What to Do if You’re Not Getting a Lot of Playing Time

You train to play

You train to play. So what should you do when the amount of time you get to compete during a game is significantly less than you’d like?

When this happens it can be incredibly frustrating. You put in all that work only to be rewarded by sitting on the bench. At times it can feel hopeless and as though you’ll never break through and regain coach’s confidence in you.

I’ve worked with athletes who’ve been dealing with a lack of playing time, and I experienced this myself at times when I was playing. And so I know first hand just how difficult of a situation this is to deal with.

But I also know how important of a situation it is to handle in a positive way.

When you are spending more time on the bench than you’d like, many negative forms of thought can develop, and with them come many mental blocks that will lower your performance when you do get your opportunity.

Whenever I’m working with an athlete who isn’t getting as much playing time as they’d like, our main focus is on keeping them in a healthy and positive mindset, along with putting them in the best position to succeed when their time comes.

What I’m going to do in this article is break down a few tips you can use if you’re not getting a lot of playing time right now. But first, we need to discuss the importance of control.

Remember What You Can Control

Before any of the tips outlined below will help, there’s a key concept you must understand…what you can control.

When you’re not getting as much playing time as you’d like and are stuck on the sidelines, it’s easy to begin stressing and worrying about aspects of the game you can’t control.

The number one aspect being playing time itself!

I know it’s difficult, since your goal is to gain more time on the field or court, but the truth is, that’s your coach’s decision. You can do things to influence their decision, but you cannot control playing time.

Another uncontrollable I’ve seen athletes begin to focus on is how well their teammates are playing.

Now I know you’re a good teammate, but that doesn’t cover up the fact that at times you wish the person playing in front of you would start playing badly so that you can get your opportunity.

I get it, I’ve done it before. We’re all human. But the truth is, we can’t control how other people perform. And focusing on that, and wishing them ill, will only cause us to feel guilty and to have unnecessary worries.

A third major aspect I’ve seen athletes focus on that is out of their control is the outcome of their performance.

This is a really interesting one, because you know that you need to produce more during practices, and especially when you get your opportunity during games, in order to gain more playing time.

But the truth is, outcomes do not happen by worrying about them. You get the outcome you want by focusing on the process that will get you there.

You can control the process, you cannot control the outcome.

There are many more uncontrollable things that you may worry about when you’re not getting as much playing time, but those are the three major ones I see.

Now, the reason it’s important to recognize them as things you can’t control, is because of the negative impact trying to control them and focusing too much on them will have on your mindset and performance.

With the most impactful being the mental state you end up being in when you do get the opportunity to play.

Why You Play Timidly & Tight When You Do Get Your Chance

What commonly happens when athletes are not getting as much playing time as they’d like, is that when they do get the opportunity to play, they perform timidly and tight.

Have you ever experienced this? Where it didn’t feel like you were playing relaxed and free? Instead, you were tense and almost felt as though you were holding yourself back?

This is due to fear and anxiety, both of which are caused by trying to control things you can’t control. And in this scenario, what you’re trying to control is playing time.

When you go out there, you may feel like you need to play perfectly. You can’t make a mistake because then all your hopes of getting more playing time will be shattered.

But when you are afraid of making mistakes, you will typically make more mistakes, because you aren’t playing with confidence. You are playing with fear.

Anxiety also forms when you’re worried about making mistakes, and specifically what will happen if you do make a mistake and if coach will ever play you again.

This sports performance anxiety leads to tightness, keeping you from performing freely.

But it’s confidence and the ability to perform freely that are what truly put you in the position to play well, and as a result, get more playing time.

Which is why it’s crucial you are not trying to control how much playing time you get, how well others play, or even how well you play when you do get out there.

All your focus needs to be on the process — what you can control. And that’s what the tips outlined below will help you do.

What You Can Do if You’re Not Getting a Lot of Playing Time

The tips I’ve outlined all have one thing in common: they are within your control to make happen.

As an athlete, whether or not you’re getting a lot of playing time right now, you want to be sure you are focusing on what you can control. The more you focus on what you can control, the greater your chances are of succeeding.

With that being said, just because something is in your control does not mean it’s easy! These tips will be challenging, so have patience with yourself.

But if you do apply them, you will be putting yourself in the best position you can to get more playing time, along with making sure you manage the situation in a more positive way.

Tip #1: Talk to Coach

I’m going to begin with this one because it’s honestly the most difficult. When you aren’t playing a lot, talking to coach about why can seem terrifying! Not to mention the fact you don’t want to appear whiney or like you’re begging.

The good news is, if you approach coach in the way I’m going to show you, you won’t come across like you’re begging, and you’ll hopefully get some valuable information you can use to improve.

And that right there is the key thing to remember: your goal with talking to coach is to gain information you can use and apply to become a better player.

It’s as simple as that.

You are not, in fact, going to them looking for more playing time. Because here’s the truth…coach isn’t playing you for a reason. Whether it’s a reason you agree with or not is a different story.

But in their eyes there is something you lack, or aren’t doing well enough, that is keeping them from playing you more during games.

Your aim is to find out what that is and get to work on improving!

