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Equal Playing Time: Should It Be the Rule, Not the Exeption?

Coaches: Don't Put All Your Eggs In One Basket

Playing the stronger players more isn't necessarily a surefire recipe for future success either. In Nick's case, it appeared he played Ricky 100% of the time at the expense of the other players in the hopes of developing him into a top-notch player for the town's soccer program. It didn't work out as he planned: The next year Ricky quit soccer to play football!

I have seen the same thing happen in other sports. One spring, a JV lacrosse coach used one player exclusively on the power play all season, presumably to groom him to play for the varsity the next year. He clearly was building the team around this boy's strength. Problem was, the player transferred to a private school the next fall and what could have been a stellar Varsity lacrosse team fell apart. Too bad the coach hadn't given some of the players who were returning a chance to develop more as a powerful and cohesive team they had promised to be before a coach zapped their spirit.

Many high school freshman and junior varsity teams that adopt a win- at-all-costs approach may win more games but end up hurting the varsity in the long run. Those that put player development before winning end up doing what they are supposed to do: develop the largest possible player pool to "feed" the varsity.

How many times have you watched as a starting player suffer an injury during a tournament and is replaced by a player that hasn't had any playing time? Chances are the new player won't perform as well in such a pressure situation than had he had more playing time during the season.

How To Ensure Equal Playing Time: Making A Grid

To ensure equal playing time, your child's coach should:

  • Prepare a detailed substitution pattern or "grid" before each game. Trying to keep track of how much each child has played during a game is next to impossible. It is much easier to do it the night before, when the coach can set up a balanced lineup with a mix of more and less experienced players. Writing out the lineup in advance also makes it easier to move players around so they can play different positions. Locking players into set positions for every game may increase the team's (coaches) chances of winning, but as I learned with one of my own son's in his first season of T-ball, it can take the fun out of the game in a hurry!

  • Tell the players before the game starts when and what positions they are going to play. The coach should make sure that everyone gets to start an equal number of games.

  • Stick to the game plan, even if the team is losing. The coach should resist the temptation, in the heat of competition, to scrap the substitution grid if her team is losing to keep the "best" players in the game in order to try to win the game. Remember: Most kids play sports to have fun, not to win.

Equal Playing Time: A Winning Formula

Deciding on a substitution pattern in advance, and then following it during the game, creates a win-win situation for players, parents and the coach:

  • Players (except, perhaps, for the spoiled star who feels it is his or birthright to play the whole game) because they will have more fun, won't be resentful or jealous of each other, will play together more as a team, and be less selfish;

  • Parents (again, with the exception of those who feel their son or daughter is so much more talented that they are entitled to more playing time at the expense of the weaker players, or those who value winning above all else) because they will know that their kids are being treated fairly, so there won't be any need to confront the coach after the game or on the phone about a lack of playing time for their child; and

  • The Coach because (a) she can concentrate on watching the game instead of thinking about the next substitution, or worrying whether she has forgotten to give Judy enough playing time; and (b) because the players on the sidelines won't be constantly pestering her; and (c) will not be allowed to show favoritism for their own child.

Tip For Parents

At the pre-season meeting, ask the coach if he or she plans to give players equal playing time and offer to help set up a substitution grid and keep track of the time with a stopwatch. Ask the coach to put the playing schedule in a place where all can view it.

If you notice your child sitting on the sidelines during a game, approach the parent who has been designated as a go-between parents and coach, to relay a question to the coach. Don't automatically assume that the reason your child isn't playing is that the coach is playing favorites. Your child may have told the coach that she is not feeling up to playing in the game but would rather cheer for her teammates, or has forgotten her asthma inhaler, or has an injury.

Tip For Coaches

Don’t assume that your top players are always going to be there. At the sub-varsity level and below, developing all your players insures that someone will be able to step in if a player gets injured, becomes ineligible, switches to another sport, moves away or decides to enroll in a different school.

Tip For Kids

Remind the coach that if all kids got equal playing time, all would have an equal chance to develop new skills and the team would be stronger for it!


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