Prep Sports

Playing time matters in youth sports

Justis column: Research shows those 12-and-under want to participate more than win

Players gather around Myke Darrough (second from right), director of partnerships and promotions for the Cedar Rapids River Kings, and Torryon White (gray sweatshirt) as they shout “team” in a huddle during practice at the Polk Alternative Education Center in northeast Cedar Rapids in February. Participation is what matters to most youth athletes. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Players gather around Myke Darrough (second from right), director of partnerships and promotions for the Cedar Rapids River Kings, and Torryon White (gray sweatshirt) as they shout “team” in a huddle during practice at the Polk Alternative Education Center in northeast Cedar Rapids in February. Participation is what matters to most youth athletes. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Under which condition is it “fair” to use equal playing time and under which condition is it “fair” to use unequal playing time?

That’s one of the questions asked in a study on allocation of playing time within team sports.

In an article about the study, Torbjorn Lorentzen noted the difference is between performance-oriented coaching, where wins and losses are the focus, and a mastery-oriented organization, where the focus is on long-term player development.

Lorentzen is an educator at the University of Bergen in Norway and also a coach from the Top Sport Division of the Norwegian Olympic and Paralympic Committee and Confederation of Sports.

This topic hit home after witnessing elementary age athletes who have transitioned from rec programs to more competitive programs, i.e. travel teams or “elite” teams.

The study shows “equal playing time is rational to apply given that the athletes are identical (equally skilled), and the allocation is independent whether the profile of the team is mastery- or performance-oriented. Although it seems rational to draw the conclusion that a performance-oriented team should differentiate in the allocation of playing time, the article shows clearly that this strategy is associated with social and psychological effects which have to be taken into account when evaluating ... how to share the playing time.

“... the younger the athletes are, the higher is the likelihood of realizing negative side effects of applying a performance-oriented profile ... the younger the athletes are, the more equally should the playing time be allocated.”

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The dilemma is this. Travel and elite teams at whatever age are mostly about wins and losses. Families spend a lot of money each year giving their kids the opportunity to play for these teams. Yes, they should learn a lot about teamwork, perseverance, sportsmanship, confidence and other lifelong lessons, but these kids are not equal in talent, physical abilities and sport intelligence, especially at the younger ages.

Through at least age 12, the Aspen Institute’s Project Play recommends sports programs invest in every child equally, including playing time, which it says is an important development tool that too many coaches assign based on player skill level and the game’s outcome.

Jon Solomon of the Institute said “the argument is simple for equal playing time: Research shows that what kids want out of a sports experience is both action and access to the action. Getting stuck at the end of the bench does not foster participation. And we all know greater participation is sorely needed in youth sports.

“Only 37 percent of kids ages 6-to-12 regularly played team sports in 2016, down from 45 percent in 2008 (Sports & Fitness Industry Association).”

In one of Solomon’s article, James Leath, IMG Academy Head of Leadership Development, said “kids who quit sports do so because of lack of playing time, which can be a result of lack of confidence. Confidence is a byproduct of proper preparation and adults who believe in the players,”

“From a small child to the world’s greatest athlete, those who are confident are confident because they have taken thousands of shots, tried and failed many times, then tried again and got it right.”

Thus, Solomon said playing time shouldn’t be earned at younger ages.

“It should be paid forward to develop a future athlete,” he said.

The Norwegian Federation of Sports also believes sports activities with children 12 years or younger shouldn’t be practiced with any form of discrimination, and Sweden and Denmark follow similar rules.

Solomon said youth sport organizations in America treat playing time differently for younger athletes.

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l The Jr. NBA website cites a guideline from the Positive Coaching Alliance. “Good coaches get players into the game. Players who stay on the bench don’t benefit as much from sport.” As the Jr. NBA soon begins a world championship for 13- and 14-year-olds, it encourages coaches to have strategies to get all of their players into games for meaningful minutes, and not just in garbage time of a blowout.

l Little League Baseball requires every player participate for at least six defensive outs and bat at least once each game. If that doesn’t happen, the player is supposed to start the next scheduled game and play any previous unmet requirement plus that game’s requirement.

l USA Hockey recommends equal playing time for kids 12 and under. The only exceptions are in the last minute of a game if a team is up or down by a goal, or players are misbehaving, not following the rules or disregarding the coaches’ instructions.

In a recent blog posted on PARADIGM SPORTS, the author wrote “Any coach can run short benches and play their ‘favorites’ to win games.

“GREAT coaches develop all their players and provide them the opportunity to contribute to the outcome of games and in doing so build their confidence and competence and winning becomes a byproduct as a result.

“If you PICK THEM — you play them.

“YOU WIN OR LOSE AS A TEAM.

“Ninety percent of kids would rather play on a losing team than sit on the bench for a winning team.”

Solomon’s words: “There’s a time to sort the weak from the strong in sports. It’s not before kids grow into their bodies, minds and true interests.”

l 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 njustis@cfu.net

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