 48.6. That meant Eddie had passed the ball to the opponent more times than he had to his teammates. Four days after being celebrated as the hero, Eddie was benched to start our next match.
When word got out that Eddie was going to be benched, his fraternity brothers mobilized and sprung into action. Forty of them showed up at the next game to heckle our coaches from across the field. They raised a giant white bed sheet with 48.6% painted on it, mocking our coaches for prioritizing passing percentage over goals.
No one knew how Eddie would handle it because regardless of his passing percentage, the guy had scored two fantastic goals and won the game for us. That wouldn’t sit very well with most folks. Not many of Eddie’s teammates would blame him if he didn’t have the world’s greatest attitude while he was sitting on the bench, and having an entire fraternity loudly chanting about this injustice would only give him more of a reason to explode. And explode he did.
From the moment the referee blew the whistle to start the game, Eddie was on his feet, waving a towel, and screaming his head off in support of the teammate who had taken his spot. Eddie had morphed into the most vocal supporter our team had ever known. He was relentless in his support of the entire team for the entire game. It was literally inspiring to see what a stand-up guy my friend truly was.
It’s easy to be positive when things are going your way, but the measure of any person is found in how he or she responds to adversity. Despite the injustice that many perceived, Eddie remained loyal to his teammates, coaches and the mission. Eddie’s display not only showcased him as a teammate we would all want, but it also positioned him as a player the coaches wouldn’t mind putting back on the field.
Eddie’s role as a reserve didn’t last but a game or two. He won back his spot pretty quickly and his soccer life got back to the way he wanted it, but we can learn a lot from Eddie’s day on the bench. You see, when you’re faced with challenging situations, all that’s left to do is choose how you will respond to them. Eddie’s response was both courageous and remarkable and it showcased his very best self.