Sitting Your Way To Success

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Otto Berndt. He starts his pregame ritual, stretching and listening to the coach strategize, explaining matchups and plays. Then, after warm up, the team swims to the gutter of the pool.  His voice reverberates through the gutter, leading the team in a cheer. He’s the energizing force on the team that sets the tone of intensity for starters and bench players alike. A senior, and four year veteran of the team, Berndt is no stranger to water polo. He comes to every practice, even the ones at 6:45 am, and pushes himself and his teammates to perform at their highest level. And yet, Berndt isn’t a starter.  

Last year, the Vikings had many successful teams full of star players, and behind every one of these teams there is a troop of bench players. Like Berndt, these hard working athletes stay dedicated, and push their team through the season, working alongside their team’s star players. Although they don’t play every minute of every game, or start, bench players have an integral role on their team nonetheless. Behind every successful endeavor, there is a supporting cast that has just as much of a role as the front lines.

Athletes are traditionally judged by their physical ability and performance in games, and for this reason, the starting lineup is perceived as the most critical component of any team. However, the cliche that a team is as good as its weakest player, is in fact the truth when it comes to our Paly athletics. The player that never steps onto the playing field, and for that reason, is considered the weakest link, is just as important as the players that play every minute on gameday.

These second string players work hard at every practice, sweat just as much as a starter during conditioning, wake up just as early for morning practices, and dedicate just as much time to their sport, and yet they get no recognition. In fact, there is a negative connotation towards the benchwarmers who, in reality, have just as important a role as the starters.

This article is their chance to get the recognition that they deserve, and by highlighting a couple of the experiences of our local Paly athletes, the mental strength, toughness of character, and importance of the second string players will be highlighted. Competition breeds greatness, and no one is more competitive than someone who is fighting every single day for another minute of playing time.

The prospect of commiting time and effort to a sport that doesn’t recognize your skill is daunting to many. But not to those whose contribution extends far beyond the field, these strong willed players linger in the background as unrecognized stars. What is it that keeps these athletes dedicated to a team that won’t even play them? What enables them to choose perseverance over playing time? For Vikings like Walker Rosenthal (‘19), it’s because he prioritizes the team’s success over playing time.

“I stayed dedicated because I liked my team and felt that just being there in practice was helpful.” Rosenthal said. “I don’t quit.”

Whether it’s simply a component of stubbornness or a strong character, the mental ability and physical perseverance required of athletes to simply refuse to quit is something that every player, starter and bench, should strive to incorporate into their gameplay and personality. Thanks to these qualities and the mental toughness that Rosenthal obtained from a year of battling on the bench, he secured a spot in the starting lineup for the 2018-2019 football season.

“A lot of times last year it seemed pointless to try because I thought I would never be able to play. But I spent a lot of time in the off-season lifting and running, trying to get better.”

In the end, passion and drive lead to talent. You can’t teach character, but you can learn skills. Now Rosenthal has the opportunity to display both.

For athletes like Ryan Gwyn (‘19), just being a part of a larger group is enough to keep him competing for a spot in the starting lineup.

“There’s much more to a team sport than games,” Gwyn said. “I respect [my coach’s] decisions and just enjoy being apart of the puzzle.”

One big part of the puzzle is practice. A starter is constantly improving his or her skills in order to keep their position, if they don’t, then that second string player who has been right by their side for every practice is going to capitalize on the opportunity. When playing as a starter, it’s hard to be motivated 100% all of the time, especially during practice. It is during these times that subs can be important energizing factors that a team needs.

Berndt understands the importance of pushing starters and how his efforts translate into the starting lineup.

“I give my teammates moral support and go all out during conditioning to push the starters to perform at their best” Berndt said.

Whenever games get arduous or the conditioning gets tough, bench players push the starters and subs alike, forcing them to give all they have. This means the team is in better shape across all lineups. As a result, the starters can perform at their highest level for longer, and the bench players are in much better shape for the few minutes they get each game.

Ethan Look, the varsity water polo coach, reflects on the importance of a strong group of bench players.

Benchwarmers are a critical part of a team. While nobody gets the same minutes in games, everyone practices the same amount. Quality practices with focused work throughout our lineup lead to overall success for the squad” said Coach Look.

In addition to pushing the starting lineup during conditioning, bench players serve an important role when it come to plays. They must be ready to simulate opponents so the starters can practice defending a known play that the opposition could run. Bench players must also be able to play offense at a high level to allow starters to practice defensive schemes.

