This is the seventh in a series of posts on Professionalism in Coaching. In the first six 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

Professionalism in Coaching 6 – Playing Time Ideas for Coaching Younger Kids

Today, I will continue the playing time discussion by offering some ideas on the logistics of getting kids playing time at the older levels, mainly the middle school and high school ages.

It is at these ages where the division really starts to occur in terms of people’s opinions on playing time. It is also at these ages where the logistics of playing time get more difficult and the reactions of athletes and parents can get more contentious.

In last week’s post, I focused my attention on the logistics of playing time when coaching kids from around 5th grade on down. My feeling was that, for the most part, kids in all of those ages should all be getting a fairly equal amount of playing time.

You will hear the term decent amount of playing time as I discuss playing time for older players. In fact, it is what I believe we should be working to provide kids at all levels.

There are two problems with the concept, though. One is in trying to define a decent amount of playing time. What exactly does that mean?

Well, it doesn’t exactly mean anything. It is a fairly ambiguous concept. Each of us has to determine what we mean by a decent amount of playing time.

Also, like I said last week, each of us has to consider the sport and level at which we are coaching. For kids under the middle school age, I believe playing time should be much more balanced than it will be as we make our way up the age ladder.

Middle School & High School

We now turn our attention to playing time at the middle school and high school ages. Beginning in 6th or 7th grade, I believe that with each subsequent year, the playing time concepts stay somewhat similar to the youth experience that I wrote about last week, with one exception—the varsity level.

The varsity level is where the biggest emphasis on winning games and playing your best players the most minutes takes precedence. In fact, there will be kids who dress for varsity contests who will not play at all or not very much in some games. (That needs to be communicated to the players and parents, by the way. Don’t assume that they all understand that.)

But for every other level prior to the varsity, there still needs to be a decent amount of playing time for every kid. Again, with the jump from each level—6th to 7th grade, 7th to 8th, and so on up to junior varsity—the number of minutes that kids at the end of the bench will play may shrink.

But quite honestly, I don’t think it should shrink all that much.

In last week’s post, I said that the #1 reason why kids play sports is because it’s fun. I also said that the fun is in the playing.

That’s the whole reason the kids are on the team—to play. You need to find a way to get them a decent amount of playing time to make the experience fun for them. Otherwise, you shouldn’t have kept them on the team.

Some of you may be thinking that your school or teams may be so small that you need to keep everyone on the team. Or it may be that your school or league has a “no-cut” policy.

Well, then, that can actually make your decision easier. You will explain at the beginning of the season that the policy is such that since everyone gets to be on the team, everyone will play. It won’t be equal, but they will all get some playing time. Let them know that by doing that, you will at times, make decisions that may lead to not winning games. Tell them that the two ideas—everyone plays and winning games—usually do not work out well together.

But emphasize that your school/league has determined that what they want is for ALL kids to have the opportunity to have a positive athletic experience, not just the ones with the most talent and skill. Let them know that playing time won’t be equal, and that the best players who behave themselves the right way (which you will also define for them) will get the most playing time, and the least-skilled players and the ones who don’t handle themselves properly within the standards of the team, will get the least amount of time.

By explaining this right from the start, everyone can be on the same page. While they might not all agree with it or agree with how you execute it, they can at least understand the situation and then, hopefully, understand why you decide to do some of the things you do.

Similar to Youth Levels

I really believe that for kids in the middle school ages and then for the freshmen, sophomore, and JV levels (or the equivalent of those in the non-school settings), playing time should be handled fairly similarly to the youth levels.

These lower levels are still developmental levels. The ultimate goal will be to play on the varsity level. To prepare to do that, players will play on these lower levels. The only way for them to develop, grow, learn, and prepare to play at the varsity level is to get some decent minutes on these lower levels. Otherwise, they will not be put into enough of the kinds of situations that will properly prepare them for the varsity.

Again, there is that word, “decent.” And, again, you will need to determine in your sport and at your level what that means.

But please don’t forget that your kids are there to play. Make sure you honor them properly as members of your team and give them enough minutes that it is a worthwhile, positive experience for them.

I know this can be difficult to do. In all my years as a high school varsity head basketball coach, as well as my years as a lower-level coach, I have had to deal with that same dilemma. There is nothing easy about it.

Some years I was much better at it than others. Heck, some games I was much better than others. But the key was I was always trying to do right by the kids and trying to figure out the best way to handle it.

Now as a 7th/8th grade coach, I make sure that every kid gets at least three minutes of playing time in each half. I know that will limit our ability to win games at times, but that’s just how it’s going to be. Each kid deserves the opportunity to play, and I’m going to make sure s/he gets it.

Our best players still play the most minutes, followed by the next best, and then the next best, and so on down the line. But I am not going to have kids show up to practice, do everything asked of them, and then only get to play one or two minutes in total for a game. That’s not fair to them.

And I feel the same way about the freshmen and JV levels, too. If kids show up, work hard, have good attitudes, and do all that’s asked of them, they deserve more than a minute or two of playing time.

I have created a type of spreadsheet that I use in games to help me with this. I have it set up in three or four-minute increments. Before each game, I plug kids’ names into the slots for the time of the game. At each time listed, I sub those kids in whose names are listed for that time slot. I work my way through that sheet for the entire game.

I am not chained the sheet. I can make changes if I want. But this sheet helps me make sure that every kid gets at least three minutes of playing time each half.

I have also found that trying to get some of those less-skilled players some playing time mixed in with the more-skilled players helps, too. The more-skilled players can help the weaker players out a bit. Also, sometimes the weaker players actually get better out there because they are playing with better players.

The key is that I am being proactive in trying to make this a positive experience for all of the players. Again, if they are going to be on the team, they need to play.

Well, once again, the time—and words—have just flown by. I was going to talk about the varsity level in this post today, too, but at 1500+ words already, I am going to have to save that until next week.

So come back next week when I zero in on my ideas on getting kids playing time on the most difficult, and often the most contentious, level they will play on—the varsity.

Leave a comment below and let us know what you do or what you think should be done at the middle school and lower level high school-aged levels.