Coaches are faced with many conflicting feelings, desires, and challenges: You want to win; you want everyone to enjoy their experience; you want to reward the hardest workers. To top it all off, you want to do all these things while keeping your job and avoiding criticism from players and parents.

But unless you have been the coach who is responsible for who plays and who doesn’t, you cannot possibly understand the challenges and pressures of setting lineups and making substitutions.

Baseline Rewards

Research has shown that extrinsic rewards (i.e., carrots and sticks) are dangerous and can extinguish intrinsic motivation, which is fostered in an environment of: 1) autonomy, 2) mastery, and 3) purpose.

Even so, some extrinsic rewards are essential. Daniel Pink discussed the research behind this concept in his book, Drive. These essential extrinsic rewards are called “baseline rewards”. In the workplace, this would be a person’s salary or hourly wages.

“If someone’s baseline rewards aren’t adequate or equitable, her focus will be on the unfairness of her situation, and the anxiety of her circumstance. You’ll get neither the predictability of extrinsic motivation, nor the weirdness of intrinsic motivation. You’ll get very little motivation at all.”

–Daniel Pink, Drive

Essentially, it doesn’t matter how hard we work to create an environment of autonomy, mastery, and purpose if we fail to have adequate baseline rewards.

So, what are the baseline rewards in an amateur sports environment? Playing time. We play sports to play.

Yes, the sport and team we choose will be influenced by a variety of other factors but not playing in games makes it really hard to be happy with your experience.

Just think about it: In the working world, people will and can only show up to work for so long in an unpaid job. At some stage, no matter how much they enjoy their work, they will need to get paid, and the same is true for sports; at some stage, players will need to see the court or the field. So, playing time is an important topic that we need to put some thought into.

 A Very Common Challenge

Years ago, I was coaching a boys’ basketball team at my church—the seventh and eighth grade “second team”, to be exact. The cards were stacked against the team from the start, as the program did not have a strong basketball tradition, and half our players were really sixth graders.

So, I was quick to voice my concerns to the parents at the very start. We would struggle to win a game—even if I were to only play those who gave us the best chance of winning. But at this level, I knew it was important that everyone got a chance to play. I shared this challenge and my initial philosophy with the parents in our parent meeting at the start of the season.

Now, initially, I had hoped that playing each athlete for at least one quarter would be sufficient motivation and enjoyment. However, by the midpoint of the season, I realized they were not motivated by winning basketball games; instead, they wanted more than anything to just play in games.

With 11 players on the team, I was facing a decision: Should I do what was needed to get the team a win? Or should I focus on making this experience enjoyable for all players by playing everyone?

In the end, I chose to create an enjoyable experience for all players in the hopes of nurturing a love and passion for the game because that is far more important. While not everyone got equal playing time, I did look for more balanced minutes and played our “best” team late in the game to close the gap. As a result, the “buy-in” from the majority of the players grew. Even though we still didn’t win a single game, many kids called it “one of their best seasons ever!”

 How Youth Leagues Can Help

I have previously written about the importance of supporting your reserves. However, admittedly, many of the strategies I suggested work really well at the higher levels but aren’t applicable at the lower levels. While younger kids still need to learn how to sacrifice for the team, the most important thing at the youth level is enjoying their sporting experience.

On the “Way of Champions Podcast”, the Director of Belgium Soccer, Kris Van der Haegen, spoke about how Belgium started doing 2v2 soccer leagues at younger ages. At first, I thought this was a crazy idea; how could they learn how to pass or learn about teamwork?

But his explanation was fascinating: They wanted to create an environment that was all about the players’ enjoyment, and the kids wanted to dribble and score. In 2v2 leagues, everyone plays, everyone dribbles the ball, and everyone scores goals every day! In his opinion, changes like this were what took them from being 60th in the world to #1 in the world.

We need to design youth sports leagues in a more beneficial way to help alleviate some of the pressures and challenges for coaches. Here are some ways to do it:

  1. Keep your rosters small.
  2. Emphasize small-sided play (e.g., 3v3 leagues in basketball, 2v2 and 6v6 leagues in soccer, etc.).
  3. Center your league rules around equal playing time.

Now, whether these leagues help alleviate these challenges or not, playing time is an unavoidable challenge, and we need to continuously and clearly communicate how we determine playing time to the players and parents.

So, how do we determine playing time? Below are some different approaches and strategies. I have used examples from basketball, soccer, and golf to help clarify.

10 Ways to Determine Playing Time

  1. The Best Players By Position: Selecting and playing who you believe is the best for each position. Without a doubt, this is the most popular method for most sports. In basketball, traditionally, a coach would pick their best one or two taller men, the best point guard, the best shooter, etc. In soccer, while a coach may change formations to better suit their personnel, typically they would choose between a few players for certain positions. In golf, coaches may make some changes based on the course or conditions, but they would rarely change their lineup at all.
  2. The Best Players: Selecting and playing who you believe is the most talented. In basketball, you would select your five best players; in soccer, your best 11; and in golf, your lineup would be based on the top overall scorers. Some coaches build a system wherein their offense and defense are flexible enough to play the best players without considering their “position”.
  3. The Best Team: This is different than the most talented or top players; instead, it takes into consideration who plays well together. In many team sports, your best team will rarely be your most talented group of players. On the court, chemistry, selflessness, and the ability to execute as a unit all play a big part. The Arkansas Women’s Basketball coach is a big believer in this approach.
  4. Competitive Cauldron Winners: For sports like golf and tennis, when a competitive or challenge system is used during practice, players are ranked. However, some coaches have brought this approach to team sports, as well, to increase the competitive stakes by recording wins during practice to determine playing time.
  5. The Process Team: An approach rarely taken by coaches in team sports, but the coach essentially picks the players who are most committed to working hard in practice and putting in time outside of practice. Still, nearly every coach requires some basic commitment to the process to play. For example, players must practice to play in games.
  6. The Core Values Team: Similar to the process team, a coach decides who best represents the team’s/coach’s core values (e.g., selflessness, hard work, and resilience) and plays the players who best live out these values.
  7. Everyone Plays Equally: Equal playing time for everyone, or some playing time for everyone. 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. This is an approach taken more often at youth levels, but it can be problematic for teams with large rosters.
  8. Set Lineup: The coach determines a lineup. If a player really screws up, then they are dropped from the lineup. If a player steps up bigtime, then they are pulled into the lineup. The benefit is that players can feel safe in their role, knowing that if they have only a couple of bad games or practices, they won’t lose their spot.
  9. Fluctuating Lineup: Players must prove themselves, day in and day out. A bad game or practice could mean losing their spot to someone else who has stepped up recently. The benefit is that it can help maintain high standards in games.
  10. Alternating Lineup: 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. This way, they can get into a flow.

Values and Playing Time

“If you want to become a transformational leader, you must constantly analyze your system to make sure you are rewarding and valuing the process, and who people become in the process.”

–Joshua Medcalf and Jamie Gilbert, Transformational Leadership

While salary is not the only means with which we reward and value an employee, it is still one of the first ways in which a company does so. Similarly, while playing time is not the only way we can reward and value players, it is the still most obvious to the players, parents, and fans.

If you want to build a culture that is about results (i.e., winning), then you need to play the people who will give you the best chance of getting results. 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.

No matter how you decide playing time, remember that it will speak louder than anything you can say about your values as a coach.