As a bench player for the varsity baseball team, Ben Civjan(‘19) is well aware of the importance of dedicating practice time to helping the starters prepare for a opponent.

“The non starters would often scrimmage the starters. The coaches setting up particular in-game situations that the bench players would replicate to help starters prepare for a upcoming game” Civjan said.

On game day, the subs take a background role.  Although seemingly unimportant, the influence of a second string on a game is much more than is initially perceived. Although bench players get little playing time in a game, these minutes, which can be few and far in between, can be the difference of a win or loss.

Coach Look utilizes the bench to his advantage, putting in players with specific skill sets to better match up against the opponent.

Bench players are our role players. We ask those men to play quality minutes and focus on particular things. For example, we look for [a player with] interior defense, perimeter defense, or solid ball control, depending on the opponent. Those minutes allow us to rest starters and play with a fluid rotation” said Coach Look.

As the season progresses, more games and tournaments are added to a team schedule which can be taxing on the starting lineup. This is where the depth of a team can be vital. Without subs, starters can become fatigued quickly on weeks with many games. If the second string isn’t strong enough, the starters never get the much needed rest to continue to perform at their highest level.

Take the Warriors for example. Stephen Curry can perform at a very high level for most of the game, but coach Steve Kerr usually gives him some rest at the beginning of the second and fourth quarters. This allows him to perform at his highest level. The bench player that subs in for Curry must be physically, and mentally strong to take up the slack left when Curry is subbed out.

This is most definitely paralleled by many Paly teams. While the starters need their rest throughout a game, the subs must be able to perform at a high enough level to compensate for the lack of a complete starting lineup on the field. This is known as depth, and can be one of the most important aspects of a team. Without these behind the scenes bench players, a team loses depth and their ability to sub which can greatly affect a team’s success.

In addition to the many viral roles that second string players have on a team, they also develop essential and far-reaching life skills that starters don’t usually obtain. Life on the bench is hard. It’s physically hard, with practices and conditioning taking their toll on an athlete’s body, but it’s also mentally hard. These players come to every practice and game hoping to scrape up minutes here and there, and when they don’t get playing time, or not as much as they hoped, staying motivated can be hard.

This is where bench players rise above even starters. They have the mental toughness and grit to come back after riding the bench an entire game and continue putting 100% into everything they do. This is a skill that extends far beyond the field.  

When you don’t attain the goal you hope for, maybe fall short by just a bit, continuing to push forward can be challenging. Bench players know more than anyone the struggle, and yet they are able to come back to practice every day and continue to work hard.  As a result, these athletes can persevere and achieve more far beyond the field or court.

“Working hard throughout the season is tough without as much playing time, but it helps make me a better player and a better person” said Berndt.

In fact, countless people experience a metaphorical “bench” in their day to day lives.  Many jobs give new employees a spot on the sidelines where they can learn and develop before their “debut”.  This allows people to learn more and have a larger impact at their company. Bench players know how to sit on these sidelines and improve through observation much more than any other demographic.  These life skills can carry second string athletes far beyond starters who are accustomed to living life on the main stage. As a result, the second string players eventually become starters. Coming in off the bench and playing at a higher level, proving themselves as players that are willing to give more for their team.  This is when every minute on the bench spent analyzing plays and strategies pays off. And this is when sitting leads to success.

Bench Players in the Major Leagues:

Bench players are also important beyond the fences of the Paly fields.

Sitting in the stands of the Chicago Blackhawks stadium, an accountant watched as the starting goalie left warmups due to an injury.  Then, with 14 minutes to go, he watched the substitute goalie leave the game with cramping. The accountant’s name was Scott Foster. He played hockey in college and was the emergency backup goalie the Blackhawks kept on hand for a situation just like this.

After watching the only remaining professional goalie leave the ice, he got a call from the coach.  He put down his nachos and walked down to the locker rooms to change.

Stepping out onto the ice was the ultimate bench player.  He proceeded to make seven “pretty good saves” according to Even Karambelas, another emergency substitute goalie, in an interview by the New York Times.  Foster carried the Blackhawks to a 6-2 win against the Winnipeg jets, and by the end of the game, all 20,000 spectators were cheering his name.

“From my perspective, this is a dream” said Foster in a post-game press conference.

Foster showed how coming in from not even the bench, but the stands, doesn’t mean you can’t achieve athletic brilliance.  Although the team ended the season with their worst performance since 2007, Foster’s game against the Winnipeg Jets was a highlight and one that Foster will never forget.