Feature image from Urbanvelo.org
Bench format, for the first time ever, is going to be an NAH sanctioned event this year. With this announcement came the very expected responses of awesome or what? Why? and everything in-between (Awesome-wut?). I myself have only ever played in competitive bench games three times my whole entire life: twice at the past two Eastside Thaws, and once at the Keystone Classic Happy Fun Time day.
I wanted to provide you polocats with some advice on the bench format, but realized very early on that I didn’t really know enough to give any. No, that hasn’t stopped me in the past. No, I’m not turning over an new leaf. No, I’m not talking to myself someone’s actually asking me these things right now. Yes, I’m lying.
So I reached out to Nate Mumford, who almost immediately pointed me in the direction of Zach Blackburn and Paul Rauen, who both have been intimately involved with Bench games ever since they became a very NYC thing to do. Both of those esteemed gentlemen were somehow willing to answer my questions:
So below you’ll find Blackburn (B) and Paul (P) answering my questions. A few things of Note: Blackburn’s background is that he’s been playing bike polo forever, was in the first Bench Minor tourney (He named it, even), and has been involved in bench games all over.
Paul helped organize the Bench Minor tourney in NYC from the start to BM4, and while he isn’t nearly so involved in the bike polo scene nearly so much. But this gives him a very unique perspective, in that he can look back at it from a historical perspective rather than an active one.
When was the first time you played in a bench format game?
B: The first Bench game I played in was the inaugural bench format tournament, the Bench Minor in NYC. I actually came up with that name and asked Adam Menace to use it because I thought it was funny, “It’s a pun! The highest form of humor!” and he agreed. I think the northwest area tried to throw an even more inaugural bench tournament the weekend before ours and had this ridiculous poster that was drawn with a crayon and showed seven or eight passive aggressive hippies all dressed with the same jersey.
No idea how their tournament went, but we had Benny Snodgrass, a co-worker and friend of mine reffing with a jersey and whistle and everything who had formally reffed peewee hockey games. He was scooting around back and forth on his bmx bike and getting a lot of satisfaction from calling our sport’s first interference penalties. We were using Menace’s ideas and just making up the rest as we went, and I’ve got to say, I don’t think I’ve felt like anything has felt quite as pro besides North American’s in Minneapolis. The ref chairs with umbrellas built-in would be the deciding factor there.
P: We played in pick up in NYC in the Pit prior to the first “Bench Minor”. The Pit is the ideal venue for this style due to the ramps at the southern end. No doors, and substituting is easy. I’m also biased because I learned to play polo in the Pit (2006) and have many wonderful memories of that park. it’s pretty special.
What were some of your initial concerns with bench format? What are some mistakes people make in their first game?
B: The ramps at the Pit in NYC seems to have been built with Bench games in mind, so managing the shift changes was basically telling people, “I want you on the court before your replacement gets to the bench, and keep leading out further and further until the ref calls us for a too many men penalty”.
Besides that, it was hard waiting for a goal to make a change because sometimes a goal wouldn’t happen for 5 minutes, and I didn’t want our players to get restless or cold from standing around too much. I already noticed the impact that mechanicals and injuries would have on an on-going game so I made sure the next line was ready to go way before they were expected to go on in case someone dropped a chain or got a toe stuck in a chainring or something.
P: Ill advised subbing, taking long shifts, “putting the team on their back” and trying to be a hero. Honestly, the biggest mistake is looking at the game and experience through the lens of the individual. It shouldn’t be about what you’re getting or not getting from it, it’s a group exercise and different than your 3 person killer squad. Also, it’s much longer in duration, which allows for momentum swings. Keeping a positive attitude isn’t just lip service; there is so much time to come back in bench format, that getting bent out of shape about being down a few goals is self defeating. As Ian once told me, “don’t beat yourself.”
Are there skills that you work on for bench format that are unique?
P: Communication is key. If you don’t talk or understand the skill sets of your teammates, you’ll be caught out. I think it’s also important to have a unified voice on the bench. It could be multiple voices, but it must be unified. No room for negativity, complaining about playing time, etc. It should be positive 100% of the time. All criticism should be constructive and about making a better connection on the next shift. There’s plenty of time to unpack it after the match. Approach it from the angle of “how can my team grow and succeed and enjoy the experience?”
I think some people are really effective in this style, because they don’t need a lot of warm up (or they play so frequently they’re always warm– like a Koyo type). Others are only comfortable w/ certain roles, line mates. I found it helpful to try and know as much about your teammates’ comfort zones, and then play to those strengths. I think bench is a great vehicle for supposed B/C level players because they get substantial playing time in fast paced situations w/ strong teammates. Some of NY’s best wins (one at Boston’s Allston court I recall) was purely on the shoulders of great, grinding defense from Tommy G and other B level NY folks. ( i can call Tommy “b level” because he doesn’t play anymore, ha)
It should be relationship building. You should be learning from your team about good choices and bad choices.
And what about the “manager” position? What skills do they need?
B: Keeping an ongoing dialogue with your team and keeping them motivated is completely different than managing yourself with just two other people. You need to let them know that if they’re out there playing like crap and making mistakes that they’ll get pulled early, and they have to feel inspired to do better. It’s a mix of positive and negative motivation and it’s nearly impossible to handle that while putting yourself in the game at the same time.
P: Since I played this role for NYC and volunteered to manage the Bench for Julian in LA (wore the “A” in NYC and LA as well) , I personally think it’s quite important. I think the manager has to have the respect of the cohort and I think if you don’t have that already via previously shared experience (pick up or tournament or whatever) than you need to show you’re there to facilitate, you’re acting in the group’s best interest, and you’re comfortable making difficult personnel decisions, which is chiefly calling subs, setting strategy, calling off a player even when they’re giving you the skunk eye, shortening the bench when need be and managing playing time across the bench.
Having a quick word with someone as they exit as well, finding the right way to reorient them. Also, I’ve found it much easier to concentrate to the degree necessary if I don’t also try to play. The need for the managerial role is perhaps less important on a city team when everyone has bought into a structure/game plan, but the opposite could also be true if you have competing egos, which most clubs do to some degree. I’ve done a lot of management in my work life, and I always like to listen and observe more than I dictate, but managers need to find what works for them. It’s definitely not for everyone, but I liked the challenge and responsibility.
One more thought: Alex Ferguson talks about a manger’s need for absolute power and control of his squad, and while that makes sense and has been proven through his career, managing in bike polo is difficult because it’s an informal environment without major assets in play. It’s almost essential to default to that policy when you’re managing a business like a enormous global franchise, but finding the right tenor for polo is difficult due to the varied degrees of maturity, commitment, sobriety and competency at play.
How important is figuring out the right rotation for players?
B: Having the right three people together, and then making two more lines that are equally balanced is pretty tough. But implying that there should be a 1-2-3 rotation is going to let the other team’s manager have all the fun matching their lines against yours.
I think it’s important to recognize which player or line the other team has and make an anti-line. Tell them, “If those guys don’t score on us, we’ve won half the game. Shut. Them. Down.” Then you try to get your scoring line out while they have their weaker line on. And boom, the score is 30 to 0. Or more like 9-8 after 50 minutes because your “ringer” is more like a “wanker” and your shut down line is trying to make up the difference by being heroes and they’re just giving up empty net goals instead.
So, advice to captains: expect your team to struggle, so set the example and play responsible, energetic, and high quality polo. Inspire your teammates. Someone’s got to, and the manager is clearly dropping the ball.
A big thanks to both Blackburn and Paul for their time and insights. And, as always, thanks for reading, polokins. I hope you have a blast with bench this year.