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I received an email recently from a father of a young athlete who had read one of my past columns on the issues surrounding playing time.
“I’ve had some rough experiences with youth sports with my son and it’s hard to find anything online for kids in elementary school facing the same challenges as middle schoolers,” he wrote.
He explained every sport coach has addressed playing time differently.
“Baseball coaches are pretty good at rotating and playing time. Soccer is the same. Basketball is not the same — some coaches like our last (one) only played kids in certain positions, and football with safety concerns have a no playing time policy. Even at the grade 1-2 level.
“My main concern is kids that are 6-7 years old should not have to experience middle school expectation. The leagues leave it up to the coaches and they end up getting kids, parents, coaches kicked out of the league and they won’t make any changes internally. They keep everyone fighting each other without changing guidelines so coaches can actually meet most parents’ expectations at that age level.”
It's no surprise playing time is the biggest headache for coaches and takes up the largest space for parental complaints.
It happens at all age levels.
It’s true that as an athlete ages through the youth sports system — whether it be a club team, travel team or school team — the most important objective is for the child enjoy the process and have a positive experience. Not everyone will get equal playing time and kids need to learn that sacrificing for the team is part of the process.
Younger kids need to understand the same sacrifice, but most importantly they must enjoy their experience and learn the fundamentals of the game.
An article on thriveonchalenge.com spoke about Belgium’s move to offering 2-on-2 soccer leagues at younger ages. This is similar to the growth of 7-on-7 football here in the state of Iowa. The Director of Belgium Soccer, Kris Van der Haegen, said the organization wanted to create an environment that was all about the kids’ enjoyment. In 2-on-2 leagues, everyone plays, everyone dribbles the ball and everyone scores goals.
Thriveonchallenge.com noted “we need to design youth sports leagues in a more beneficial way to help alleviate some of the pressures and challenges for coaches.”
- Keep rosters small.
- Emphasize small-sided play (i.e., 3-on-3 basketball leagues, 2-on-2 and 6-on-6 soccer leagues, and I would add 7v7 football).
- Center league rules around equal playing time.
The article goes on to list 10 ways to determine playing time:
1. Select best players by position.
2. Select and play who you believe is the most talented.
3. The best team takes into consideration who plays well together, not the most talented. Chemistry, selflessness and the ability to execute as a unit all play a part.
4. For sports like golf and tennis, when a competitive or challenge system is used during practice, players are ranked. This approach can be brought to team sports, as well.
5. The “process team” is where the coach picks the players who are most committed to working hard in practice and putting in time outside of practice.
6. The “core values team” is when a coach decides who best represents the team’s core values and plays the players who best live out these values.
7. Everyone plays equally. This can be done as a hybrid with other approaches. Some leagues have rules that equal playing time is required in the first half of play; others, in the whole game. My ninth-grade grandson’s football team always plays a fifth quarter for those players who didn’t get to play during the game’s four quarters.
8. The coach determines a lineup. If a player messes up, he/she is dropped from the lineup. The benefit is players can feel safe in their role, knowing if they have only a couple bad games or practices, they won’t lose their spot.
9. A fluctuating lineup means players must prove themselves daily. A bad game or practice could mean losing their spot to someone else.
10. When you have large rosters, rather than trying to play everyone in every game, you can pick a certain roster for each game. This benefits the reserve players because instead of just playing a little bit of time in each game, they will get to play a lot of minutes in one game and none in the next. In my mind, this aides in their skill development when they get to play a decent amount of time.
“If you want to build a culture that is focused on the process, then you need to play the people who are bought into the process,” the article noted.
The father ended his email writing: “My kid has a big heart. We’re not asking him to play quarterback. We’re asking for him to be given an intro into football and to grow and love the sport. It’s challenging for some of these kids to be treated like this during football when all the other sports have more guidelines to help the coaches bring these young players up.”
Nancy Justis is a former competitive swimmer and college sports information director. She is a partner with Outlier Creative Communications. Let her know what you think at firstname.lastname@example.org