Playing to win
I was at home when my phone buzzed with a text from my son. He was playing for the school basketball team in a city an hour away, and his five words carried disappointment and sadness. “I’m just a benchwarmer, mom.”
I’m not one of those parents who cheers on sports games from the sidelines. Perhaps I’m still scarred from high school athletics, when my best friend and I were consistently the last members picked for any team during gym classes, a painful memory to this day. It sounds callous, but for me, sports has never held even a glimmer of interest, not even when my own children are playing.
But something changed when I learned my son had spent most of that game on the bench watching instead of playing. What upset me was the injustice of his exclusion. He’d attended practices dutifully and loved being part of the team – until that game. “I’m not a bad player,” he insisted. “I don’t know why they didn’t let me play.”
The indignation of having been left out hung around the house like a damp cloud for a few days. I felt hurt on his behalf, compelled to try and make things right. So I did what any writer-parent would do: I penned a letter to the principal.
“It wasn’t fair,” I declared. “I was under the impression that in team sports, everyone gets a turn. How could the coach exclude certain players and justify that exclusion by the team’s victory? Wasn’t the victory hollow when only the best players had performed?”
“We don’t guarantee that every player will get to play,” the principal responded. “Sure, they can get a place on the team. But it’s the coach’s decision about who plays the games. And we play to win.”
A friend explained it better a few days later. In elementary school, the games are all about playing fair, giving everyone a turn and learning to be a good sport. Not so in high school, where the emphasis shifts to winning.
“The weaker players sit on the bench so the team can have its best shot at victory,” she said. “That’s just the way it is, regardless which sport we’re talking about.”
I was astonished, but enlightened, too. As parents, we want desperately to defend our kids from insults, bruised egos and perceived injustices. Their hurt becomes our hurt, and we feel compelled, angered even, to speak out on their behalf.
But perhaps sitting on the bench offers some important life lessons, such as the humility to admit you’re not the strongest player, the insight that you need to work harder to be chosen for the next game, and the understanding that as unifying as the word “team” appears to be, it’s composed of members who are not equally competent. You either shine, or be outshone.
It’s going to be the same scenario at every job interview a few years down the line. The strongest candidates will be selected, while the rest will warm the bench on the sidelines until they improve their game.
So maybe warming a bench for a few games is a crucial part of the game itself, in that it deftly illustrates the distance between where you are and where you want to be. It’s what you do with that knowledge that makes all the difference, on the basketball court and off.