I was barely 17 when I came in as a rookie. Not even legal and even further from being mature. I loved basketball but it was just a game to me. It took me a while to not only grasp strategic concepts, but also the life lessons my coaches were trying to teach me. One thing they said was: “you should play for your seniors”. They kept saying how everyone needed to give their very best for the fifth-year players on the team and I thought I knew what they meant. But I never fully understood it until my own senior years.
The concept seems intuitive enough: it’s their last year with the team, maybe even the end of their career. They won’t get another chance for a championship or whatever your definition of a good season is. They’ve worked hard for years and deserve to finish on a strong note, but it’s more than mere results.
Not every player makes it to their final year of eligibility. There are plenty of (good) reasons to move on with life, whether it’s to focus more on school, start your professional career or simply because you have different interests. But sticking around for five years means that you fought through a lot of mental and physical challenges, or, as we athletes often say, that you’ve “sucked it up”.
I was lucky enough to have great seniors who inspired me in my early years, but now I realize how much more I could have learned from them. I was so impressed (and intimidated) by their knowledge of the game, their skillset and their performance. What I didn’t see at the time was that what set them apart was actually their toughness and character. Seniors are not always the most talented players on your team, but they fight so hard that they often perform just as well, if not better.
Maybe it’s the sense of urgency from being so close to finishing their career, or maybe it’s the accumulation of challenges they’ve faced, but they are so tough. Their bodies have been through a lot, yet you never hear them complain about it. As I got older and started feeling the years on my body, that’s when I realized how tough my seniors were, and that alone deserves a lot of respect.
All seniors remember how it was to be a rookie. You’re lost, you’re scared to screw up and you generally don’t feel confident in your abilities. It’s tough to gain the trust of your coaches and teammates on the floor, and to earn some playing time. But there are tons of ways you can contribute to your team’s success, and most importantly, to be a good teammate.
Your seniors don’t expect you to perform. Learning systems and acquiring skills takes time and they trust that you’ll get it, eventually. There’s no stress for you to be a significant contributor on the scoreboard in your early years. But I believe that, as a rookie, you have a role and some responsibilities. And that’s to “play for your seniors”.
To me, there are so many variables that players can control no matter their skill level, athleticism or talent. You can always control your level of effort. You can always control your work ethic. You can always control your attitude. You can always control your punctuality. You can always control your fitness level. You can always control your willingness to get better. You can always control so much more than you think you can. Diving for loose balls, showing up on time and asking questions when you don’t understand requires no talent. You just need to set your mind to it.
In your first years, chances are you will turn the ball over, get beat, forget your rotations and be lost on a play but that’s part of the learning process. The least you can do is work hard and for a senior, that’s the best gift you can offer to them. All seniors want is to finish their career with no regrets. When you look around your locker room and see people who left everything on the court, you will always be proud of what you accomplished.
Remember that it’s not always going to be easy, but that we don’t always get another chance. Next time you tie your shoes, be ready to work hard because your seniors are counting on you.