Determining playing time for your team

We all feel lousy whenever we’re excluded from something, so imagine being kids languishing on the bench of their youth soccer teams.

Randy Vogt asked me to pen this article about playing time after he felt sorry for kids sitting more than playing in club games and not even getting on the field in the high school games he refereed. Including a recent girls JV game where each coach only played their starters and a couple of subs.

The moral conundrum that is at the cornerstone of the “playing time” question is one that can cause a stir in any coaching course and in any social situation. It is one that probably is not best served with blanket rules and therefore may always be placed at the moral and ethical door of the coach. It is a debate that too frequently is made simplistic, but if you are a holistic coach this is definitely not the case.

Let's start the discussion with the simple soccer truths:

They do not get better sitting on the bench.
They practice to put those skills and ideas to the test in competition
Any good team needs a strong squad and a strong squad is only built if players get playing time.
If I picked you at tryouts, I saw something of value to add to the squad now or in the future so I need to develop you. If I got this wrong, it is on me and you should not suffer because I got it wrong.
Kids want to have fun and playing the game is fun, watching from the bench not so much.

Now let's add the holistic truths:

At some developmental stage, players begin to understand the idea of being a good teammate
Around the same time, they begin to understand the essence of how a team grows best, with the full commitment and support of all its members.
The great majority of youth players do not drive and most cannot dictate the behavior of their parents.
If you're truly a life skills type of coach, rewarding certain attitudes and behaviors with playing time may not be the most developmental thing to do.
At a certain point, it helps with personal development if I understand that my playing time is a consequence of my effort, my attitude and my desire to help others.

I am a player-centered coach who tries hard to be an educator so I frequently ask players to discuss and decide the rules they would like to govern playing time on a team. After all, it's their team and not mine. It is a process that I urge all coaches to use. The process begins at around 10 years of age with players describing characteristics of teammates they want. This conversation naturally develops into behaviors they would like to see from each other. By ages 12 and 13, most teams are invested enough in the conversation to decide the core values that will be set as the foundation of the team and they are willing to hold each other accountable for upholding the values and behavior set.

Teams I have coached recently have used the criteria below to solve the playing time equation:

Attendance at practice.
Effort at practice.
Coachability at practice (efforts to help the training environment be the best it can be).
Attendance at warmup.
Effort at warmup.
Coachability at warmup.
Effort in game.
Impact in game.

Whatever recipe a coach comes up with, the long-term development of the person first and player second should be at the heart of it.

(Tim Bradbury is the Eastern New York Youth Soccer Association's Director of Coaching Instruction. Bradbury served as Technical Director of the Long Island Junior Soccer League's ODP in 1996-1999 and as Eastern New York ODP head coach in 2003-2006. He holds a Master Coach Diploma from United Soccer Coaches.)

6 comments about "Determining playing time for your team".
  1. Ben Myers, October 18, 2019 at 10:13 a.m.

    I have long advocated teams with small rosters to maximize playing time for all players, 14 for an 11v11 team, 12 for a 9v9 team, and 9 or 10 for 7v7.  This seems to be perfectly acceptable at the grassroots level, even when a team turns up short at a match due to injury, illness or an oboe recital. Unfortunately, schools and competitive clubs are driven by financial considerations.  School team rosters are very large to offset the costs for coach's stipend, field maintenance and the bus to carry the players to away games.  Many clubs want to assure their financial stability and to deal with a shortage of qualified coaches, so rosters often get loaded to the max.

    Last fall, I had an 11-player 9v9 team, with one player missing early on with an injury.  We played exactly one match with 11 players, one with 8 (won) and the rest with nine.  We started slowly and closed the season well as the weather cooled and the kids developed the stamina to play an entire match.  Nobody complained about lack of playing time, and all the kids had a wonderful time.  This was a third-tier rec team, and contrary to the popular mythology about rec teams, enough kids showed up to play.  Many coaches suffer anxiety when their teams have no subs of few of them.  Not me!   Love it!

