An Ode to the Players at the Very End of the Bench

Bench players are a strange breed in sports. I don't mean the sixth man in basketball or the defensive replacement in softball, I mean the athlete who plays only in blowouts. The bench player I'm talking about plays in a few games a year, but shows up at every workout, practice, and game for four years at MIT. Voluntarily.

Just to be absolutely clear, I'm not making fun of bench players. I was one in high school. I'm praising them and trying to figure them out.

MIT bench players are more mysterious (and deserve more recognition) than bench players at any other level. Once you're a pro, there are millions of reasons to stick with it, and most of them are in the bank. At the Division I level, you get a scholarship and some degree of fame. In high school, it helps you get into college and gives you social status at an age when that seems important.

Here all those things are gone. The first and most obvious thing that's left is love of the game. Each and every bench player has to enjoy the sport tremendously. There isn't much fame involved for any MIT athletes, but if you're a starter you feel like a first-class citizen in the team community. Bench players don't have that, or the prospect of playing in crunch time, to motivate them. They have to like the sport so much that practice is fun in and of itself.

There is also the camaraderie of being on a team. Most coaches go out of their way to make each player, from stars on down, feel like they are a part of something bigger. Bench players still get to go on road trips, celebrate victories, mourn defeats, get the girls/guys (if this were a Division I school, that is), and have an instant group of friends.

Younger bench players have the prospect of playing bigger roles later in their careers. Four years is a long time, and a lot of attrition happens. Take the basketball team as an example: at one point this year, due to injuries and players quitting, the team was down to eight guys. Among those left standing, I'm sure some considered themselves at one point to be bench players but were now playing a crucial role.

Some bench players, though, are seniors and have no possibility of bigger roles to keep them interested. I won't name them, because some people disagree with me and consider this a dubious honor, but such people exist. My hat's off to them.

Whatever their motivation, bench players are a critical part of every team. In practice they emulate the other team and push the starters to improve. During games they are cheerleaders, but closer to the team. Don't underestimate this. Watching the NBA playoffs, the Cavs and Warriors bench (and fan) excitement gave them a huge boost.

On the flip side, few things are more destructive to team chemistry than bench players complaining about playing time, threatening to quit, or actually quitting. Even teams that don't get along well become close-knit groups after seeing each other everyday for a few months, and if someone is unhappy it affects everyone.

So next time your friend asks you to come to a game and he or she doesn't play, give him or her props anyway. They are well deserved, and bench players don't get enough.