Why this matters
Not every young athlete can be neatly sorted into bench warmer or superstar. Some fall in the middle, and they carry unique needs and can pose specific challenges for coaches.
This spring, the HBO drama series “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty” took audiences through the National Basketball Association franchise’s struggles to adapt to the evolutionary change created by choosing to build a team around star rookie Earvin “Magic” Johnson.
Led by Johnson, the Lakers won a championship. But the next season was choppy. In 1981, Johnson was out for 101 days with a knee injury. All-star point guard Norm Nixon took over running the offense exclusively, which he had done successfully for two years before Johnson’s arrival. Upon Johnson’s return, however, Nixon was relegated to shooting guard. He wasn’t thrilled with the change:
“I’m not one of the chosen people. … Playing with Magic, I’m the number 2 guard. I’m not a number 2 guard. It’s not what I do best. This is not the best situation for me personally. If I can play point guard, I can be an All-Pro. I could be that on a lot of teams.
"I thought Magic would come in and have to adjust to our game, but we had to adjust to him.”
Nixon felt discriminated against, not favored. He felt that he was being forced to sacrifice his talent and opportunities, and he felt that building the Lakers’ identity around Johnson as the lead guard was not what was best for him or the team. He felt that Johnson hadn’t yet earned his higher position.
Within basketball and across sports, Nixon’s frustration with a stratified pecking order isn’t unique. We see it in youth basketball, college basketball, and the NBA. Not being chosen the No. 1 guard made Nixon what I call a middle-status player. It’s a position that’s neither the best nor the worst. For some, middle status may be a comfortable fit. But because Nixon wanted to be the No. 1 guard and believed he deserved it, his being middle-status was both a position and a condition.
Middle-status athletes often feel as though they are being mistreated or disrespected – and not being treated with the level of status, appreciation, and deference that they deserve and that their performance and reputation should afford. In some cases, this may be accompanied by or trigger mental health issues.
At age 26, Nixon was a member of the Showtime Lakers, a still-celebrated dynasty that changed the way the game was played. If it was painful for him to accept his middle-status condition, imagine how a kid in the same situation might feel. Sports are core to kids’ identities. Sports are visible and significant. Other people care about them, too. Many middle-status kids feel blocked or as if they are not being given a fair shot. They feel discriminated against. Being in a state of status disagreement hurts.
I coached Jelani several years ago. He was tall for his age and came from a family that understood and embraced basketball. His maternal grandfather was a high school basketball coach, and his mother and I had watched our boys grow in height and skills over the two years that I’d coached him and my son, Clay. In those days, I coached a travel ball team of seventh- and eighth-graders and ninth- and 10th-graders, mostly middle-status players, from our Missouri town of about 133,000. While this younger team competed locally, the older team competed regionally, traveling throughout the Midwest – as far as eight or nine hours away for tournaments.
I ran into Jelani’s mom, Wendy, after our travel ball season ended. We were paying Tommy, a former college player at the local university, to train our sons at a basketball workout. I hadn’t seen her in a couple of months, and on this occasion, we were talking as parents, not coach and parent. Our boys were now in high school, growing taller quickly, and we shared what had been going on. We were feeling this mix of excitement and pride that a parent gets when you think of how much work your kid has put in up to this point. We believed hard work paid off. Our conversation got deeper, exchanging thoughts about our boys’ work ethic, discipline, commitment, and overall maturation. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, our conversation shifted into parent-coach talk.
Subtle at first, then Wendy became more and more direct. She told me she had spent significant time helping Jelani to heal from past experiences and that rebuilding Jelani’s confidence was emotional labor. She had given him guidance about dealing with challenges. She encouraged and reassured him. There was a growing sharpness to her comments, and I realized that the banter was over, she was speaking about me. But instead of being explicit, she continued to talk about how much Jelani was hurt and her damage control. She said she told him he had a genetic advantage, that he would be taller than a lot of these boys who had been played instead of him. And she said she encouraged him by saying, “No coach is going to play those little guys. Not if they’re trying to win.”
