Athlete, Coach, Parent

When is it Appropriate to Base Playing Time on Skill?

This year, I helped out as a volunteer coach for my daughter’s 3rd grade basketball team. Throughout the season, I noticed that some of the opposing coaches played their “star” player or their 2-3 strongest players for the entire game to build big leads and rack up wins. Their strategy worked from a competitive standpoint but it made me sad to see groups of 9 year olds essentially riding the bench.

The situation made me wonder…when is it appropriate to base playing time on skill (i.e. play to win) vs give players equal minutes in a game?

Response by Youth Basketball Coach Ashley Gartland

Unfortunately, the situation you describe is one we’re seeing at increasingly younger ages as youth sports get more and more competitive. These competitive environments can lead coaches to adopt a “win at all costs” mentality instead of focusing on player development and embracing opportunities to instill important life lessons through sports. 

However, there isn’t a clear answer to this question around earned vs. equal playing time because it will depend on things like: 

  • The goals and culture of each team 
  • The philosophy of the coaching staff
  • The rules of a program or league

That said, when I’ve coached in leagues that don’t have any concrete rules around playing time, what’s worked for me is to adopt a tiered approach that emphasizes equal minutes for younger players and earned playing time as they get older. 

Here’s what that approach looks like in practice.

Equal playing time for younger ages

Youth athletes have so many opportunities to develop their skills in the early days of playing a sport, and you simply can’t know how a kid is going to do without giving them plenty of chances to play. Plus it’s hard to engage young players - and foster a life-long love for a sport - without giving them adequate playing time.

For me, adequate playing time for elementary school-age kids looks like equal minutes across the board. This approach allows young players to develop their skills and build their confidence on the court or field even if they aren’t the star of the team. It also creates a positive experience over the course of the season, and makes it more likely that players will return to their team the following year. 

Plus, in most cases, the stakes are pretty low at this age. I’d personally rather end a season knowing that my players are happy and engaged than I would if we won our league because I only played the most skilled players and benched the rest. 

Earned playing time for older ages 

As youth athletes get older, they enter environments where earned playing time is more appropriate. That’s because they’ve had a few years to build a strong foundation in a sport and because the stakes are likely different, whether they’re playing competitively on the club circuit or on a school team that’s making a bid for the state championship. 

That said, the jump from equal playing time to earned playing time can feel dramatic for athletes (and, let’s be honest, their parents too!) so I like to introduce the concept gradually.

For me, that looks like giving middle school-age players a guaranteed number of minutes per game and inviting them to earn their playing time beyond that minimum. This basketball season, for example, I told my 6th grade athletes that they would each get 8 minutes of playing time per game. If they wanted more than that, they could earn additional playing time based on their effort, attitude and skill. 

This hybrid approach worked well for this age because every player got experience in every game along with the opportunity to earn more playing time. It also set them up naturally to transition into playing at the high school level, where earned playing time would likely be the norm.

The caveats - and the importance of good communication

The approach I’ve described above is one that’s worked well for me and it’s one I see other youth sport coaches using - particularly those who are what the PCA calls Double-Goal Coaches. It prioritizes player development, helps foster a love for a sport and gradually gets youth athletes ready to deal with the concept of earned playing time. 

But again, there aren’t really universal rules around playing time, unless your league has a policy in place. That’s why you’ll continue to see some coaches playing to win (even at the 3rd grade level) and why you’ll see other coaches favor equal playing time.

The key is for you to decide what your approach will be based on your goals for your team and players. Then once you make your decision, communicate early and often with your team parents and players regarding your playing time policy and your reasons for taking that approach.

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