Sports·Analysis

Why 'shortening the bench' in competitive youth sports can be a good thing

A player on the other team was just about to step on the ice when one of the coaches grabbed his jersey and held him back. Another player quickly manoeuvred around him and stepped out on to the ice. It was clear to everyone in the arena what was happening. But this wasn't an NHL game — it was a competitive youth hockey game.

The conflict between development and results can be tricky for coaches to navigate

Competitive youth hockey coaches have to balance the development of their players with the expectation of success from parents. (Peter Evans/CBC )

It was the playoffs. The game was tight and the clock was winding down.

A player on the other team was just about to step on the ice when one of the coaches grabbed his jersey and held him back. Another player quickly manoeuvred around him and stepped out on to the ice.

It was clear to everyone in the arena what was happening: as they say in sports, the coach was shortening the bench. He was choosing to reduce the ice time of some players in order to put out what he thought were his best players.

But this wasn't an NHL game — it was a competitive youth hockey game. I felt bad for the young players who were being held back. I could see their parents barely able to contain their disappointment.

I was glad it wasn't my son, I thought to myself.

And then it was.

Development vs. results

My son is a 10-year-old goaltender on a competitive hockey team. There are two goalies who usually rotate game by game. Except for this key playoff game, the other goalie would start in his place.

I immediately thought of my son and how upset he would be. Never mind how angry I was.

Was shortening the bench necessary in a hockey game being played by 10-year-olds?

Whatever happened to all of that talk about development over results?

And then I cooled down and thought about it. I also spoke to some fellow hockey dads.

'A better chance to win'

Aaron Rosenthal has two young sons who play hockey. He says when parents sign their children up for competitive sports, it should come with certain expectations.

"I think if you're playing competitive hockey then at times it's okay to shorten the bench. I don't think shortening the bench for the whole game is appropriate but certainly in tight games and third period," Rosenthal says. "I have no problem if we shorten the bench to give the kids a better chance to win and move on to play more games."

Jeremy Mandell Is a hockey coach and a dad. His son, on occasion, has been the victim of a bench shortening. As rule, he doesn't think it's a good idea but acknowledges it does have a place on occasion.

Mandell says shortening the bench should be used as a disciplinary tool or to get a player's attention.

"If a player isn't listening or screwing around, that might be the time to miss a shift but I don't think players should miss shifts based on perceived skill," Mandell says. "I am the coach. I chose them to be on the team because I thought they were good enough. If they aren't in a position to succeed, that's my fault."

I know what many people will say. It's not only about winning. But as Rosenthal points out, there are lots of place to be play where winning isn't as central. There are hundreds of house league programs where shortening the bench isn't an option for the coach. Everybody plays no matter what.

Would my son be permanently scarred by being sidelined for one February game when he was 10 years-old? Unlikely. But maybe he could learn something. Life isn't always fair and sometimes you have to earn things you may think are rightfully yours.

"If you're playing competitive sports at some point, it's OK to tell your kid you know do you need to work harder. You need to continue to grow as a as a player and cheer on your teammates as well. That's all part of the game."

Stunted growth?

He also might learn that it is important to strive for something, that it's okay to not always be the best. And that sometimes making sacrifices isn't a bad thing.

"I don't think it has stunted kids' growth. You're talking about one or two shifts at most," Rosenthal points out.

"It doesn't have a huge overall impact. And I think it builds team camaraderie. I think winning those games allowed us to make it to the finals and all the kids I think enjoyed the joy that experience overall."

The obvious villain in all of this for parents is the coach. But, for me, that wasn't the case. For one, he communicated his plans throughout the season and this was always a possibility.

I also didn't envy his position. It's a hard job at the best of times. I give him full credit for the time and dedication he's devoted to developing my son as a goaltender and a person. As a fellow coach, I also know the pressure – both spoken and unspoken – he is under.

I know the temptation is great to put out your best team in the most important circumstances.

I also understand the pressure to win. For the coach (who isn't a parent), winning can justify to parents that the hundreds of hours of time and thousands of dollars that have been invested in the season have all been worth it.

Will my son play the next game?

I don't know. Would I like him to? Of course.

But if he doesn't, it won't be the end of the world.

About the Author

Jamie Strashin is a native Torontonian whose latest stop is the CBC Sports department. Before, he spent 15 years covering everything from city hall to courts and breaking news as a reporter for CBC News. He has also worked in Brandon, Man., and Calgary. Follow him on Twitter @StrashinCBC

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