By Jim Thompson, Founder and CEO, Positive Coaching Alliance
Playing time is probably the biggest source of frustration and anger among sports parents, which is saying a lot.
An Unarguable Point
Kids love to play. They don’t like to sit on the bench. Moreover, most of the benefits of playing a sport are tied
to competing in games. Kids who sit benefit less from sports than kids who play. I don’t see how anyone can
argue with this.
Good Coaches Get Kids into Games
It is a tenet of good coaching that you get kids into games! Period. Whether there are any external rules for
minimum playing time or not. Whether it is at the high school or highly competitive travel team level or not.
Good coaches get kids into games! They may be creative about how they get kids into games in high-stakes
situations, because a Double-Goal Coach® does want to win. But a good coach – a Double-Goal Coach – gets
kids into games! Have I made myself clear?
The Mad Dogs
A creative idea for getting kids into games came from an Ohio high school basketball coach who took his bottom
8–12 players and termed them the “Mad Dogs.” The Mad Dogs knew they would play the last minute of
the first quarter and the first minute of the second quarter in EVERY game, whether preseason or the state title
game. This accomplished a number of things:
• Unlike typical bench players, the Mad Dogs worked extremely hard in practice because they
wanted to be ready for their moment. This pushed the starters to play harder, which benefited
the team on the scoreboard.
• They played all out during their two minutes. They were all over the court and had no hesitation
about being highly aggressive. Over time, the coach told me, they became a competitive advantage,
with the team being in a better competitive position after the Mad Dogs exited the game
than before they entered.
• Some of the Mad Dogs became starters. The self-confidence they developed helped them
develop a sense of possibility of themselves as starters! And when an individual latches onto a
sense of possibility, watch out!
The Utility of Blowout Games
Good coaches use blowout games to get kids into games, but they do so BEFORE the game becomes a
blowout. Good coaches recognize a mismatch coming up and start kids who normally don’t start. If that puts
their team at a competitive disadvantage, so much the better for the starters to come into the game behind,
having to work hard to catch up. If the blowout is a blowout even with the subs starting, at least the subs know
they played when the game was still at stake.
Coaching for Effort
A word about the primacy of effort: If there were only one life lesson from sports it should be that hard work
is a key to success. I once coined the “equation,” S=E/T, Success comes from Effort over Time, and drilled
it into my players every day. We might not win today, but if we give it our best effort, sooner or later, we’ll
be successful.
Good coaches in high-stakes situations should reward effort as much as talent. It is impossible to overstate
the power of the message sent to the team when a weaker player who gives it her all gets into games on a
regular basis. The message to a team when a weaker player who gives it her all gets into games on a regular
basis is impossible to overstate.
Weaker players realize that they can get into games if they work hard. They don’t have to be as good as the
best players on the team, they just have to outwork them! This is incredibly motivating to your weaker players.
And it is a wake-up call for your stronger players, who will find their playing time limited if they don’t up their
effort level.
What’s a Parent To Do?
What is a parent to do when your child does NOT have a good coach who gets kids into games?
1) Check out the ground rules. Are there any playing time rules in this program? If not, go to the
leadership of the program to propose this.
2) Check it out with your child. Is your son upset by not playing? Ask him how he feels about this.
Whatever you do, don’t exclude him from the process and complain to the coach without
consulting your child.
3) Cut out the middleman (that’s you!). Instead of talking to the coach, encourage your child to
approach the coach. Parents complaining to coaches about their child’s playing time rarely has
good results. On the other hand, coaches almost always respond well to a player who comes to
them saying, “Coach, I’d like to play more. What can I do to get more playing time?”
4) Find out your options. Is there another program (perhaps one affiliated with Positive Coaching
Alliance) that recognizes the importance of playing time for every athlete? If all else fails,
and your kid is still sitting on the bench all the time, vote with your feet. Take your child to a
better program.
A Final Thought
Coaches of selective teams where playing time is not guaranteed need to be clear about this. Much negativity
results from parents being disappointed when their (perhaps unrealistic) expectations about their child’s
playing time are not met.
Coaches, be absolutely clear at the beginning. Tell parents and players what they can expect in terms of playing
time before they sign on to the team. If you are not going to get kids in the game unless you are confident
they will contribute to a win on the scoreboard, say that at the beginning. It will save you a lot of grief down
the road.
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