Playing Time

12 Minute Read or Listen

Unless you have been the coach responsible for who plays and who doesn’t, then you don’t understand the challenges and pressures of setting lineups and making substitutions.

Coaches are faced with many conflicting feelings, desires, and challenges. You want to win. You want everyone to enjoy his or her experience. You want to reward the hardest workers. You want to do all these things while keeping your job and avoiding player and parent criticism.

Baseline Rewards

So, I have written about the importance of creating an intrinsically motivated environment in various articles (Why We Fail To Motivate) and spoken on the podcast (Episodes 20-22). Research has shown that extrinsic rewards (carrots and sticks) are dangerous and can extinguish intrinsic motivation, which is fostered in an environment of 1) autonomy, 2) mastery, and 3) purpose.

Still, Daniel Pink in his book Drive also discusses the research on how some extrinsic rewards are essential. These essential extrinsic rewards are called “baseline rewards.” In the workplace, this is a person’s salary or 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 in 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 sports.

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

Just think about it in the working world: people will only 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 need to get paid. And the same is true for sports, at some stage, they need to see the court or field. So, playing time is an important topic we need to have a lot of discussion about.

A Very Common Challenge

Only this past year I was coaching a boy’s basketball team at my church, the 7th and 8th 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 of our players were 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 was to only play the players 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 playing each player at least a quarter would be sufficient motivation and enjoyment. However, by the mid-point of the season, I realized they were not motivated by winning basketball games but wanted more than anything to just play in games.

With 11 players on the team, I faced a decision. Should I do what I gotta do to get this team a win? Or do I focus on making this enjoyable for all the players by playing everyone?

In the end, I chose to try and create an enjoyable experience for all the players, in hopes of nurturing a love and passion for the game, because that is far more important. While not everyone got equal playing time, I looked for more balanced minutes and would play our “best” team late in the game in an effort 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.

What Youth Leagues Can Do to Help

Last month I wrote about Why You Should Love Your Reserves and 7 Ways to Show it. But many of the strategies I suggested work really well at the higher levels but aren’t applicable at lower levels. While kids need to learn about sacrificing for the team and all that important stuff, at the youth level, the most important thing is that they enjoy their sporting experience.

Recently, I listened to a podcast with Belgium Soccer director Kris Van der Haegen, and he spoke about how they started doing 2 on 2 soccer leagues at younger ages. At first, I thought this was a crazy idea. How could they learn how to pass or learn about team work?

But his explanation was fascinating, they wanted to create an environment all about the players’ enjoyment, and kids want to dribble and score. In 2 v 2 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 that helps to alleviate some of these pressures and challenges for coaches.

  1. Small rosters.

  2. Small sided play – 3 on 3 leagues (basketball), 2 v 2 and 6 v 6 soccer leagues, etc.

  3. League rules around equal playing time.

Now, whether leagues help alleviate these challenges or not, playing time is an unavoidable challenge and we need to be CONTINUOUSLY clear in our mind and in our communication to the players and parents about how we determine playing time.

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

7 Ways to Determine Playing Time

  1. The Best Players by Position: Selecting and playing who you believe is the best for the needed positions. Without a doubt, this is the most popular method when it comes to most sports. In basketball, traditionally you pick your best 1 or 2 big men, the best point guard, best shooter, etc. In soccer, while a coach may change formations to better suit personnel, typically they are choosing between a few players for certain positions. In golf, coaches may make some changes based on the course or conditions, but they rarely change their lineup.

  2. The Best Players: Selecting and playing who you believe is the most talented. In basketball, you would select your five best players, soccer your best eleven, and golf you would select your lineup based on top overall scorers. Some coaches build a system where their offense and defense are flexible enough to play the best players without consideration to “position.”

  3. The Best Team: Different than the most talented or top players but taking into consideration who plays well together. In many team sports, rarely is your best team your most talented group of players. On court, chemistry, selflessness, and ability to execute as a unit all play a big part in these factors. Arkansas Women’s Basketball coach is a BIG believer in this approach.

  4. Competitive Cauldron Winners: In sports like Golf and Tennis, using a competitive or challenge system in practice, players are ranked. However, some coaches have brought this approach to team sports as well to increase the competitive stakes at practice by recording wins in practices to determine playing.

  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/coach’s core values i.e. selflessness, hard work, and resilience and plays the players who best live out their values.

  7. Everyone Plays Equal: 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 or in the whole game. An approach taken more often at youth levels but problematic on teams with large rosters.

3 Additional Approaches

  1. Set Lineup – The coach determines a lineup and players must either screw up to be dropped or a player must step up big to be pulled up into the lineup. The benefits are that players can feel safe in their role, knowing if they have a couple of bad games or practices they won’t be losing their spot.

  2. 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 benefits are that it can help to maintain high standards in games.

  3. Alternating Lineup – When you have large rosters, rather than trying to play everyone in every game, you pick a certain roster for each game. Benefits to the reserve players is that instead of just playing a little bit of time each game, they rather play a lot of minutes one game and none the next, so they can get into a flow.

5 Factors in Deciding Your Approach

  1. Winning – Winning the upcoming game is the most important thing.

  2. Peaking – Sometimes, you suffer the risk of losing games to develop the team so they can peak at the end of the season. While certain players may bring more success today, you may need to go with a roster more likely to develop into a team that will bring more success tomorrow.

  3. Development – The long-term development of the athlete is valued above winning.

  4. Culture – My previous articles discussed ways through which we can build our culture by valuing the role player. Even when you do those things, remember who plays and who doesn’t and how you decide your roster all send a profound message that will impact your culture.

  5. Values – Every lineup is actually a reflection of your TRUE core values. While you may claim to value hard work, resilience, selflessness, leadership, and other qualities, if you play the most talented players even if they are the lazy and selfish individuals, what do you really value?

Take Action

“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 in Transformational Leadership

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

If you want to build a culture that is about results (winning), then you need to play the people that give you the best chance of doing just that.

If you want to build a culture that is focused on the process, you better play the people that are bought into the process.

However, you decide playing time, remember it speaks louder than anything you SAY about your values as a coach.

—J.P. Nerbun

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