My senior year was supposed to be my big year. I showed up to pre-season in the best shape of my life. I had shed 15 pounds in quarantine. I was slimmer than ever, yet stronger than ever, and my IQ was higher than it had ever been.
And on the first week of school, I broke my hand. I had surgery a few weeks later, had complications throughout the season, and ended up with a second fracture in the same hand. I played 3 minutes the entire season.
It was my 2nd season in a row with a season ending injury, but this one ended my career.
The whole season, I showed up, clapped, and cheered, when all I wanted to do was cry.
In the world of athletics, it’s a race to the top of the ladder. Everyone wants to play 40 minutes a game. Everyone wants to lead their team in scoring. Everyone wants to be the best. We are constantly chasing perfection, success, and awards. No one wants to be the bench warmer. But there I was, injured, at the end of the bench, knowing my career was over. It’s not like I was an underclassman with hope that my time was coming. My time had come and gone. I was sentenced to the bench for the rest of my career.
So what do you do when someone else gets the starting position? The playing time you wanted? The promotion? The award you worked for? How do you encourage others when all you want to do is cry?
You show up and clap anyways. What if it’s not about the destination, what we achieve, or how many minutes we average? What if it’s about the journey? What if it’s about who we become in the process?
Now I'd be lying if I said that was my initial reaction to my injury. I was tired. I’ve had more than my share of injuries throughout my career and I just wanted a healthy senior year. I was burnt out from being injured. I was burnt out from physical therapy, doctors appointments, watching practice, and riding the bench. I was at an all time low.
Role ≠ Value
My biggest mistake was confusing my role with my value. I thought because I wasn’t playing, I didn’t matter. In reality, everyone is of equal and infinite value, regardless of your role. Just because you are a starter doesn’t mean you are more important than anybody else. Just because you are a benchwarmer doesn’t mean you are less important than anybody else. Your role is not your value.
There’s a big misconception in sports that if we perform well, then we’re loved and valued, and if we don’t perform well we aren’t loved or valued. That couldn’t be further from the truth. You are loved and valued regardless of whether or not you ever step on the court.
My role was to help the team by running the clock at practice and encouraging my teammates. It’s definitely not the role I dreamed of when I imagined playing college basketball. But it was my role, and I had to own it.
I realized I had a choice that could shape my character for the rest of my life. I could sulk on the end of the bench or I could clap when it wasn’t my turn.
It’s Not Your Turn
The year prior, right before Covid hit, I had met with my public speaking professor (Heather Thompson-Day) who was writing a book called, It’s Not Your Turn: What To Do While You’re Waiting For Your Breakthrough. So throughout my senior year, I kept telling myself, “Julie, it’s not your turn.” Her book covers the question, “What do we do in the wait when it’s not our turn?”
I came to this conclusion: at the end of your career, people will forget how many points you scored, they will forget how many minutes per game you averaged, and they will forget what accolades you won, but they will never forget what kind of teammate you were. That’s what’s most important. So I decided to play the one string I had: my attitude. My only goal my senior season was to be a great teammate.
That may seem like an easy thing to aspire to be, but it was far from easy. It was hard to get out of bed, let alone show up and cheer on my teammates. I fought back tears every game, every practice, and every film session. I so desperately wanted to be healthy and to be able to contribute on the court.
What do you do when the end of the bench is as good as it is going to get? You make yourself better during the wait.
As Heather put it in her book, “You can’t control your circumstances, but you can control how you show up to them. What if some seasons are temporary, and we can make ourselves better in the waiting room?”
In the world of sports, we define success as results: starting, playing a lot, scoring a lot of points, and winning awards. As an injured player on the bench, none of those things were going to be possible for me. It couldn’t be about the results, it had to be about the process. I had to redefine success to being a great teammate.
Sports culture celebrates results first and character second. My mantra became, “Character first, results second.” For me, there weren’t going to be any results. All I had was my character.
And at the end of the day, that’s all any of us have. All glory is fleeting, but character is what lasts. You can’t always control results, but you are 100% in control of your character. In the wise words of my professor Heather Thompson-Day, “Who we are when it’s not our turn is more important than who we’ll be when it is.”
The beauty of the bench is how it reveals your character. Who you are when you don’t get the starting spot, don’t get the promotion, or don’t make the team is more important than who you will be when you do.
John Wooden said it best, “Who you are as a person is more important than who you are as a player.”
As a freshman in college, I averaged 40 minutes a game. As a sophomore in college, I averaged 20 minutes a game. As a junior, I averaged 3 minutes a game. As a senior, I played a total of 3 minutes. I was plagued with injuries and illnesses that ultimately ended my career early. I used to think this game was about what I could achieve, now I know it’s more about who I become.
Brad Stevens went through something similar. As he put it,
“I played a lot as a freshman, about the same as a sophomore, less as a junior, hardly at all as a senior. At the time, that was really hard to kind of, grasp… This game is about how you act as a teammate. This game is about what you do from the standpoint of supporting one another, embracing roles, accepting roles… those other things are a lot more important than how many minutes you play in a game, how many points you score.”
My senior year was painful, even more so mentally than physically, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world, because it taught me how to show up and clap for others when it’s not my turn, and that who you are when you’re benched is more important than who you are when you’re on the court.
Keep Showing Up
My advice is simple: keep showing up. Even when you want to cry, even when it feels like you’re trudging through hell. Anyone can show up when you have the starting job, with a crowd screaming your name. The real test of your character is showing up to sit on the bench when there’s no chance you’ll get in the game. Because who you are when it’s not your turn is more important than who you will be when it is. So show up and clap for others, even when it’s not your turn.
- Julie Fournier
*** Julie is the Founder of Basketball is Psychology where she shares her knowledge on the importance of training the mind. She has written MANY blogs on the topic. Her most popular blog has received almost 200,000 views. If you want more than a quick blog she also has you covered. Below you can find her two, incredibly written books.