Though athletes might blame coaches for uneven playing time distribution, coaches at Palo Alto High School are continually striving to balance athletes’ individual improvement with winning in competition.
There is no doubt — Paly’s sports program has a competition-driven attitude. A purely student-centered program that only focused on individual improvement would reduce the excitement of competition. In the team-based sports volleyball, basketball, lacrosse, water polo, baseball and football, playing time is limited because only five to 11 players take the court or field at one time —although the entire team consists of many more players. In theory, second-string players get substituted in at some point in the game, but this only happens when the entire team’s skill level is equivalent. In practice, the number of players given active roles is limited.
“I was actually one of the starters for [the offensive]-line and [defensive]-line,” sophomore Albert Hwang said about playing on the freshman and sophomore football team last fall. “Our coaches do tend to play the same people over and over again. Throughout all the games, you start getting neglected [if you are a] second or third string [player].”
Even in the more individually focused sports, where one would expect equal playing time for each athlete, some athletes play more than others. In badminton, the seedings for each match get filled according to the number of players available from each school, and the extra players sit out for the game.
Last spring, second-year badminton player Jane, who requested her name be changed, played few matches during the varsity badminton season.
“All the varsity matches were [filled by the more experienced players], so we had an excess of players, and there wasn’t anything for me to play,” Jane said.
Athletes explained that playing time is not just a matter of time in the spotlight, but in fact improves performance — the experience strengthens skills and confidence. When players spend a season sitting out, they become disgruntled because they feel deprived of an opportunity to develop.
“This year, because I’m a senior, I get a fair share, but I think a lot of the time underclassmen struggle with getting a fair share,” varsity lacrosse player Michael Beisheim said. “I think it’s really hard to be dedicated to the team when you’re not getting playing time in games, because [at practice] you can only try hard [but] you’re not representing your team on the field when it counts.”
According to Jane, her experience on the sidelines had a serious effect on her ego.
“Not being able to play an entire year lowers your self esteem,” Jane said. “You don’t get trained as much and you don’t get to learn how to improve yourself under pressure and you don’t get as much advice.”
Players may feel resentful towards coaches and accuse them of only thinking about winning. However, most coaches understand the predicament and want to make the best choice for the team. In many cases, they are trying to find a balance between providing opportunities for all the athletes to develop and winning in the competitions.
“No one wants to sit on the sidelines,” physical education teacher and football head coach Jake Halas said. “We just want to build a team atmosphere.”
According to athletic director Jason Fung, athletes who find themselves spending excess time on the bench can improve their situation through their own efforts. Fung thinks athletes should accept that they have some areas needing improvement and take steps to correct them.
“You have to think as [an athlete],” Fung said. “‘Why am I not getting in?’ Well, I have to work on X, Y and Z. I need to work on these things. There are kids better than me.”
Halas, in concurrence, believes contributing to the team can mean doing something other than playing games. He thinks athletes should define belonging to the team as the important part of the whole experience.
“We have guys [who] might not be big and strong enough to get on the field,” Halas said. “Maybe they’re not ready to play, they’re too young or too small, [or] they’re not quite ready to be a starter — but they help us as a scout player, a practice squad player. They practice more against the starters, but when the time comes, they’re ready to jump up and be the starter.”
Fung pointed out that part of the reason players get less time could be miscommunication with the coach over the amount of effort a player puts into practice and games. Players who appear indifferent to the sport may leave a negative impression on the coach. Players who have a positive attitude often get more playing time.
“If you’re thinking, ‘I’m the best player out there and I’m not playing, then, why not?’” Fung said. “It’s all from the point of view of a coach. Whether it’s correct or not, it’s hard to argue.”
Halas agreed with Fung’s perspective that players who receive less playing time need to question themselves and speak to the coach. Halas wants to communicate with players about how they can best help the team and how to compete for a starting job. “I encourage the kids to talk to me about that,” Halas said.
Although players often question the coach’s choices, Halas insists that the coaches have the players’ best interests in mind.
“I want the kids to come back,” Halas said. “How do you do that? You let them play. Very few of these players go make a living playing sports, so we want to make this experience a life experience.”
Paly’s tough competition might mean that athletes who feel the need for more game time and attention may excel more in club sports than at school.
Varsity water polo player Andrew Josefov observes that for swimmers, swimming for a club helps them focus on their individual skills.
“[A swimmer’s] club coach knows more about them than their high school coach,” Josefov said. “He knows what they need specifically. The high school coach kind of has to generalize what the entire team needs [because] he sees them for only three months in a year.”
Sophomore varsity swimmer Kaitlyn Nakamura added that the coach’s “goal is to make a unified team” and not necessarily focus on one player.
Halas hopes that athletes can take upon themselves the responsibility of contributing to the team. With a team-based attitude and inward reflection, athletes can gain a different perspective of playing time and bounce back from sitting out.
According to Halas, in order to succeed in sports, athletes must recognize that they can be the best version of themselves despite any setbacks. Halas pointed out several off-season football athletes who train in the weight room and noted that they found motivation within themselves to improve.
“There are some guys here who aren’t going to play every game,” Halas said. “But look, they’re here, lifting weights in February, and we don’t play until the fall. If I can build depth and get these guys in who are working hard every day, that’s what I strive for as a coach.”
Jane, the badminton player, notes that her personality has changed her viewpoint towards her situation.
“I’m a really spiteful person,” Jane said. “So when I don’t get to play, I work even harder.”
Sophomore and junior varsity tennis player Samuel Yun also harbored a similar drive to succeed despite a knee injury last year that forced him to sit out for most of the matches.
“[Last year] really just left me with a sense that I still had something to prove,” Yun said. “I wasn’t able to play nearly as well as I was capable of being so I was left with the determination to show that I had something to offer the team.”
According to Halas, when players find ways to improve and work with the coach, they can ameliorate their challenges. As current head coach and a former football player who also had to work to match the skill levels of his teammates, Halas said that applying the right perspective to any hardship is a lifelong skill and is what makes playing high school sports worthwhile.
“It’s about the experience of going through all these trials,” Halas said. “There are highs and there are lows, and football will bring you to tears physically and mentally … but there’s so much about life that football brings, [and] that’s what the kids should be getting out of it.”