Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Playing time - the big fat elephant in the room

No matter what level of athletics you are dealing with, the big topic that is discussed, avoided, and argued about more often than any other is playing time. It is the giant elephant in the room.

Most coaches don’t like to talk about playing time with parents. Most parents don’t really want to broach the subject with a coach. But, inevitably, they do. The majority of programs, from little league on up through college, have rules in place that state that discussions of playing time will be taken up only 24 hours AFTER a game and usually in the presence of more than one coach or administrator. That is Ballistic’s policy, and it is the policy of the two high schools at which I’ve worked as a head coach. 

A cooling off period.
There is a good reason for this policy. We coaches want parents to calm down before they speak to us. Nothing makes rational people more irrational than a perceived slight to their children. So, we prefer to talk to you after you had time to sleep off your anger and upset and come to some reasonable conclusions on the situation before you speak with us. 

The worst case scenario for these conversations comes during the summer travel season, when parents and coaches are away from home with the restrictions that“home town” civility inevitably place on people. Let’s face it, you are less likely to be well-mannered when you are far from home. And, frankly, the decision to confront a coach about something that happened during a weekend tournament game MIGHT be fueled by a little more than your usual moxie. It may just be fueled by a bit of alcohol. Or a lot.

In any case, sports and alcohol seem to go hand in hand. Unfortunately, sports, alcohol and constructive conversations rarely do! After a long day in the sun, when you sweated out quart after quart of fluid that you may have replaced with wine coolers, it may not be the best time to discuss things of any importance. So, better to sleep it off before anyone says something they won’t really remember the next day but will probably regret nonetheless.

Playing time by type of program

In the high-stakes sports, such as college or pros, it's understandable that some players get to be on the field more than others. Coaches have to win games. It is their job. Likewise, high school coaches are under the same kinds of pressures, the most people don't realize it. The job of head coach at a high school is just as precarious as that of a head coach in a college or professional setting. The administration wants victories. A school's reputation in the community is based primarily on its academics and its athletics. School principles and administrators want the best foot forward and both of those categories.

Knowing this, it should not be surprising to parents that high school teams play their players according to how good they are and how likely they are to contribute to a victory. While it is undeniably true that most coaches want to play all their players as much as possible, it is impossible for them to do this uniformly and consistently. Put another way, The concept of "as much as possible" is not the same to the coach as it is to the parent. It may be, to the coach, that he played the “B” level players as much as he could in that game because had he played them more the team would have lost. That definition of “as much as possible” may not jibe with a parent’s equal-at-all-cost concept, but that is the way it goes. 

The bizarre world of Little League

In recreational sports, often called Little League, the issue of winning and losing a game or tournament does not typically mean the coach will keep or lose his or her job.A Little League coach is most often a volunteer and is there to share his or her love of the game (or, very often, because no one else wanted to do it). Winning is nice, but, ideally, coaches are there to teach young players the sport and sportsmanship. Anyone who has been to a Little League game in any sport will be quick to point out that the concept of victory is every bit as important to Little League coaches as to any other coach and that sportsmanship has not been seen in Little League games for the past several decades. I would agree. But, I am being idealistic on this point. 

To add to the stress of the volunteer job that no one else wanted to do and that gets no support from other parents, the fact is that the pressure on coaches to win is just as strong in Little League as parental pressure to see all players on the team get equal time on the field. Depending on the team, these two goals may be incompatible, yet coaches make themselves sick over trying to do it—and parents find themselves correspondingly furious when it doesn’t happen.

As a coach, you want to win. You want your players to experience the joy of victory. At the same time, you also are duty-bound to prepare them for losing. Sportsmanship involves not only being a good winner but also being a good loser. Sometimes, the pursuit of the victory can overshadow the desire to get all kids on the field.

Many recreational sports programs require that all kids play an equal amount of time. That makes it very easy for a coach. You just make sure that every kid plays.

Travel teams

In a travel team situation, things get more complicated. Ideally, players in a travel season are going to be better than those in a rec season. However, no matter how good the average player is, there will still be those who are better than others and those who are at the bottom of the pile. When the game comes down to the last few minutes and the team is down by just a couple points, the coach will always play the best players, leaving those are less talented on the sidelines. Travel programs need to win to maintain their status among other travel teams, thereby getting players the next season.

No parent wants to see his or her kid watching the game from the sidelines. Everyone wants their child to have as much fun as possible. Many parents are unrealistic in their estimation of how good their child is at baseball, football, or lacrosse. But even the most realistic of parents who have invested money in a travel season want their child to play if only to get their moneys worth!

Before the first tournament of the year, I tell my parents that I cannot guarantee all kids play the same amount in each game, but I will try to get all kids a substantial amount of play over the course of the tournament weekend. Even then, it’s not always possible. Like every coach, I want to win. And when it comes down to the wire and we are in a close match, my best players are going to be on the field. If the game was a tough, back-and-forth struggle from the start, the best players will probably be in the whole time. I do notice that there are other players who are not getting in the game. I do feel bad about it. It does bother me. It bothers my assistant coach, as well.

