Tag Archives: playing time

Coaching Kids vs. Coaching to Win

Two years ago, my then-7 year old son began his first football season more excited than he had ever been about playing a new sport.  Even while he was loving soccer the previous two falls, he had been lobbying to give football a try.  So we signed him up for flag football, assured at the spring registration day by a member of the football club’s board that he was eligible, but were called the following week with news that he was actually 1 year too old and needed to play 7-8 year old tackle.  While I was sure I did not want him in football for the long term because of injury risks, our boy was easily one of the biggest kids in the age group, so my wife and I were OK with giving it a try.  He was more than OK with it:  the boy was eager.

The Big Guy (right), with a teammate

Practices started, and while I thought the adults involved (both parents and coaches) were crazy to expect 7-8 year olds to practice 5-6 days per week for almost all of August (until school started), he was having fun; so I parked in my chair on the sidelines and enjoyed watching him practice.  As it turned out, the coach played my son roughly the minimum number of plays permitted by the league all season.  In most games the coach actually kept count of the plays and pulled my son off the field for good as soon as he reached that minimum, even in the middle of an offensive of defensive series.

Lack of effort?  No–The boy worked hard whenever he had the opportunity to get into a game, and he never shied away from contact.  Lack of performance?  No, again.  I saw my 7 year old offensive/defensive lineman pushed backwards exactly once during the entire season.  In every other play my son ether locked up his opponent in a tie, pushed him backwards, or got past him.  I am not claiming he was a 7 year old Russ Grimm or Reggie White, but he did at least well enough to fit in with what his peers were doing around him.

But let’s set all of that aside for a minute and assume that my son–or any player–had been the most inept 2nd grade football player since the days of Red Grange.  This was the LOWEST team available in a league without cuts, essentially a recreation team.  Where was he supposed to gain experience?  How did sitting on the bench at age 7 foster interest in the game?

So what WAS the rationale?  Taking the coach up on his public offer to address any concerns along the way to guarantee a great experience for every boy, I emailed to schedule a brief meeting for after practice about what my son needed to improve in order to get on the field.  The coach–a former college player and the football club board member who initially advised us to register for flag–explicitly told me that the team “needed” to make the playoffs, and he felt my son should not be in the tackle league without first playing a year of flag football–even though the league’s policy was inflexible about the age limit for flag.  However, he also assured me that all of the boys would have more balanced playing time after they got past the first 3 opponents, who were supposedly the main obstacles to the playoff grail; he shared that he did not want anyone to have the experience his family had gone through the previous year when his wife “rode” his older son’s coach all year about playing time.  I walked away after a very friendly conversation still disagreeing with the ‘win first’ mentality, but confident that the situation was going to improve for my son.

The balanced playing time assurance was–to be kind–inaccurate.  All of the other players had significantly more playing time that season, except for one:  surprisingly, the other bench-dweller was the coach’s own son.  Apparently the part about being committed to winning was sincere.

By mid-September, my son was already starting to talk about returning to soccer the following fall because “they let me play.”  After the team’s eventual loss in the playoffs, I took my son out to breakfast on the way home, and while we were eating he told me–unfortunately with blank resignation because the bitterness had worn off–“I only played in the first half because we were trying to win.”  I followed up with the league (and since then with many members of our community who have asked me about my experience with the football club) in extensive detail about my concerns and my son moved on.  Our now-9 year old is once again happy and excelling on the field…in soccer.

7 year old kids.  A coach’s “need” to make the playoffs.  The two ideas do not seem to belong together.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Activities & Sports, Morality

Kids & Sports: A Playing Time Proposal

Over the past 16+ years, our 3 kids have tried their share of organized sports:  t-ball, basketball, soccer, lacrosse, volleyball, swimming, football, tennis, golf, and karate, and I am probably missing something.  For the most part, these have been great experiences for eveyone involved.  But when there have been disappointments, most have had nothing to do with winning or losing; most have involved playing time.  That’s probably not a big surprise–playing time is often the hottest topic among parents on the sidelines. 

I have seen this from both sides, as a parent and as a coach.  I have enjoyed coaching t-ball, basketball, soccer, and volleyball for my kids’ rec leagues; 10 seasons of varsity high school volleyball; 5 seasons of club volleyball; and even 1 spring of “high school developmental golf.”  (For the record, I am fully qualified to teach bad golf….)

So WHAT’S THE SOLUTION?  Should everyone play the same amount?  Didn’t we all pay the same fees?  Should the better players play more?  Doesn’t the coach want to WIN?! 

As I see it, the deciding factor is simple:  Did each player join the team by simply signing up, or were the players selected through tryouts?

For this discussion, let’s assume that each player comes to practice regularly, behaves well, and gives a reasonable effort.

If everyone landed on the team just by registering, playing time should be 100% equal.  And to clarify, an evaluation to determine WHICH team a player will be on is not the same as a tryout to determine WHETHER the player will make a team at all.  If registration form + check = you’re on the team, then I expect playing time to be evenly distributed.

I’ll admit that I take pride in coaching rec league teams this way….developing a steady rotation to balance playing time.  Personally, I do not believe going undefeated in 6 year old micro soccer or playing all 4 quarters of 7 year old basketball is a defining experience for a child long-term; but I have seen firsthand that kids can be bitterly disappointed when they sit on the sidelines feeling left out, sometimes even walking away from particular sports for good.  And if my kid happens to be one of the best players (which has happened now and then), I understand that (s)he should have the same ratio of playing/bench time as the less-skilled players (which has also described my child at other times). 

But if there is a tryout, parents and players need to understand that the team/league/etc. is competitive by its very nature.  If you have to perform in order to earn a place on the team, doesn’t it make sense that the coaches will judge your performance to determine who plays, and when?

So does this mean a travel team coach can reasonably play some kids 100% while others sit the bench?  In my opinion, NO.  As a parent, I understand playing time will not be equal, but for $500-$2000 per season, I expect my son/daughter to have opportunities to play.  And as a coach, I believe that I have to be able to get EVERY child on the field or court at least 1/3 of the time.  If that is difficult, either I should not have selected him/her at the tryout or I am not doing my job to help that child develop the skils (s)he needs to be successful in the games; either way, (s)he plays.

High school varsity teams are the exception.  There is almost always a competitive tryout process, the cost is usually far less than for a travel team, and at the varsity level winning is a relatively high priority.  For most players, high school varsity will be the highest level they can reasonably achieve, and their senior year may be the last time the play their sport of choice on a team with a coach.  At that point, the days of “no one keeps score and everyone gets a trophy” are over.  But I still believe good coaches look for opportunities to get their weaker players on the court or field, especially when the win is fairly secure.

Not too long ago I wrote about playing time as one of the great attractions of swimming.  But millions of kids–including my own–play a wide range of sports in which playing time is an issue.  If you have thoughts on how to manage playing time in the best interests of kids, I invite you to comment below.

1 Comment

Filed under Activities & Sports, Uncategorized