A Coach’s Guide to Managing Playing Time

Managing playing time is one of the biggest headaches for sports coaches especially in youth soccer. It is the number one concern of parents after safety. Youth coaches should get out in front of this issue. I am here to inform you of a few different approaches you can take to handle this issue. 

There are two strategies to use when managing playing time: equal play among players, and play your best players. The most important is to choose a playing time philosophy, communicate the plan to players and parents, and stick with it throughout the year. 

In order to learn about the pros and cons of each plan and how each one might be effective for different teams, keep reading on!

Equal Play

The most common philosophy of recreational leagues is everyone plays an equal amount in the game. A recreational league might give guidelines for playing time which could include another suggestion that every player is on the field for at least half of the game. Checking your club policy would be a great first step. 

The reason why this is a good strategy for recreational soccer is that the goal isn’t to win championships. The point is to engage young players to love the game and develop them to their fullest potential. In other words, coaches should strive to get players as many touches on the ball in game scenarios as possible; this is the best learning environment. Another benefit of this strategy is coaches can give players exposure to many different positions throughout the season. 

Many young athletes quit early in their careers. There are a lot of reasons why this is the case but one of the largest is their playing time. Around 90% of kids would rather participate in losing team than sitting on the bench of a winning team. Everyone wants to feel a part of something bigger than themselves. Equal play solves this and ignites the passion in some players.

The downside to this strategy consists of a few things. First, if a child doesn’t show up to practice consistently, why should they be rewarded with equal playing time as those that are always there? This brings into question of parent commitment as well. Most recreational players can’t drive so this could be out of their control. Albeit this might not be a problem in Europe or Asia with public transportation! Should the child be punished for a parent’s problem? I don’t think so! However, if this issue persists, I would speak with the parent about ways to correct the issue. 

Another issue with equal play is the level of enthusiasm and energy a player brings to practice. Some kids will have no interest to hustle during practice. Why should they get equal playing as players who give it their all during practice and show massive improvement? I believe this player shouldn’t start and effort should be rewarded even if they are the best player. At the end of the day, playing youth soccer teaches life skills too! 

Put Your Best Foot Forward

On the opposite side of the pitch is playing your best players all the time. This is the preferred method of managing players in competitive soccer leagues. Typically, this would be used for travel, academy, and high school teams where the players are older (U14 and up). The goal of these teams is to win while developing talent as much as possible. These leagues usually require tryouts and parents invest a lot of time, money, and effort. 

The benefits of this style of coaching bring a very competitive nature to practice and games. Players want to start. Getting playing time is one of the biggest motivators. The most competitive players will take direction well and practice at home. These can be some of the most rewarding teams to coach. Everyone is on the same page to progress. 

One of the challenges is engagement among players who aren’t starters. In addition, parents invest a lot of time, money, and energy. Parents could lose their cool and confront you. How do you keep players and motivated when they get little playing time? The bench is wildly important for practices and injury substitutions. A team is at a massive disadvantage if they only have eleven players. One way to combat this is to give these players a path to become starters by challenging starters in drills, being supportive during games, and finding opportunities to add value to the team. This helps the overall team effort as well as improves their chance to play on the field. 

Planning

Regardless of the strategy you decide is best for your team, planning will be a crucial part of your success. Game management with scenario analysis helps give your team the best chance at success and reduces confusion for everyone involved.

First, determine who your starters are and what positions they will be playing. Know your substitutions before the game and when you plan to take them. Have a few alternative options because some players might not show especially in recreational leagues. 

Match your weaker players with stronger players to balance out the talent. The goal is not to put your team in a poor position. All players should learn to play with another. Start by working this into practice so players get familiar with each other even though it might not be your starting line up. Your best players will likely need substitutions throughout the game due to energy level, injury, etc. 

Given the number of substitutions, team players, and game time, there will be situations where equal play is physically impossible. This is okay. Try to make it as even as possible. Use you can use this framework below to plan for equal play. 

Furthermore, players will want to play in certain positions. Some parents might be very vocal about where they want their child to play. Just because a player or parent loves a particular position doesn’t mean it is the best for the team. At times, players will get playing time at positions they don’t love, but it puts the team in the best position to develop and win. Kids need to learn the importance of playing for the greater good. 

Player Coach Meeting

Now that you have a strategy and a plan, communicate your plan to players and parents. I can’t stress how important it is to do this upfront to reduce your headaches on the backend. Set up a meeting with parents and players at the beginning of the season to set expectations. Let them know how you plan to run the season. They can disagree, but it is more important to get that upfront. If it isn’t a good fit, preseason is the time to switch teams. Players will have no options to switch once the season starts. Also, set your expectations on effort during practice and tell the players you will hold them accountable.

This will reduce the parent-coach meetings. Stick to the plan. Win or lose. No one likes a moving target. For equal play, make sure to communicate that every game might not equal the same playing time. There will be times when a player much less playing time than others. However, if managed correctly they will get a decent amount over the course of a season. This gives you some breathing room as games are dynamic. 

Now the above won’t avoid all the playing time conversations especially in more competitive leagues where the best players start and get the majority of the playing time. I recommend speaking with the child first. Speak about them with their individual performance and let them know of what ways can they get better. Give them measurable goals to work on so they can develop as a player. Here are several questions to chat with players about:

  • How do you approach to practice? Are they the first one to arrive and the last one to leave? Do they put forth 100% effort?
  • Do they practice and train at home?
  • Do they ask questions? 
  • What are they doing in the offseason to prepare for the upcoming season?
  • What resources are you using to get better?

Parents might still get upset even if you communicate very clearly on your policy. I would reiterate the policy that you have set forth. Also, invite them to practice so they can see the world through your perspective. Explain what you are seeing and the reason behind your decision. A picture is worth a thousand words. It is easiest to see the differences among players in practice. When their kid is lazy in practice, it is hard to argue with playing time decisions. If everyone on the team is more enthusiastic, it becomes apparent. Another solution would be to have parents sign a contract where they trust your decision as the coach to put the team in the best position to be successful. 

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