    I also recall vividly taking my club team to a Memorial Day tournament at the beginning of this century and alternating on the same field with an older team coached by Steve Nicol, before he managed the NE Revs.  Steve's team had no substitutes, and he watched silently as the boys played.  He had something to say to the team at the half and at the end of the match.  That's it.   The team played as a unit and played well.  There was a lot to be learned from Steve that day.

  2. Bob Ashpole, October 18, 2019 at 11:49 a.m.

    To me practice sessions are more important to development than matches. You can run just about anything with 14 players, but less than that reduces flexibility.

    For matches I am a big believer in equal playing time. With the "remainder" (after the equal division) going to the best players. Everyone knows who the best players are, and it is expected.

    Never had any grumbling about playing time from parents, but "positions" was another matter. I am a big proponent of youngsters playing in multiple lines during matches (mimics interchange between lines). I had a parent complain once because she wanted her 9 year old child to play only right half. (I was shocked. This was a player I used exclusively in the spine.)

  3. uffe gustafsson replied, October 18, 2019 at 4:40 p.m.

    Good article 
    wish lots of coaches would read this article.
    seen to many coaches that don’t follow any rules on substitution. And leave  same players on the bench that hardly get play time at the games, especially club coaches. Every club have development in their mission statement but then reality comes in and the mission statement is just a piece of paper.
    I coach JV team and every player gets maximum play time, that is what JV is for to let the girls play as much as possible. But I like the part of it’s the players team not mine, I will surely take that into my thinking going forward.  

  4. Ben Myers replied, October 20, 2019 at 3:43 p.m.

    And, yes, learning to play different positions is important, long part of the trams I coach.  To me, i't like chalk squealing on a chalkboard to hear commentator of pro matches say that player so-and-so is playing out of position.  Good grief, these men and women are professionals.  I give Jill Ellis lots of credit for developing mulit-positional players and using their versatility as game cahangers in the context of the USWNT.

    One time, I had only 10 of my 14 show up for a U14 match, including a couple of the weaker ones.  I arranged my best four along the back line and told both outside backs (both had 4-year Div3 college careers as strikers) to attack and go forward when they won the ball.  They did.  The other team never could cope with numbers up by a team playing one down and we shredded them.  My boys learned a lot that day.  The very sweet mother of one boy asked me why I played him as a defender instead of his usual striker position.  My answers: were questions. Did he learn from his experience?  Yes. Did the team play well?  Yes. No more questions from mom, who understood well.

  5. Randy Vogt, October 19, 2019 at 8:31 a.m.

    As Tim writes, I asked him to pen this article after feeling sorry for kids languishing on the bench. In HS soccer, playing time seems to be determined exclusively by the coach. One very competitive Girls JV game of good teams had the players seemingly playing equal minutes while another very competitive Girls JV game had subs of both teams never making it onto the field. I had one Girls JV team, not as good, and one player was only on the field for 25% of the match, if that, and when she was subbed out, she put on her sweatshirt and sat with a long face at the end of the bench away from her teammates. Her coach needed to speak to her and include her more IMHO. I've also had Boys HS Varsity non-conference games, both very competitive. In one game, everybody played but in the other, some subs never made it onto the field. With club soccer, with 11 players and seven subs max, I cannot fathom how each kid is not on the field for at least 40-50% of every game. If those coaches only saw those kids' faces as the teams line up and shake my hand after the game, they would notice how sad many of them are and I place that squarely on the shoulders of the coach.

  6. Philip Carragher, October 19, 2019 at 9:08 a.m.

    Playing time can be the salve that heals all wounds for a sportparent. I've seen many a parent either like or dislike a coach based primarily on their kid's playing time. Even crazy screaming coaches are given leeway if a kid plays a bunch. My approach with my 22-28 player middle school co-ed team is to tell parents and players at the pre-season meeting and throughout the season that we have two seasons: regular and playoffs and that the players will learn different skills during each. Regular season players learn how to play good soccer. They learn and follow a system that emphasizes positional soccer (primarily keep-away) and everyone gets equal playing time. During playoffs playing-time guarantees disappear and the lesson is how to win. Rarely does anyone complain (although some of that is because, on average, it's not a very competltive group).

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