Tuesday, January 16th, 2018

Ways to motivate a role-player

May 3, 2012 by  
Filed under Coaching

One of the many challenges that all coaches face is how to keep role players / non-starters motivated when their playing time is not high.  For young players, being a role player can be very tough on the ego.  The lack of regular playing time can lower a player’s overall confidence.  It can make a player feel as if he really isn’t a part of the team. 

Keeping your non-starters happy and confident is one of the toughest jobs for a baseball coach

It can also cause a player’s love for the game to diminish.  From a performance stand point, it can be extremely hard as well.  Having to come off the bench in a key, pressure filled situation, especially when it is cold and the player has been sitting for a while, is one of the toughest jobs in baseball.  For these physical and mental reasons, managers at the Major League level usually do not want young players to fill these roles.  It takes a certain mindset to succeed and younger players often do not have this mindset. 

Unfortunately, coaches at the high school and college levels only have young players to work with.  However, there are some things coaches can do to help these players perform at a higher level and keep their confidence higher as well.  Below are six of them.

Be honest.  Be clear and honest with the player as to what their role on the team is.  A pre-season meeting and one at the mid-point with just the player and coach can help explain the player’s current role and what specifically is expected from a player in that role.  Often young players stress out because they’ve never been a role-player before and don’t know how to do it.  Players may not like their role but at least they know what it is and also know how the coach defines success in that role.  Knowing this information can help the player handle the mental side of the role and give them specific things they should be working on in practice.

At these private meetings and in team meetings, coaches should also explain the importance of every role on a team.  Puzzles have many pieces, some big and some small, but all are important to filling out the entire picture.  Explaining this to everyone makes it clear that a role-player is not just someone who sits around waiting for a chance to play.  They are a necessary part of any winning team.

Watch the words you use.  Take the following words out of your vocabulary:

  • Bench player
  • Substitute
  • 2nd/3rd string
  • Scrubs

The use of these words when it comes to describing a player is demeaning and can lead a player to believe he is not worth as much as the starters.  Players know that not all players on the team can play and/or be the stars.  A coach knows this too but needs to relay the impression that all players have value to the team.  “Role-player” can be a better choice of words.

Give lots of chances.  If role-players feel that you care about their progress, they usually will continue to work hard for you.  Practice is when you give them that feeling.  Spending quality time instructing role-players on their game in a positive fashion can go a long way in keeping a role-player connected to the team.  If they are not getting a lot of game time, then practice becomes their game.  Give them lots of reps in practice so that they have many opportunities to show their skills.  Another good idea is to offer extra work after practice specifically for guys that don’t get much playing time.  These one-on-one or small group sessions can go a long way in showing them that you care about their progress.  It also gives you a chance to have conversations with them to find out where their head is on and off the field.

Give them meaningful jobs.  For a non-starter, game days can be very tough.  Nobody, especially young people, wants to look bad in front of friends and family.  In the player’s mind, having to sit on the bench in front of everyone tells everyone “I’m just not good enough to play.”  Whether that’s true or not is irrelevant.  If the player thinks it, it can become a problem.  Therefore, it is important that you give your non-starters something important to do during the games.  Keeping hitting or pitching charts, assigning someone to figure out the other teams’ signs, timing opposing pitchers, catchers, and runners, etc. all can help a player stay focused and get them to believe that they have value even though they are not currently in the game.  I’ve also had players sit next to me on the bench so I could periodically ask them questions like “What do you see with this pitcher?,”  “What would you do in this situation?,” “What pitch do you think this pitcher will throw here?.”  These questions force role players to think about the game even though they are not in it.  And honestly, if their playing skills will not take them very far, developing their coaching skills is not a bad idea.  The overwhelming number of players we work with will not play baseball for a living.  Practically all of them will be some kind of coach one day, even if it’s in their backyard with future children of their own.  It’s never too early to start priming them for coaching.

Give positive feedback.  Even if you are playing every day, the game of baseball can beat you down mentally.  Not playing regularly just adds to the natural frustration of the game.  Having a coach that seems to focus on the negative can drive a player to the brink or, worse yet, out of the game completely.  Coaches must therefore look for opportunities to give positive feedback to their role-players.  This type of feedback certainly can help any player but the role-player tends to need it more.  Don’t let good effort and small successes go unnoticed and unrecognized by your staff or the players.  Tell the player personally and bring them up at team meetings also.  Here is an example.  A guy comes off the bench to pinch hit, swings at a first pitch up and out of the strike zone, and pops it up.  The player probably thinks “Great… I get one chance to play and I screw up by swinging at a bad pitch and popping it up.  What a waste.  Now I’ll never play.”  In this case, a coach could immediately say “Good job!  I love the fact that you were aggressive and ready to hit on the first pitch.  That’s EXACTLY the approach a pinch hitter needs to take in that situation.”  The coach could then point that out to everyone after the game and mention that even though results may not always go your way, having a good “approach” is what matters most.  The player involved leaves the field that day with a whole new memory of that event and probably a much higher level of confidence as well.

Note:  Positive feedback needs to be genuine.  A fake-positive comment by a coach will never be taken seriously by the player.  They will see right through it and you will lose credibility.  If you cannot genuinely think of a positive comment, it’s usually better just to say nothing at all.

Find them opportunities to succeed.  As a coach, there were a few things that kept me up at night.  One of them was the thought that I wasn’t getting the role-players enough playing time.  I’d replay games in my mind and say to myself “I should have had so-and-so pinch hit or pitch to a batter in that situation.”   I am probably not alone.  Unfortunately, because we focus so much on getting the “team” to win, we (at least I did) sometimes forget to focus on what might be good for any one “player.”  This is where your assistants can help.  Tell your pitching coach, hitting coach, or any other coach to let you know if they see a situation arising where a role-player can jump in and get an at-bat or an inning on defense.  However, be careful to not “throw a player to the wolves.”  If a role player is not a good hitter, having him pinch hit against a stud pitcher only to get blown away on three pitches can destroy the confidence of the player.  Pick the situation where the strengths of the players apply.

Of course, there are certain players that will never accept the fact that they are not playing regularly and may never respond in a positive way to being a role-player no matter what strategies the coach uses.  These players often are the ones who can bring down a team chemistry.  Their parents are often the ones who send scathing anonymous letters or hate emails in all CAPITAL LETTERS.  However, most players do seem to respond more positively when the above strategies are implemented.

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