The Sacred Bench

Originally published May 2016

The bench. Some people think of it as simply the place they sit until they get to play roller derby. For the skaters hoping for a chance to go in, the bench can be a holding cell. For the players frustrated with the jam they just played, it can be a place to vent. For a coach, it can be unbridled chaos. The bench doesn't have to be this. It can be a sacred and focused space.

Preparation and communication are crucial elements of developing a focused bench. Everyone on the team has responsibilities. If you are not in the jam, you can be discussing the plan for the next jam with your teammates. If a coach knows there are some skaters on the bench who will not be playing, they can assign them a job, so each skater is actively participating in the team’s success: counting points to make sure your team receives them all, watching penalties and ref calls, observing how your opponents are successful and offering encouragement.

Arguing on the bench is a HARD NO. It shouldn't happen. If everyone knows their job and is clear about their goals and how to achieve them, there should be nothing to argue about. “Win” is not a clear goal. “Win by 50+ points” is better, but should be followed up with a solid plan of how to do that. Does that mean that you will be running jams for the full two minutes at times? Does that mean that you will be changing your lineups often to counteract your opponents? Every person on the team must know what the goals are and how to achieve them so there are no disagreements about what is supposed to happen.

Being prepared for a game is just the foundation of creating a focused bench. Many people can agree to their responsibilities but get caught up in the mental, emotional, and physical impact of the game. I’ve been on a bench where everything went to complete shit. Teammates were yelling at each other, the bench manager was kicking chairs, and the coach was arguing with officials. Loudly. Not only is this embarrassing, but it costed us the game. I’ve also been on the other end of that in which I’ve seen my opponent’s bench unravel and the point spread grow larger and larger in my team’s favor.

No one can focus if the bench is not calm. Keeping a calm bench starts with strong leadership. The coaches must lead by example. If the coaches are yelling and complaining and getting heated, the players will feel that things are out of control. Coaches must stay calm and focused, especially when under pressure, so that they model the behavior they seek from the players.

Some of the most common unwanted behaviors are having a bad attitude, complaining about penalties and opponents, and yelling at officials or teammates. When I’m coaching, I make it clear what I expect of players: everything you do should help the team in some way. If that is unclear, ask yourself before making a decision “will this harm or help the team?” Does complaining about the officials or the opponents help the team? Does it help the team when you say nasty comments to your teammates? Does it help the team when you are shouting over your coach? Does it help the team when you argue with an official about the penalty you just got? No, no, no, and NO! Any time a skater engages in any of these behaviors they are making that moment about themselves and not about the team. They risk infecting their teammates with their bad attitude.

As a coach, I have a zero tolerance policy for behavior that harms the team. This means that I quickly deal with problematic skaters before they infect the bench. Sometimes that means sitting them when they were supposed to be playing, and sometimes that means asking them to leave the bench and take a time out. This includes the strongest players, who can quickly become the team’s worst nightmare if they are focused on themselves rather than the team. You are better off removing the skater than allowing them to infect the team. Otherwise, you may spend your focus and energy on dealing with one skater than doing your actual job, which is coaching the whole team.

I model the behavior I want to see from skaters: offering encouragement, staying focused, and taking a moment to re-focus when things get tough. I ask skaters to high-five each other after a jam, share what they saw their teammates do well, and take deep breaths if things are getting difficult. It's great to have a phrase or word to say to someone if you see them losing focus. It's a shared phrase/word to bring them back to the team and the goals.

The bench is the sacred space where individuals come together with a shared goal. It’s where you communicate, refocus, and connect. It’s the home base of operations, where everyone has responsibilities and must work together to succeed. Support one another and help each other stay focused!

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Training Varied Skill Levels
Originally posted Dec 2015