And then her feelings truly surfaced. Wendy told me that Jelani used to get really upset with me, that sometimes after practice he’d be excited because he thought his big opportunity had arrived. Because I spoke to the team in absolutes – do this or don’t expect to play – and gave ultimatums to guys who played instead of him, Jelani would go home thinking that there was going to be a shift, that he would benefit. But most of the time he didn’t get more opportunities; I didn’t play him any more than usual. He felt I was not keeping my word, that there should be consequences for others and he deserved more time because he complied.
Wendy sparked my study – a self-exploration and an investigation into all players I coached who asked for more playing time over my 20 years of coaching.
Middle-status players have limited opportunities. In competitive settings, not everyone will be treated the same as star players. Some athletes have to sit and watch from the sidelines, waiting to get in the game. Those who aren’t starters or considered “go-to” players have to manage uncertainty – not knowing how much they’ll play from game to game, not knowing if they will be subbed back into a game after being taken out, and knowing that playing time and being a star is not always a simple meritocracy. These players do not control their fates.
Middle-status players are essentially stuck in traffic, with someone ahead of them. Maybe they have to split playing time, or maybe the coach doesn’t want them to score or try to do too much. For middle-status players, something has to happen to the star players in order to open opportunities for more playing time and the freedom to make mistakes.
If someone has ambitions of being a “known” athlete, one with a positive reputation who is considered vital to a team’s success and acknowledged by others, then being middle-status is a detour, even an off-ramp. Middle status is a constraint that determines how much you play, what is expected and not expected of you when you do play, and the extent to which you are allowed to take chances and play through errors.
In youth sport, middle status can be acceptable or unacceptable to a young athlete, depending on their ambition. A kid who wants or believes they deserve star treatment – that their entire future is dependent upon being a star in the present – is going to find it harder to manage competitive stress than a kid who believes that sports are about personal growth and being part of something bigger than themselves.
I know the mental health perils of those who find middle status unacceptable because I have lived and observed that condition from various vantage points –as an athlete, dad, coach, and researcher. I was a middle-status high school basketball player, as were both of my sons. I also have coached and studied middle-status players – anyone who coaches competitive team sports has and will coach middle-status players – in AAU, schools, and recreation programs for 20 years.
As a high school basketball player at Bishop O’Dowd in Oakland, I struggled through my junior year to improve and to impress a coach who didn’t seem to recognize my potential. Among Black players, Coach had a reputation of favoring White players. And I faced traffic: I played the same position as Coach’s favorite player, Eric, who was a standout football player. I trained hard, listened to motivational tapes, and focused on what I needed to do to become a star. My game improved. During the summer and fall of my senior year, while Eric played football, my status improved, internally and beyond school. In practice, Coach told me I had the green light to shoot. A couple of college coaches asked about me – even one from a big-name school. A California basketball recruiting magazine listed me as a “player to watch” on our team. When we scrimmaged a team in preseason, I was a starter. I had changed my status, moving closer to being a star. Even named co-captain. But when football season ended and Eric returned to practice, not only was I not a star – I wasn’t even a starter anymore.
This sudden, unjustified, and seemingly arbitrary change in my status – which had been on an upward trajectory – created the kind of dissonance that many young athletes experience: People are not seeing you as you see yourself. Not being seen can wreak havoc on self-esteem, confidence, resilience, and an athlete’s ability and willingness to cooperate. Not having the full support of others can intensify pressure to perform.
Feeling betrayed, I directed my hurt and anger into collecting intel. I analyzed the patterns of who Coach played and for how many minutes and found that the variable was where we played. When we played predominantly White Catholic schools, he played our White players, but when we played against predominantly Black local public schools, he played our Black players. To me, this breakdown of playing time not only contradicted his methodology of awarding playing time based on stats but also was clearly evidence of his rumored racism.
