In today’s youth soccer world, we see and hear a lot about coddled children and how adults don’t allow kids to learn tough but necessary life lessons. One of the most common examples is giving free trophies to players simply for registering. Another frequent situation is equal playing time.
Playing time is one of the most popular concerns of parents. Almost every coach has had to deal with a situation in which a parent expresses concern about his/her child’s playing time. The parents are right.
Every kid needs to play. End of story.
This does not mean that I agree with the parent who tells coach about how great his son is and that he should be playing the entire game because he is the star on his middle school team. This does not mean that I agree with the parent who claims her daughter should be playing more minutes as a forward instead of a defender. However, I do agree with the parent who is concerned because her son is only playing five minutes each game.
It is absolutely, completely necessary for players to play a significant amount of time in competitive matches in order to properly develop. This does not mean that all players should get equal time. They should play a significant amount of time, which may or may not be equal to that of their teammates. Before we define the meaning of “significant,” let’s understand why playing time is so important.
The Game is the Goal
The entire purpose of practicing and learning the game is so players can eventually execute what they’ve learned in a competitive match. If a player does not get to play in those matches, what is the point of them learning and becoming better players? They could just as easily get exercise and learn teamwork by playing another sport.
The process of development begins with learning skills unopposed, then progresses to learning them with light pressure, which eventually goes into full pressure situations. The final step in this process is attempting these skills in a real match. The added pressure of playing against kids we don’t know, having parents watching, wearing the uniform, and not having coach at our side to guide us makes executing what we’ve learned much more difficult. A player cannot fully master a concept until he/she has attempted and successfully executed it several times in a competitive match. Therefore, if a player does not get ample opportunity to play and attempt the concepts he’s learned, he will never fully master these concepts.
Experience is Key
From a psychological perspective, having experience playing in competitive matches is absolutely necessary. We never know when a big moment will come upon us. But whenever that moment comes, we need to be ready. In order to prepare, we need to try and replicate that moment and practice executing in it as much as we can. Playing in a competitive match is one of those moments.
Sure, not every game is exceptionally important. But there will be times when they will be. And there will be times when we have no choice but to rely on players we usually don’t rely on. If these players don’t have regular experience in matches, when the time comes that they need to play, they will likely be very nervous. Be prepared for big games by allowing all players to experience regular time in matches.
The Gap Will Grow Bigger
The players who experience little playing time are the ones who are not at quite the same level as some of their other teammates. There is some degree of a gap between the abilities of those who play significantly and those who do not.
If a player is at a lower level than his teammates, but never gets the opportunity to develop to his full potential (by playing in games), how will he ever catch up to his teammates? He won’t. We need to allow these players the opportunity to get better. Otherwise, the gap between the best and worst players will only grow bigger.
Lessons Can Still Be Learned
One of the most popular justifications of giving players little playing time is that it teaches them important life lessons. Such lessons include: 1. recognizing that results get rewarded – we don’t get rewarded in our jobs just for showing up - we need to produce significant results to help the organization; 2. the value of hard work and earning a spot; 3. realizing that not everyone can be the star of an organization and that we can be important contributors to a team’s success even as someone who is not in the spotlight.
These are all valid. But they do not justify players playing less-than-significant time. This is why we do not have to give players equal playing time. There can still be players who play more than others. But everyone needs to play a significant amount. The players who play less than others can still learn these valuable lessons because they receive less playing time than others. But playing less time does not have to mean playing little time.
The Answer is in the Name
Nearly every youth soccer organization claims to be about player development. Most talk the talk, but not everyone walks the walk. If it is about player development, coaches need to be doing everything they can to develop each player. This includes giving kids playing time.
All of youth soccer is developmental. Even at the U19 age group. And guess what: college is also a developmental level. The only level that is not developmental is the professional level.
Anything that is considered developmental needs to give all players an opportunity to play. Yes, high school and college are results oriented. Coaches can lose their jobs if they don’t win. But that’s why there are JV teams and reserve teams. Not everyone needs to get time on the first team. But they certainly shouldn’t be sitting on the bench for the first team and never playing in any other competitive matches. Even the professional teams have reserve and youth teams. Plenty of professional players suit up then sit the bench for the first team games, but play significantly in the reserve matches.
Defining “Significant” Playing Time
So finally, let’s define what it means to play “significantly.” As a general rule, the younger the players, the more time they should be guaranteed in a match. We need to maximize their potential for growth as much as possible, which means playing more.
Not everyone’s definition will be the same, but here is how I define “significant playing time”:
U10 and younger: two-thirds of the game
U11-U15: more than half the game
U16 and older: half the game
Younger players need more opportunities to attempt and master concepts, so they need to play more time in games. As players get older, they can still make significant strides playing slightly less. This is in part due to the fact that many concepts learned at younger ages require the ball, whereas concepts at older ages are off the ball – such as compactness, pressure, cover, support, and mobility. However, older players still need to experience having the ball, and since the older age groups have bigger fields and more players, each individual’s time on the ball decreases, so they still need to play at least half the game to have ample opportunity to develop.
Making it Happen
So how do we make this happen? If we have a team in which all the players are at similar levels, it’s easy. But many of us deal with more complex situations. While results are not the most important aspect in regard to player development, the reality is that our players are aware of them. We do not want to put the team in a situation in which results go poorly regularly or the level of play drops due to one or two players. Eventually, the kids will catch on and we will have a big mess on our hands. Here are some suggestions on how to ensure significant playing time while minding the team’s overall level of play:
Stop placing kids on the team if they are not good enough:
If a player is not good enough to play, why have him/her on the team? If the answer has anything to do with money, we are entering some seriously questionable moral ground. Stop using kids for their parents’ money. If a player is too far below the rest of the team’s level, he shouldn’t be on the team. It will not benefit anyone – especially this player. Help point him in the direction of another team that will be more appropriate.
Ensure that the level of all players is similar:
If all players are at a similar level, we do not have to worry about the level of play dropping when we make substitutions. If a club is fortunate enough to have multiple teams in an age group, this is relatively easy to do. For clubs and teams with not as many resources, see below.
Appropriately place all players:
Make sure players are playing on the team that is most appropriate for them (this also goes for high school teams with JV programs). Players need to have a good balance of success and challenge. This might mean that some players play on two teams, but get different amounts of time on each. This could also mean that players are moved from one team to another within the club for certain competitions.
Combine or rearrange age groups:
Instead of keeping kids confined to their own age group, consider combining multiple age groups and sorting the kids by their physical and playing abilities. This is, after all, a more appropriate way to group kids. The most important thing to keep in mind is where the team is placed in league play – make sure it is appropriate.
Learn to manage substitutions:
When we have no choice but to have players with a wide-range of abilities on one team, we need to learn how to manage substitutions. Instead of having all the best players on the field at once, have a balance. This prevents a significant drop in our level of play once subs come on. We can also be strategic about which positions we put players in and who we put around them – sometimes it’s a good idea to place kids who are developmentally behind around stronger players so that we do not get exposed. We can also try to recognize players of a similar level on the other team and match our players up accordingly. Remember: This is not so that we can strategize to win. It is to allow all of our players the opportunity to have both success and be appropriately challenged while playing in the game.
Keep improving players:
As always, if we are less-than-satisfied with the playing abilities of some of our players, we need to focus on making them better. Nothing fixes the issue of disparity between player abilities like leveling the playing field with effective player development.