Coach's side of things
On my current travel team, The majority of the players are quite capable. I have a few that are new to the sport and do not have the skill set the others have developed over a few years of play. I recently had a parent ask why I do not play all the kids the same amount of time on the field. Here is my rationale:

1. While all the parents pay the same amount for their kids to be on the team, the entire experience of travel lacrosse is not only the tournament weekends. Our practices and training are every bit as important as tournaments in the development of young players. More, in fact. In truth, there is no coaching in a game, there is only directing and reminding. It is virtually impossible to actually teach something in a game setting. Consequently, I spend much more time in the practice setting working with lesser skilled players than I do with the players who are among the best on the team. During games, the better players do play more but more is expected of them and they are under greater pressure than the lesser skilled players. The kids who are not yet at that level could not, frankly, handle the pressure for long. In truth, as far as learning goes, the lesser skilled players are getting a better education relative to their skill set. It is simple physics—it takes more effort to raise the lower end to meet the higher end than it does to raise the middle. Personally, I put more value on the learning experience in practice than in a game. Whether parents feel that way is entirely up to them and outside my control. The key question they need to ask themselves is whether their child is a better player at the end of the season. If here she is, it is not because he played in tournaments but rather because of individual time spent with the coaches at practice.

2. Even if I were to put all players in the game for the same amount of time, it could prove counterproductive to those players who are not as skilled. In the case of, say, a defender who is playing in his first or second year against very good opponents, playing a full game and being repeatedly beat by the opposing players is not going to teach him how to be a better defender. It will probably leave his self-confidence in tatters and he may want to quit. After a series of mistakes, I can take such a player out, talk to him, explain what he should be doing, and put them back in. Since we are still playing the same team, there is a strong likelihood that he will face a situation similar to that which he goofed up on earlier. That is a powerful teaching tool. Taking the players out of the game can be a positive learning experience.

Allowing a player to the repeatedly defeated by an opponent is entirely counterproductive. While his parents may be pleased that he has had the same amount of playing time as other players, I am quite certain that he is far less happy having been beaten by his opponents endlessly during the day. Psychologically, which is worse? That's impossible to say, and is probably dependent on the child and his mental attitude, but I would lean toward the idea of being constantly beaten is worse for the psyche. 

3. Playing kids that are not of the same caliber as other players causes a de facto leveling or segregating among the players on the field. The better players will not pass the ball to those that cannot catch it or make a shot on goal. This destroys not only the self-esteem of the player being ignored but also the effectiveness of the team as a whole. No one learns. No one wins. As a coach, I can mandate that they pass the ball to him, but in reality it is self-defeating to do that. The team will undoubtedly lose, and no one will gain any experience that's positive from such an experiment.

We've seen this countless times with programs that do not allow a leveled team structure. Rather than have an A-team and a B-team, they mix all the kids together. The idea is that leveled teams make the kids on the lower team feel inferior. In practice, however, leveling happens on the field as play progresses. Better players ignore those that cannot play well, and cut them out of the action on the field so that the team can succeed. It is not selfishness, it is actually a team oriented mindset. The result is a team that plays only half a game.

What actually happens with level teams is that the players on both teams progress at a pace faster than they would if they were mixed together. The best players on the B-team will play far more than if they were on a mixed team. By leveling, players with less skills are raised to the level of starters and have to take on that responsibility. Magically, because they take on the duties of the best players on a team—simply because they ARE the best players on the team—they grow faster and learn more rapidly. 

Beyond the matter of player ability, playing time off and is dependent on a number of different factors that change during a game. There might be injuries, man-up or man-down teams, penalties, or special circumstances to the coach needs to adjust for due to situations with the other team. What parents don't often understand is that, quite often, kids do not want to go on the field because they feel they are unprepared, they're not ready to go on the field because they're not paying attention to what's happening in the game, or they do not know their plays the way they should. 

The question of fairness in playtime becomes much more complicated when one considers whether it is fair to allow the team to lose simply to get one or two players on the field for more minutes. And do players who do not play much on a championship team feel they wasted their time? Or do they enjoy being on a winning team even if they didn't play that much? It depends on the kid, but in my experience as a high school head coach I find that many kids would prefer to be a once-in-a-while sub on the varsity team rather than a starter on JV. Others, who are not interested in status, would rather play than watch.

As a recreational, travel and high school coach, it is always in the back of my mind that there are players were not getting on the field and who would really like to have participated. My assistant coaches and I at all levels discuss this, and at all times try to put the right combination of players on the field. It does not always work out as we plan. But don’t think we don’t agonize over it. 

If you do have concerns about your child playing time, make an appointment with the coach to discuss it. Try not to accuse. Understand that there maybe factors into a decision about who to put out in a game at any given time that you are not aware of from your side of the field. Before you talk to the coach, however, talk to your child. Ask him or her what he feels about the situation. Ask if he feels he should be on the field more than he is. Ask if he feels his skill level is commensurate with his playtime. I think you will be surprised at how many kids are acutely aware of their abilities and their expectations for themselves in a team setting. The impetus for these conversations is very often the parents thinking their children's apparent upset at not being on the field when it is actually the child being upset that he is not being good enough to be on the field. So, ask him or her. The answer may surprise you—and guide you to make some decisions on training that might help.


Once you've had time to think, do some research, talk to your child, then talk to your coach.