The role of a 'role' player
...though their playing time may be limited, their contributions go far beyond these parameters.
In a previous Right Way blog post the topic of body language as it relates to playing time and trust was discussed. This relationship has further reaching implications when it comes to team chemistry and overall success. I can remember early in my high school basketball career my coach at the time emphasizing to our team that we would only be as strong as our weakest link. Throughout my playing and coaching career, I have gained a greater understanding of how critical each member of a team is to its success, regardless of specific abilities. I would like to examine the role of role players and make an important distinction between role players and depth players.
The term role player refers to an individual player’s ability to fill a specific need on a team. Role players range from starters to those that play a supporting role off the bench. A player that shoots the three effectively might earn a role as a starter in order to stretch defenses even if other areas of their game may be lacking. Additional roles can include players that are great on the ball defenders, rebounders, ball screeners, etc. Often their specialized skills are used for situational play and when match ups dictate it. Playing time may be limited but their skill set is invaluable.
I think it is important to give special consideration to what coaches often refer to as depth players and how they are critical to the cohesion of a team, the glue guys. These are the players that have the potential to make practices more competitive and push those ahead of them on the depth chart each and every day. Within any team dynamic there is undoubtedly a pecking order that exists both from the coaches’ and players’ perspectives.
In the majority of team try-outs there are typically a handful of players whose ability or athleticism vaults them to the top of a team’s list. After this, coaches need to fill their roster with players that have potential and or character that aligns with the coach’s philosophy. It is difficult to measure a player’s willingness to sacrifice individual gain for the betterment of a team. However, over the course of a try-out, character traits often become apparent and factor heavily into a player’s selection.
As a team progresses over the course of a season, or a number of seasons, players’ roles become more defined and the depth chart is established. It is critical for a coach to communicate these roles to the players on the team. Getting individuals to understand and accept their roles is essential but challenging. Red Auerbach once said that “it's not what you tell your players that counts, it's what they hear." I have found that individual meetings early in the process and with relative frequency can lead to players embracing their roles. Players clarifying roles for each other is another key to team unity. Finally, it is important for coaches to acknowledge players’ contributions publicly and behind closed doors with the team.
As mentioned above the depth players not only recognize their role on the court but understand how the support of their teammates from the bench can have a huge effect on team chemistry. These players recognize that even though their playing time may be limited, their contributions go far beyond these parameters. Acting as a scout team, making team drills more competitive, stepping on the floor for a player in foul trouble or filling a void for an injured player are all part of this player’s domain.
Connor McSweeney a four year varsity high school basketball player and consummate team contributor reflects on his experience, “Over the years, I have been a part of teams where I would be lucky to see the floor for two minutes. No matter the situation, playing basketball has allowed me to develop attributes such as communication, leadership, and teamwork which really are not only essential on the court, but are also transferrable to the classroom and a work environment. One of the other major lessons basketball has taught me is that teamwork is not limited to the five players on the court; it also extends to the last man on the bench. Every game, those on the court rely on the bench for cheering and support while the game is being played.”
As players compete at successively higher levels, their ability to contribute to a team often depends on their understanding of what a depth player needs to bring to a team. The high school star that plays at the next level and is no longer the “go-to” option on a team, sees his playing time diminish and needs to carve out a new niche for himself. Can he now become the player that makes those around him better and puts his team needs ahead of his own? It can be argued that ultimately a team's success depends on a coach’s ability to get his players to understand and accept their roles.
Selflessness and a common purpose are what make teams great but are elusive for many. Upon reflecting on South Carolina’s Cinderella run at this year’s NCAA men’s tournament, Frank Martin intimated, “There’s only one ball, and only one player can shoot at a time. So naturally, this is a sport where egos can overtake teamwork if you’re not careful. But in that moment in particular, I could see there was none of that on this team. There was only love.” The importance of player “buy-in” and acceptance of one’s role is the key to team unity and ultimately reaching your full potential.
The role of a role player is not always easy to define or communicate. As a coach looking to create a winning culture, it is essential to recognize and utilize depth players for team success.