The researcher in 18-year-old me couldn’t wait to confront him with my findings. A week after identifying these trends, I met one-on-one with Coach, presented my research, and asked why he played Black and White players differently. He didn’t have an answer. I wanted him to admit his personal role in our playing time and performances. The pattern was understandable if Coach thought our White players were scared to play against Black teams, especially public school teams. He might have believed that this approach was saving our White teammates’ confidence. It also gave our team the best chance at winning, as long as our Black guys could outplay the Black teams. At a basic level, my findings proved that Coach impacted performances in terms of opportunities. In these public school games, middle-status Black players got the chance to score season highs because we didn’t have to split time with as many teammates.
I quit the team midseason. I was no longer myself and no longer acting like a team captain. I had become bitter. My only agency was to pick and choose when I wanted to play. I would go into the locker with the team and then not dress out. I would use chronic injuries, knee tendinitis and back spasms, as my excuse. Coach didn’t like it, and I played less when I dressed out. This made me more embarrassed by my status. It also took a lot of energy, and I felt trapped.
After speaking with my parents, I made the decision to leave the team. But the pain and damage from my senior year at Bishop O’Dowd lasted for more than a decade. I had a love-hate relationship with basketball. I had fun at times and loved playing with my closest friends who pushed me to score and believed in me, but I was my harshest critic and came to overthink the game, worrying too much about whether or not I played well, even during afternoon pickup games with college professors and coaches.
Today, youth sports are a $15 billion-a-year industry. This is because sports matter. They exemplify Americans’ performance orientation: We judge ourselves by past performances, by how others do, and by wins and losses. Sports have not been extracurricular for decades, since at least the 1980s. They are core to American culture and global culture – and core to many people’s identities. They structure family economics, free time, and identities. All of this is why kids are supposed to take sports seriously, to demonstrate their work ethic, to practice, to be disciplined, to specialize in a single sport, to “want it.” And opportunities have to be fought for, because second place doesn’t get it. As Ricky Bobby says in Talladega Nights, “If you ain’t first, you’re last.” Timing is of the essence. The visibility of sports, the compressed timeline to succeed, high stakes, and personal and family expectations combine to enhance the stress of competition. More kids are looking to be stars in order to get a high return on their and their families’ investment.
In a binary world of winners and losers, with so much at stake, young people increasingly experience burnout. They worry about participating in sports and have perfectionistic concerns. A 2016 study summarizes perfectionistic concerns as “the pursuit of exacting standards imposed by significant others, perceived negative evaluation from others, and discrepancy between one’s expectations and performance.” Playing time, which is by nature in limited supply, is a big issue and can be the pivotal reason young athletes continue or stop participating in team sports.
Playing time is not only an opportunity; it also is correlated with identity. Those who play have one identity. Those who don’t play have another. And those who play with freedom are altogether different from those who play with restrictions. Those who are at the top not only get to play but also are wanted and sought after, have multiple playing options, and gain access to the best resources (often at lower rates or no cost). At the same time, those who are not deemed stars but think that they could be stars feel discriminated against. Club and travel teams generally require tryouts and selection, which sort kids and create hierarchies. On teams, coaches label players and give and limit opportunities based on a players’ social position, status, and roles. A coach’s assessments can challenge the athlete’s identity, transforming it from aspiring athlete to failed athlete.
The Aspen Institute’s State of Play 2017 report included a look at how athletes felt: “While the percentage of core participants who play team sports on a regular basis declined again, total participation slightly increased. In 2016, 56.3 percent of kids ages 6 to 12 played a sport (organized or unorganized) at least one day a year. This figure has been holding steady for several years as many other participation numbers decline.”Participation doesn’t feel good, and kids cite “bad experiences,” “playing time,” and “coaching” as the main reasons for dropping out. I get it. I personally felt the effects of being middle status long after my high school playing days. It took a long time for me to let go of how my coach treated me.
Responsible Player Development
Not all middle-status players have harmful experiences. My son, Kenan, was a middle-status player whose lingering effects from being middle status have been very different. He has fond memories of his experience now. He didn’t quit even when he could no longer trust his coach’s words. There are some clear differences in our experiences.
