This is the eighth in a series of posts on Professionalism in Coaching. Throughout the series, I have covered a variety of topics dealing with how coaches must handle themselves in a professional manner. If you have not seen the other posts, go back to the Blog Page to read them.
The last few posts have focused on maintaining our professionalism while dealing with playing time issues at various levels.
Today, I will continue the playing time discussion by offering some ideas on the logistics of getting kids playing time at the varsity level in the high school setting or whatever level that is its equivalent in the non-school setting.
At each of the levels discussed so far, you have seen the term decent amount of playing time. I said that kids in the youngest ages should all be getting a fairly equal amount of playing time. Then in the high school levels prior to varsity, the difference in playing time starts to widen based on skill levels. However, I also said that kids at the middle school and high school levels should still get a decent amount of playing time.
I mentioned two important things to consider with the concept of what a decent amount of playing time is. The first is trying to define a decent amount of playing time. The second is that each of us has to consider the sport and level we are coaching when determining what that amount of playing time is.
Varsity is Different
While I believe that at the varsity level players should still get a decent amount of playing time, the varsity level is going to be treated differently than the other levels.
A decent amount of playing time on the varsity will be a much smaller amount of playing time for some players than at all other levels. The varsity level is where the biggest emphasis on winning will occur.
There is a lot more on the line for coaches and players at the varsity level than on the other levels. They (and often their entire school and community) are often judged in terms of their success based on how the varsity level performs on the scoreboard.
While it is still not the most important element in what we do in youth/school sports, winning games and championships is much more important on the varsity than at any other level.
All of the other levels are considered developmental levels to prepare kids for the varsity. Once the kids are on the varsity, they have reached the ultimate level they will reach (besides those who move on and play in college or some other level). The varsity level is the level they have all been striving towards since they were playing in the younger levels.
While there is still a developmental element at the varsity level and players still need to behave with character, integrity, and sportsmanship while learning the life lessons that sports can provide, performing successfully on the scoreboard is one of the most important elements on this level.
Less Skill, Less Playing Time
Therefore, on the varsity level, the best players will play a much larger amount of time, the average players will not play as much, and the least-skilled players may play very little or not at all in some instances.
I’m not saying we want it to be this way. In the best scenarios, the varsity team has such great success that they get a large lead early in the game, and the coach can get all of the players a decent amount of playing time like at all of the other levels.
However, that does not always happen, and for some teams, it rarely happens. What happens more often with most teams is that the least-skilled players do not see very much game action.
Because winning takes such a precedence on the varsity level, the best players need to stay in the contests for the longest periods of time. Average players will give them a break to get some rest, but that break will not happen for too long before the better players are put back into the contests. The players with the least amount of skills may only play for a very short time at the end, if they play at all.
We don’t like having to do it this way, but it is the nature of the way it works at this level. Coaches would much rather get all the players a decent amount of playing time, but because winning is so much more important at this level, they can’t always do so.
One of the biggest keys with regards to this concept is that coaches must make sure they communicate this to the players and the parents before the season begins.
In the Pre-Season Athlete/Parent Meeting (which I hope you are all doing), explain your Playing Time Philosophy for all of the levels of your program and make sure those philosophies are clear to everyone.
Help them understand that at the varsity level, playing time will be handled differently than on the lower levels. Explain the process by which players get playing time at all levels in your program, but make sure to stress that at the varsity level—the ultimate level in your program—some players will receive much less playing time.
Help Them Feel Valued
Once you are competing in contests, you must also make sure that those players who are receiving much less playing time are still getting some time and that they feel like they are contributing to the team.
This is an area where things can get tricky.
Not everyone is motivated by the same things. For some kids, just getting to be a member of the varsity team, practicing with their friends, the excitement of varsity contests, and maybe playing only a few minutes per game (or not at all in some games) is enough to keep them happy and feel they have value to the team.
For others, this will not be enough. You may need to offer them the opportunity to swing between the varsity and JV levels. Especially for those players who feel more of their joy and value being tied to playing, this is a great way for them to have a better chance at getting what they want out of the experience.
No matter how those kids who receive limited playing time are reacting, keep communicating with them daily. Keep working to build positive relationships with them. Keep stroking them, both privately and publicly, to help them feel good about the role they are playing and the contributions they are making. Work to make sure they know how much you value them and all they are doing for the team and the program.
Working to Control the Message
The more you can help them feel that they are having a positive experience and making an important contribution to the team, the better chance that they will feel they are doing so.
If you don’t keep communicating this to them, they may start to doubt themselves and struggle to enjoy the experience or feel they are doing much of anything to help the team.
There is a good chance that they will have other people in their lives—mainly their parents and friends—who will be giving them other messages that will be counter to the messages you want them to hear. They may also receive those kinds of messages from their own self-talk.
All of those other messages could be quite negative and start to bring them down.
While you can’t control all of the messages they will be receiving from others, you can control the messages you are giving them and, hopefully, they will in turn be giving to themselves.
Help them control the narrative in their own minds and feelings by constantly controlling the narrative that you are telling them. Again, keep positively communicating their value and importance to the team.
And then by all means, any chance you have to give them more playing time, DO IT!
No matter what level they are on, they want to play. As I have said in earlier posts, it is the reason they are on the team. Make sure you do all you can to get them some playing time.
Even with you working hard on all of the aspects discussed above, though, at some point in your coaching career, you will have kids and parents who will want to talk about their playing time. How should you handle those moments? How should you deal with them when you meet with them?
Navigating a player/parent meeting about playing time is one of the most important things that you will have to learn as a coach. It is also too important to talk about in a couple of paragraphs at the end of a post. So come back next week when I will discuss the elements involved in maintaining your professionalism while meeting with players and their parents.
Until then, leave a comment below and let us know what has worked or not worked for you (or the varsity coaches you have worked with or watched) with regards to getting kids playing time on the varsity level.