Equal playing time should be the rule in youth sports

Justis column: 'Kids love to play'

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Editor’s note: Nancy Justis is a former competitive swimmer and college sports information director. She is a partner with Justis Creative Communications.

If you have spent any time at all at youth sports games, you have no doubt noticed at least one child who just doesn’t measure up athletically or with enthusiasm.

I noticed one this summer at my grandson’s baseball games. I felt sad. He was a bit larger than most of the other boys on the team. He stood in the batters box with little desire to swing the bat. At times he chose a bat meant for a much smaller child. He needed more instruction in his fielding skills.

And yet, he seemed to enjoy himself, though in a quiet way. He ran to his position in the field from the dugout, and ran back to the dugout at the end of the inning. His teammates tried to engage him — encouraging his at-bat. His father was encouraging in a positive way, speaking to his son through the fence in a quiet tone and not berating.

And the coaches continued to give him his turn in every single game.

As a fan, I was hoping for my grandson’s team to win every game and I have to admit those of us in the stands cringed a bit whenever this boy came up to bat. Sometimes his turn came at critical times in the game.

But you know what? The coaches did the right thing. At this age — 9 year olds — and at this level, I believe every player should have the opportunity to play. The rotation calls for equal playing time and the kids should be rotated to different positions while in the field.

I’m not saying as the kids get older and the skill level improves and the games become more competitive that rosters shouldn’t be dictated by which players are more talented. But in the younger ages, give everyone a chance. How else are they going to improve?

Dr. Milton Fujita, a California-based child-adolescent psychiatrist, said in a momsTEAM article, “Organizing games for children is fine as long as it’s organized so all the kids who want to play actually get to play. When the whole issue of winning becomes primary, then participation suffers ... Winning is kind of inherent. You can’t really de-emphasize it. But winning at all costs is something that needs to be looked at very seriously.”

Brooke de Lench, who wrote the article, advised making a substitution grid before each game. And she said to stick to the game plan even if the team is losing. It creates a win-win situation for players, parents and coaches.

* Players because they will have more fun, won’t be resentful or jealous of each other, will play together as a team and be less selfish.

* Parents because they will know 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.

* The coaches because they can concentrate on watching the game instead of thinking about the next substitution, or whether they have forgotten to give a player enough playing time; and they won’t be tempted to show favoritism.

Jeff Haefner, in his coaching blog, admitted to playing his favorites (though he was speaking about older kids).

“My favorite players show enthusiasm, look at me when I talk, hustle, show up on time, put in extra effort, always do what I ask, help teammates, tell the truth, never say the word ‘can’t,’ never give up, have no fear of making mistakes, maintain a positive attitude at times, say ‘thank you,’ show respect, routinely show acts of kindness, commit to excellence, lead by example, treat others the way they want to be treated, enjoy practices, show character on the court, show character off the court and so on.

“I, of course, want every single player to improve, have fun and learn life lessons. So I try very hard to get every player PLENTY of opportunities ... But if a parent or player accuses me of playing favorites, they are right.”

Good coaches get players into games.

“Kids love to play,” said Jim Thompson, founder and CEO of Positive Coaching Alliance. “They don’t like to sit on the bench. Moreover, most of the benefits of playing a sport are tied to competing in games. Kids who sit benefit less from sports than kids who play. I don’t see how anyone can argue with this.”

Let us know what you think. Send comments to njustis@cfu.net

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