In 2002, I chose to transfer from my first college to the University of Alberta, a team I thought could win the National Championship. The U of A had won it all the previous year, and I wanted to win badly. I knew they were returning all five starters, but I believed in my skills and my work ethic. I knew I could break into the starting line up.
The basketball coach there was old school. For 30 years, he set his starting line up at the beginning of the season and didn’t change it up for the whole year. I had four weeks to prove I deserved to start; that I was up for the challenge. During those weeks I played well. I won the sprints. I played tough. In scrimmages my teams usually won. I was sure I had it locked up. The day before our first game, I walked into the locker room and saw the starters written on the board … and I wasn’t starting.
That was one of the most disappointing moments I can remember. As I stood there, staring at the board, I thought to myself: “I did everything I could to earn that starting spot, and I didn’t get what I deserved.”
As disappointing as that was, later I would realize in that moment my thinking was flawed, and I hope you can learn from my experience. As the season went on I continued to work hard, and in the process I learned three things that helped me—and will help you—earn more playing time.
Before we go any further, there is one concept you must understand: Prior to tackling these three things, you must first choose the right mindset. Next season (or maybe you’re reading this in the midst of an ongoing season), you’ll face everyday distractions and obstacles, and to fight through them you must believe that there is someone, somewhere facing the same circumstances who could get the job done.
In my moment of disappointment I believed I had done EVERYTHING I could and didn’t get what I deserved. That same mindset keeps so many athletes from earning playing time. The moment you believe you’ve done EVERYTHING you can, you limit yourself. You don’t have anything more to give and you stop adding value to your team. Your energy is spent on frustration instead of finding ways to make yourself and others better.
Thankfully after that first hour of feeling I was treated unfairly, I changed my focus. I had something to prove. I was determined to find ways I could add value—above and beyond what I had done up to that point. Too many athletes don’t get what they THINK they deserve, and then spend the rest of the season focused on that unfairness. This mindset actually sabotages their chances of earning playing time because their attitude is leaking all over their team. Coaches are experts in reading body language, and the NO. 1 way to lose playing time is to express your frustration with your coach’s decisions with poor body language.
Now that you understand this mindset, here are three simple ways to earn more playing time.
1. Get good at what your coach cares about
Most basketball players only focus on what they are good at doing. A small, quick guard focuses on speeding up the floor and dribbling all over the place. An athletic player focuses on any opportunity for a dunk or a lob. A shooter runs around looking to get a shot off. These players think they play well when they do these things, and they get frustrated when they don’t get to do these things. However, the first key to earning more playing time is to figure out what your coach cares about. It’s not hard. It’s what they talk about all the time. Here are some ideas to help you show your coach you care about what’s important to them:
- Talk to your teammates about what your coach talks about in practice and before games.
- Focus on doing well what your coach spends most of your practice emphasizing.
- Ask your coach what he wants from you and spend time during and after practice working on what he tells you.
- Respond to coaching—don’t just listen. CHANGE your game based on what your coach says.
- Celebrate your team when they do the things your coach cares about.
2. Earn your coach’s TRUST
Here’s a little secret to playing time: It’s much easier to lose it than it is to earn it. Coaches play those they trust, and you earn trust by eliminating mistakes. Most players attempt to earn more playing time by doing things that make them STAND OUT from their teammates. This often results in mistakes that lose a coach’s trust. Don’t make that mistake. Instead, focus on playing solid basketball. Stick to what your’re good at doing and what your coach cares about. Don’t do things that result in turnovers, poor shot selection and foolish fouls. Let others lose playing time, and as you earn trust, you’ll pick up those minutes. With trust comes freedom; but trust comes first.
3. Be the best at something
Everyone wants to score, and most players want the ball in their hands. However, you don’t earn more playing time by trying to be the best at what everyone else is already trying to do. Find something no one wants to do and become the best at that. Be the best at things like taking charges, getting loose balls, playing physical defense, and boxing out. You must be distinctive to earn playing time, and it’s easiest to get noticed when you do the things no one else excels at or cares about doing.
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That season I dedicated myself to defense and rebounding. We had a lot of talented scorers on our team, so everyday in practice I chose to guard our best player and make his life miserable. I chose to crash the offensive boards like a wild man, and I chose to take charges with abandon. Not only did I become our defensive stopper while coming off the bench, I also led our team in offensive rebounds and charges taken.
Halfway through the season, coach called us into the video room to watch film before practice. He pressed play, and we watched 3 minutes of clips in silence. The whole tape was of me. It showed me playing defense, getting rebounds and taking charges. When the lights came on, everyone was confused until coach finally said, “Tyler will be starting the rest of the season,” and then walked out of the room.
It’s one of the best moments I can ever remember as a player, and I hope you’ll get to experience that feeling, too.
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