The One Sport Voice blog recently posted an article titled Why is unequal playing time the norm in youth sport? In the article, Nicole Lavoi advocates equal playing time for all players up until age 12, regardless of competitive level.
I posted a comment in response, but for whatever reason my comment didn’t make it past the moderation filter. But hey, one advantage of having my own blog is that I DO get the opportunity to comment! So here we go.
Although I don’t fully agree with Nicole’s perspective, she raises a good question, “Why shouldn’t every child receive equal playing time in organized youth sports?”
In competitive organized youth sports, there’s undoubtedly a wide range of opinion held by parents and coaches regarding playing time (and the overall merits of this form of play). I’m not going to address this side of the issue except to make two points.
- First, in some (most?) team sports there is an inherent conflict between the greater number of kids needed to conduct productive practices and the smaller number required to field the most competitive player rotation in a game. On a basketball team, for example, coaches usually consider ten to fifteen players the ideal number for practices. But in a competitive game, coaches typically prefer to rotate 7 or 8 players in and out. To optimize a team’s chance to succeed, coaches (and many parents) understand the above reality and why playing time will likely be unequal in a more competitive setting.
- Secondly, I would suggest that as long as coaches are honest and transparent with parents about the overall opportunity that they will afford a child, less playing time for some is okay. On most youth sports teams, there is usually a mix of players who are at different stages in their development (age, skill, etc.). For those who are slightly younger, inexperienced, or less skilled, they may initially benefit from smaller roles that don’t overwhelm them. As they get older and improve, their playing time will likely increase and possibly exceed that of their newer, younger teammates. (This is especially true of programs where teams are comprised of both younger and older kids.)
“Without wading into the waters of older, more competitive youth sports, the goal of providing players with equal playing time in participation based programs is a good one.As I was finishing this post, I saw a tweet referencing an older MomsTeam article that expressed similar sentiments to the One Sport Voice article. The MomsTeam article also includes several reader comments that express varying views. It’s a worthwhile read. The article’s main anecdote highlights an instance of questionable coaching behavior that touches on several issues including: The Coaches Kid Always Plays, coaches who are too win-oriented (and consequently distort the intent of playing time guidelines), and not reducing playing time for those who consistently miss practices. But I would disagree that the remedy for these instances is across-the-board equal playing time in all youth sports programs.
But even in this setting, there are qualifiers to an approach of simply dividing playing time up equally.
Most team sports require a certain level of competence in key positions. Without a minimum level of performance in these positions, the play can disintegrate resulting in NO FUN for many of the other players.
For example, a competent point guard in basketball is needed to handle the ball against pressure and make good passes to his or her teammates. Likewise, a good “big-man” is needed to provide a young team with second shot opportunities (there are MANY missed layups).
In the pursuit of equal playing time, taking out a key player can ruin the play for others. It also can diminish the self-esteem of a young player who does not yet possess the necessary skills to play a certain position. This is even more evident when teams are not equally matched in terms of talent and age (something that regularly occurs in the real world of organized youth sports programs).
I generally prefer an approach that builds individual paths to success—especially for kids in the 10 to 13 age group. Teach Everyone Everything in practice, but tweak playing time as necessary in games so that everyone is placed in the best position to succeed. (I discuss this approach in several articles on my Inside Youth Sports blog.)
Yes, the emphasis is on equal playing time in each game. But the goal of equal playing time may also be achieved over the course of a season, with better players possibly getting a little more playing time against the tougher opponents, while the weaker and younger players receive more time against lesser opponents. The goal is to challenge players, but not put them in situations where they are destined to fail. Unfortunately, some parents only look at each individual game in judging whether their son or daughter is receiving equal playing time.
Like many other issues in youth sports, the equal playing time one is magnified by today’s youth culture that places so much emphasis on adult-run organized youth sports. Promoting more opportunities for children to engage in self-directed play (e.g., pickup games) would enable kids to naturally get the “equal playing time” they need to develop their skills and have fun.”
Finally, one “equal playing time” practice that I didn’t see mentioned in these other articles, is mandatory substitution stoppages. These provide coaches with a reminder and easy opportunity to get players into a game. This practice works well within the participation oriented basketball leagues in which I coach. In addition to asking coaches to substitute players at the end of each quarter, play is also stopped half-way through each quarter. In the younger leagues, coaches are not permitted to substitute players except at these points. This helps ensure that players stay in the game even when things start to go bad.
The above approach can also improve substitution patterns in more competitive programs. A variation of this practice is successfully used in my YMCA’s more competitive middle school basketball league. (Coaches can freely substitute players in the 2nd and 4th quarters.)
Do you have any thoughts on the best approaches to playing time in youth sports programs?