While we both played for winning programs, his team was more successful and won a state championship. An even bigger difference is that he had teammates who became close friends, and his best friend was on the team. At the time, Kenan said that he was playing for his “guys,” his teammates. He had something much larger to play for than himself. He was not alienated by being “middled” by his coach. He felt isolated sometimes, for sure, but he had support on his team, friends telling him that he was OK, and teammate friends who worked out with him, who questioned the coach about how he played Kenan, and who verified that Kenan was a good player.
My advice to coaches at all levels is to understand how they “middle” some players, forcing this experience and this condition onto them. The key question I ask is: “Do you need them?”
If the answer is “yes,” then I make them aware of how their middling can affect individual players – their performances and their mental health. Coaches will talk about role players and how important they are, right? Well, we need an improved understanding of how we can help all athletes maximize their potential:
We have to be developmentally minded. Athletes have different needs at different times and stages of their lives.
We have to consider how we exclude by structural identities – race and ethnicity, gender, sexuality, ability, etc., and how we exclude or middle athletes through our status assignments.
Coaches and leagues need to clearly state playing time expectations – whether teams are competitive and win-driven or developmental, where everyone plays. Coaches should be held accountable for communicating expectations.
We need to reassess and restate the benefits of sports and be deliberate and intentional about the benefits and challenges of sports participation.
We need to fund and develop a legitimate youth sport coaching workforce. This workforce needs to be trained to ensure that kids get more out of sports. In particular, the workforce needs to be diverse and trained in the areas of human development, diversity, equity and inclusion, communication, and mental health.
Coaching with Clarity
Competitive athletes need role clarity, individualized plans, and conversations about playing time. Coaches should be explicit with middle-status athletes. Make it clear that they are indeed not the star! That there is traffic and their position is locked unless something happens to a teammate ahead of them.
Coaches need to communicate to athletes what playing time allocations will be and that all of this is contingent upon time, score, and situation. Coaches will need to stop using motivational strategies that manipulate; rather, they need to mean what they say, whenever they mention playing time. If they say, with teammates around, “I’m not going to play you if you keep turning the ball over,” they need to sub the athlete when they make turnovers. This is obvious, but it’s not something we’re always conscious of. For many, it is a default comment, like “If you don’t rebound, I will find someone else who will.” Or deliberately giving praise to a middle-status player while warning a star or higher status player: “OK! OK! Jeff out here ballin’; looks like Todd got some competition.” This sets Jeff up; he may expect more playing time.
Look out for signs of players disconnecting – feeling isolated and middle status. Athletes who aren’t moved by a coach’s praise are hopeless; they don’t believe that Coach is going to play them, regardless of what they do. When Coach talks about playing time, middle-status kids listen and hope that they will get more. Also, when Coach praises one kid, Coach is not praising another kid. In my last example, Jeff is praised, Todd is warned. But the praise and warning are implicitly received by other teammates as well.
Working through expectations is the real tough part. Kids learn to expect clear and direct communication, and, trusting this, they can ask and know what to expect. Then they can make their own decisions: Will they continue? This candor is what is needed for players to feel embraced and respected rather than manipulated. Understanding expectations can mitigate the mental health issues that plague kids who feel undervalued, unappreciated, and deceived.
Finally, coaches need to learn new motivational techniques that teach cooperation and being a teammate. We expect this to happen organically, but small groups reinforce what happens in society. In some arenas, truly, if you ain’t first, you are last. It doesn’t have to be this way. Sport can be a leading space for teaching equity, inclusion, and belonging because of the shared mutual interest in play and working together.
Athletes continue to tell us they are not OK with their actions and words. In response, the sports industry has acknowledged it can and should be doing more to support the people who are its lifeblood, from athletes to coaches and beyond.
Sport is both reckoning with its roots, uncovering how history and habit created circumstances that don’t suit everyone who competes, as well as navigating new territory during a time of unprecedented strain on our mental well-being. By making mental health a priority, sport has an opportunity to confer a host of benefits supporting mental wellness and to be more safe, inclusive, and inspiring.