The Reserve

Whilst coaching my school football team today a reserve from the opposition side caught my eye. He was a tall lad, who clearly hadn’t grown accustomed to his new height. A bundle of raw energy, he was running the line for his team. As he sidestepped up and down the pitch, trying to keep inline with the last defender you could see he was living every pass, shot and tackle that happened on the pitch. He didn’t stop moving, or positively talking to his teammates on the pitch the whole time I watched him. When there was a break in play he ran on to give them water. When there was an injury he was concerned about his team mate. He did this from the first whistle, to the last whistle. In the end the only ball he got to kick was the one inside his head.

After the game all the players, coaches and parents had refreshments in the canteen. I found myself seeking the reserve out and introducing myself. The reserve was called Jamal and I asked him “were you disappointed not getting onto the pitch today?” Jamal’s response was “of course, but I’m used to it. I’ve been reserve for the last four games and not got to play.” Four hours of school football as a reserve and hadn’t got to touch the ball. I was shocked, then memories of my younger self came flooding back.

This is something I would often do as a younger teacher. Selecting players I knew I would not use, unless I was forced to. I remember the excuses I made to them, however in the end it really only boiled down to one thing, winning. Not playing to win and being competitive, but winning solely for my self esteem and ego. I have learnt over time that feelings from winning are vivid and intoxicating. However they only last for a few hours or perhaps a day at best before they start to subside. School sport must be seen through a lens both deeper and wider than just winning. For many children it is their first and only experience of sport and those experiences can last a life time and shape future involvement. Let us not make it their last by keeping them on the side. Sport matters so much because all that matters in life, also matters in sport. Why should we close the opportunity to learn those lessons so early on in a child’s life just for the sake of a win or two?

I felt dismay after speaking to Jamal, so I plucked up the courage to question his coach on it. The answer was he just wasn’t good enough. I choked, not just because of the response but that it was a mirror held up to my previous practice. So he was good enough to make the effort and attend training. Good enough to be in the squad. Good enough to travel away to a school fixture. Good enough to run the line. Good enough to bring the water bottles on and off the pitch. Good enough to collect the equipment up at the end of the game. But not good enough to play? These are questions I should have asked myself a long time ago. 

Who and what are we protecting with this attitude? This was a question I was asked by a parent who challenged me on this issue around six years ago. His son had travelled away with a school team. He had given up the chance to attend a friend’s party, putting loyalty to the school before this and was rewarded with three minutes of play after the game had been decided. I tried to respond but any answer I gave just wasn’t good enough and I couldn’t answer the question. It made me and the rest of the department think hard about our attitude not just to reserves but to school sport as a vehicle for a child’s education. Now every reserve gets a full half, no matter what. The squad understand this and the reasons behind our thinking as we share them regularly: Keeping as many involved in school sport, for as long as possible and in the best environment as possible will benefit all in the squad in the long run and hopefully beyond school. 

As the opposition left I saw the coach thank Jamal for his time and effort. Thanks are all well and good, but the greatest thanks a reserve can get from us as coaches is time in the game. We need to reconsider the reserve in school sport. The reserve needs to be more than an extra player in a squad, serving as a possible substitute. We should perhaps consider an alternative meaning of reserve. To protect them by cultivating a culture that understands the need to play and develop everyone. To refrain from delivering a judgement or decision without due consideration or evidence. This means we need to ensure we give the reserve enough time on the pitch. If you’ve picked them, then get them on and let them play. Look after all your players and let the result look after itself.

11 thoughts on “The Reserve

  1. So true. A top coach/teacher has the ability to work with his players and rotate them fairly. Roll on roll off subs help to make this possible. You choose players because they have something that can change the game whether it be defensive or attacking.


    1. Had an interesting conversation with a parent regarding rolling subs recently. I’m very much for it in school sport where possible. He was against it. It felt it didn’t allow enough time to play the game and increased the chance of injury with players getting warm and then cooling down. What’s your take on his thoughts?


  2. Excellent, was just talking about this a few days ago when I saw my daughters team win an all Ireland final but felt a grieved that so many of the reserves never got to play ▶


    1. Thanks for sharing Thomas. It can be destroying. An ex-student of mine has just been an unused sub for the Varsity Match for the last two years, meaning he hasn’t received his blue. Now the decision by the coach, might have been the right decision, but it has made him quit a sport that he has played for over a decade. It is a difficult thing to get right, but one we should have in our mind when working with youth players.


  3. Time for a confession. On Saturday I watched my son’s team play. It was a really good game and at 1-1 was poised for a good finish half way through the second half. At this point the two coaches were discussing whether to make a substitution or not. Clearly they were going to weaken the team by bringing on a weaker player. One coach was wanting to leave as is while the other wanted to make the change. At this point they wheeled round to me and asked what I would do? I reacted the quickly (and wrongly) saying I would leave the substitution a little longer as it was so close (the team don’t win many games). Thankfully the Head Coach made the call to make the substitution as his philosophy is to be inclusive and give everyone game time. The game finished 1-1 with the substitution having no negative effect on the game. For the rest of the day I couldn’t stop thinking about this as I allowed my ego to rule. Despite my own beliefs being to be as fair as possible to my own players, I jumped to a decision/belief which clearly still lies deep within me.

    This post just triggered the same feelings again and really highlights how much our ego gets in the way.

    Well done in making me look even deeper and ensuring I don’t make the same mistake again.


    1. Hi David. Thanks for sharing this moment with me. I also have the same internal struggle as well, especially in close games or cup fixtures. It’s hard to find balance as a win can be hugely positive for the moral of a team and bonds them together. I’ve made this black and white and perhaps it isn’t so?

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Reading this makes me hope Eddie Jones’ “finisher” tag catches on a school and junior club level! Let’s have the starters value the role of everyone in the squad!!


    1. Agreed. We have to keep asking what school sport is for? If it is a vehicle for a child’s education then we need to keep as many involved, for as long as possible, in the best environment. That means making decisions that might not put winning as the priority.


  5. This is an aspect of sport I feel very strongly about and have seen the negative repercussions of, many times over the years. School and underage sport should be about participation and growth, not winning. It should not just be about perceived ability at a period in time, because, as highlighted here, perceived ability is situational and conditional on a youngsters physical and developmental stage. How many future champions, or indeed lifetime athletes, have been lost to the egos of “coaches” whose only interest was winning?
    This also relates quite critically to points raised in other posts on the affective aspect of sport. What is the emotional fallout of narrow thinking like this on the Jamals of this world?
    Well done on highlighting this in your post in such a strong, clear and compassionate way.


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