The Sacred Bench

Photo Credit: Evan Shanks

Photo Credit: Evan Shanks

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 who are getting their ass beat, it can be a much-needed place of rest. For a coach, it can be unbridled chaos. The bench is none of these things. It should 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 should be discussing the plan with the other teammates that are going in the next jam. If you aren’t written in many (or any) jams, you should be analyzing the jam in play - counting points to make sure your team receives them all, watching penalties and ref calls, observing how your opponents are successful and how they can be shut down. There is no time for bullshit. When you are on the bench, you must be just as focused as if you are in the jam. If a coach knows there are some skaters on the bench who will not be playing, they should assign them a job, so each skater is actively participating in the team’s success.

Success, however, must be clearly defined and communicated through a set of goals. “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. Arguing on the bench is a HARD NO. It should just never happen. If everyone knows their job and is clear about their goals and how to achieve them, there should be nothing to argue about.

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.

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 incredibly 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. Some may feel that they need to make decisions on their own, which breaks the team unity. 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, yelling at officials or teammates, and individual playing (going against the team’s plan). 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 on the bench about the officials or the opponents help the team? Does throwing a fit in the middle of a jam 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, 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 shitty, toxic attitude.

A coach must have a zero tolerance policy for behavior that harms the team. This means that you 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. This includes your 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.

If you are a skater who is guilty of bad behaviors, it’s time to recognize how you negatively impact the team and how you can change so that you are a contributing member at ALL times. Be grateful that you are part of the team, and be respectful of the team.  There is no place for ego. Only teamwork. Work out your shit before you put on that uniform.

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. In short, bench etiquette goes like this: Coaches (captains or whomever is the designated team leadership), you must communicate goals, give everyone a job, lead by example, and handle shit immediately. Skaters, you must stay focused, do your team job, and don’t make shit about you. Just take your Act Right, and everything’ll be smooth and professional!

What has been your experience on the bench - good and bad? What do you consider appropriate bench etiquette? Does your team talk about bench behavior? What is your experience?!

**This was originally printed in the Five on Five Spring 2016 issue.