This is the sixth in a series of posts on Professionalism in Coaching. In the first five posts, I covered the following topics:

Professionalism in Coaching 1 – Dress for Success

Professionalism in Coaching 2 – What is ‘Professional’?

Professionalism in Coaching 3 – Sportsmanship

Professionalism in Coaching 4 – Blowouts

Professionalism in Coaching 5 – Playing Time Philosophy

Today, I will continue talking about playing time situations, but the focus will be on some ideas to consider when deciding on your playing time philosophy and how to implement it.

While there is no clear-cut, scientific method for handling playing time, there are some considerations to take into account when coaches, athletes, and parents are dealing with the issue of playing time.


The first thing to consider when figuring out your playing time philosophy is why kids play sports. That’s a fairly simple one.

Kids play sports because it’s fun to play. They enjoy playing.

The key word there is playing. That’s where the fun is for them—the playing.

Yes, winning is fun. It’s a whole lot more fun to be on a winning team than on a team that loses a lot.

But the kids on a winning team who don’t get to play don’t have near the amount of fun as the other kids. In fact, for many of them, it’s downright miserable.

So don’t think that just because your team is winning, every kid is having a fun, enjoyable, positive experience. They’re not.

It’s up to you to decide where you will align yourself in this concept of the clash between fun and winning.

Your General Athletic Philosophy

The second thing to consider is what your philosophy is with regards to athletics at the level you coach.

Is your philosophy an Athlete-First type of philosophy where you are most interested in providing every kid the opportunity to have a positive athletic experience?

Or are you more focused on winning games and championships?

Some people might think, “Why can’t I be focused on both?”

You can. In fact, most coaches are.

However, you can’t focus on both of them equally.

There will come a moment (and actually many moments) when those two elements will be staring each other in the face, and it will require you to make a decision as to what is most important.

You will then decide a course of action in that moment that is based on which of those two things is more important to you than the other one.

It helps to have your philosophy with regards to this figured out ahead of time, so when you are in a contest, and that moment arrives, you will act accordingly.

Also, going back to last week’s post, you need to make sure you have communicated your philosophy to your players and their parents. That way, when you do make whatever decision you make, they will understand why you chose to do what you did.

For example, as a middle school basketball coach, my philosophy is that I’m trying to provide every kid in our program a positive athletic experience. If we are in late in a game with a close score and I look at my bench and realize that I have one or more end-of-bench players who have only played two minutes in the first half, those two elements—positive athletic experience for all and winning a game—are in direct conflict with one another.

I need to make the right decision based on what my philosophy is.

The right decision is to get those kids into the game.

Actually, the right decision would have happened much earlier. I would have made sure they got at least three minutes of playing time in the first half and three minutes of playing time earlier in the second half.

At least three minutes in each half is my philosophy on the minimum amount of playing time that every kid will get in every game. If I had lived by that philosophy earlier in the game, I wouldn’t be dealing with this dilemma that I put myself into.

The key to this working well is that I have thought it out ahead of time, communicated it with the kids and their parents, planned for it, and then executed it throughout the game.

Levels of Play

The scenario above leads to the third thing to consider—the level of play at which you coach.

Most of you reading this are probably school or youth coaches at the high school level and younger. My focus here and in most of the things I write and speak about is on you. 

For those of you who coach at the college or professional levels, the playing time philosophy will be quite different than for those of us coaching at the younger levels. The situation that comes closest to how I believe you should handle playing time at your levels is the high school varsity level (but it’s still not the same).

I am not going to tell any of you at any level—youth through high school—what your philosophy should be with regards to the level you coach. You will have to figure that out for yourself.

But I will tell you what I think are proper philosophies for the different levels.

Also, keep in mind that, as I said at the beginning of this post, there are no cut-and-dried “this is the only philosophy that works” philosophies. There will always be grey area, always be different ways to approach it, and always be exceptions that may take place in any given situation.

But I am going to give you what I think are some sound philosophies to consider.

Keep in mind that as I tell you this, I am operating from the general philosophy that we are here to provide kids the opportunity to have a positive athletic experience.

I run every decision I make through that filter as much and as often as possible. It’s not always perfect, and I sometimes fall short in my goal to provide that, but that is the benchmark I am seeking.

Youth Levels

For our purposes, I am defining youth levels as school, rec, and club teams from around 5th or 6th grade on down to whatever the youngest age is when the first athletic experience is happening.

This is where it all begins. The focus of these levels should be to introduce kids to this sport and begin to foster in them a love of the sport (and, actually, a love of sports in general).

The #1 goal coaches should have at these levels should be that the kids have so much fun playing that they want to come back the next season and play again. (I actually believe that should be a goal at every level.)

Winning is so far down the list of what’s important at these levels that I believe we don’t even need to introduce a scoreboard until the upper end of these ages. By third and fourth grade, keeping score on a scoreboard may be appropriate. But, again, the emphasis on winning should be way down the list of what’s important.

With each subsequent year at these youth levels, more emphasis can be placed on teaching the game, developing some skills, learning what it means to be an athlete & teammate, and developing a competitive spirit. And, once again, winning should come behind all of those as an emphasis.

But the overarching focus throughout these levels should be on kids having fun playing their games… period.

Because of that, ALL kids should be receiving a fairly equal amount of playing time.

Notice I said fairly equal. There is very little in sports that is equal. Playing time is one of those things that is generally not an equal opportunity concept. There will be some kids who play more than others.

However, the younger the kids are, the more evenly distributed the playing time should be. But this needs to be considered even all the way up to the 4th and 5th grade levels (and probably even older).

As this is a series on Professionalism in Coaching, keep your professionalism in mind as you make your decisions.

Make sure to handle yourself in a professional manner when you have people challenge you on the decisions you make. They may come at you in an unprofessional manner, but as a professional yourself, you must not stoop to their level. Stay calm, remember why kids play, what your philosophy is, and what level you coach at. Bring any discussion back to those concepts, and always err on the side of what is right for kids.

I was about to start talking about the middle school and high school ages, but since this post is already over 1,400 words, I will stop here and save discussing those levels for next week’s post. I will also look at ways to get ALL of the kids at those levels a decent amount of playing time while maintaining our professionalism.

Until then, leave a comment and let us know your philosophy on playing time at the youth levels and any challenges you have had in implementing that philosophy.