Here’s an example of something you could say to your coach when you go talk to them: “Hey coach, what would you like to see me work on and improve in order to become a more valuable member of the team?”

You aren’t asking for more playing time, you’re simply asking for information. And yeah, coach is going to know the underlying motivation is to play more, but that’s the whole reason you’re on the team, to compete!

But you just don’t want to blatantly ask for more playing time since that seems selfish. By asking for what coach would like to see you improve, you are much more likely to get a valuable answer.

And when you do get your answer, your job is to get to work on improving. Nothing will change unless you do. So take the information coach gave you and put it into practice. Working each day to become a better player, not to get more playing time.

More playing time will come as a result of you developing and becoming a more valuable asset to the team.

Tip #2: Be a Good Teammate

Look, I know this is a bit corny, but when you’re not playing you need to be as good of a teammate as you can be.

Cheer your team on, get into the game, support them when they’re down. Do all the little things that you would like someone to do to you if you were out there playing.

Number one, this is going to make you feel better. Even if you have to force yourself to cheer in the beginning, it will give you a better feeling inside than hoping for your teammates to fail.

But what it will also do is show coach that you’re a team player. And coaches reward players who they feel are in it for the team.

So from an opportunity standpoint, you are putting yourself in a better position of getting more chances by showing you’re a good teammate.

Tip #3: Focus on the Process When You Do Play

When you do get your chance to play, it’s important you aren’t performing tight or timidly. Your aim needs to be to perform with as much confidence as you can.

Now I know that may be difficult since you haven’t been getting much playing time recently. So, you’re likely to feel rusty. That’s where focusing on the process helps.

When your time comes to play, it will be natural for you to start thinking about needing to play well and not wanting to make a mistake. After all, you know that if you put on a good show, you’re much more likely to get more opportunities.

However, such focus on the outcomes, as discussed earlier, is only going to hold you back.

Your job is to focus on the small aspects of your game that will put you in the best position to get the outcome you want. To help you with this, you want to set performance objectives for games.

These are cues you set that you will focus on when you play.

When you compete, you shouldn’t be thinking, you should just play. Your training is where you build muscle memory and focus on mechanics. Games are the time to allow your body to take over.

But here’s the problem, when you play right now you are thinking. You’re thinking about the outcome and how much you can’t make a mistake.

So, if you’re already thinking, you want to make sure your thoughts are helping you rather than hurting you.

Performance objectives make that happen by guiding your mind onto specific targets that will help your body perform naturally.

When you set your performance objectives, you want to set one on the mental side and one on the physical side.

The mental side is all about your mindset and attitude. An example would be to focus on feeling confident no matter what.

The physical side is all about your mechanics and technical play. But remember, you aren’t overthinking your mechanics, you are simply focusing on one specific cue that should unlock your body’s ability to perform freely.

Here’s a video that goes into more details on setting and using performance objectives during games.

Tip #4: Focus on Building Proactive Confidence

The longer you spend on the bench, the easier it is to doubt yourself.

Simply the lack of playing time will reduce the trust you have in yourself to go out there and execute. But also, the fact coach isn’t playing you, can leave you questioning your skills.

But remember, your job is to stay ready and to put yourself in the best position to succeed when you get your opportunity. Which is why you must be proactively building your confidence.

The next time you get to play, you want to feel as confident as though you’d been playing all along. This will help you feel more comfortable, as well as keep you from performing tight and timidly like I mentioned earlier.

Now, to build creative confidence, you want to see your confidence as a skill that can and must be improved, just like any other physical skill.

In the first tip I talked about approaching coach, seeking to find what you need to work on. Well, what would you do if coach told you you need to work on a specific skill? Hopefully you’d get to work on improving that skill.

You need to take the same approach to your confidence!

To proactively build your confidence there are specific tools and techniques you can use. Here are two of the main ones, linked to articles I’ve written that go into more detail on each one:

Another exercise you can do is outlining your strengths and then reviewing them each day. This gives you the opportunity each day to remind yourself of your strengths as a player and all the reasons you have to feel confident.

Here’s an article that goes into more detail on proactively building your confidence.

Final Thoughts

Not getting a lot of playing time is frustrating. You’re training and practicing hard with the goal of being a valuable producer for your team. So finding yourself watching from the sidelines is disheartening.

But the main thing you want to remember is to focus on what you can control in that situation.

You cannot control playing time, that’s coach’s decision. You also can’t control how well you play when you do get the opportunity to get out there.

By focusing on what you can’t control, you increase the chances of playing with fear and anxiety.

What you want to do is focus on what you can control. The four tips outlined above will help keep your focus on controllables, all while putting you in the best position to succeed when your time comes.

If you have any questions about this article, or any other sport psychology topic, please fill out the form below and I will be happy to get back to you.

Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of success in all that you do.

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Please contact us to learn more about mental coaching and to see how it can improve your mental game and increase your performance. Complete the form below, call (252)-371-1602 or schedule an introductory coaching call here.

Eli Straw

Eli is a sport psychology consultant and mental game coach who works 1-1 with athletes to help them improve their mental skills and overcome any mental barriers keeping them from performing their best. He has an M.S. in psychology and his mission is to help athletes and performers reach their goals through the use of sport psychology & mental training.

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