If you have had children playing sports at the youth or high school level, you have probably encountered this issue, ”Playing time”. Whether at the rec or elite level in youth sports, or on a high school team, the issue of who gets to play, who gets to start and what happens when you don’t get equal playing time as others (especially the coach’s child) can become a major topic for parents, coaches and athletes alike. Throughout my 34 years practicing as a sport psychologist, this has been an issue for many. And it is not just a topic for younger athletes, I have had to handle this situation with collegiate, Olympic and professional athletes as well.
No matter what level of sport you are competing at, you are going to want to play. I have never met a competitive athlete who enjoys sitting on the bench. Obviously, as you advance and age up in your sport, the competition for playing time gets more intense, as the less talented athletes will drop out and the athletes left playing will have goals and dreams of advancing as far as they can, whether that is at the high school, college or professional level. Being on a team and not playing can be extremely frustrating, especially if you have started most of your career in sports. I believe that many of the issues related to this topic can be addressed by the coach in the pre-season meeting.
In this meeting, the coach should describe his philosophy about the upcoming season, goals for the season, rules for attending practices and games and the issue of playing time. Perhaps the most important component of the pre-season meeting should be the topic of communication between coach and athlete and between coach and parent. I think an effective coach will lay out the rules for playing time during this meeting. If it is a rec team where equal playing time takes priority or an elite level team where playing the best players occurs, I believe this is the opportunity for the coach to explain his philosophy. This is also an opportunity for parents and athletes to ask questions about their concerns and establish a constructive dialogue where this issue can be addressed during the season, if necessary. Most coaches don’t like and don’t want to have to discuss playing time once the season begins. They typically want to have the freedom to play whomever they want, whenever they want, without questions from parents or athletes about who is and isn’t starting or playing.
However, the one constant in sports is change. No team stays the same year after year. And, coaches have the right to change their minds. But, the issue that occurs related to playing time that bothers most is the fact that many coaches don’t follow thru on their pre-season meeting objectives. Why? I think the main reason has to do with the topic of Winning. Even though many coaches will state in their pre-season meeting that the goals for the season are to have fun, play, learn skills and fundamentals and enjoy the experience, at some point for many, Winning/Losing come into play. And, when Winning and Losing become important to the coach and the team, usually the best players will start and have the most playing time, while the other players and their parents can get frustrated and angry at the coach, as well as at the other players and their parents. I have seen this happen first hand when my sons (now 24 and 25 years old) played on their youth teams, as well as having dozens of clients who have had this as their presenting problem, when coming into my office.
Another frustration that can happen for many at higher levels of competition, relates to the athlete who comes to all of the practices on time, does everything the coach requests and still gets minimal playing time or rarely gets to start. Instead, others get more playing time and start more often because the coach believes they are better and give the team a better chance to win, even if they frequently don’t come to practice or show up late. I have found this to be a cause of many frustrations and angst for athletes and parents alike.
So how do we solve this? As I have emphasized in previous newsletters, so much of this comes back to communication. If you or your child gets frustrated because of a lack of playing time as the season progresses, it is imperative to set up a meeting with the coach or coaching staff. In my opinion, there is a constructive way to do this and a destructive way to do this. Obviously, if your child isn’t getting the playing time they feel they deserve, the negative feelings about this will be very strong. So the worst thing to do is to go up to the coach after a game or practice and tell the coach you are angry and upset at him about your child’s lack of playing time. This will almost always put the coach on the defensive because he will feel he is being attacked, and consequently, will not give you an answer you want. I feel the constructive method is to tell the coach that you and your child are having an issue that you’d like to share with him. Tell him that it is your personal issue and you need to get some advice and clarity about how to deal with it. Then you can get into your child’s frustrations and discuss what you can do to help your child overcome this. I would also emphasize that you come into the meeting with a list of issues written out, so you don’t forget something, and to remind you to be relaxed. Understand that you may not get the answer you are looking for, but know that at least you made an attempt to solve this problem. I have found that in many situations, the coach was not even aware of the young athletes frustrations. If you make this effort with the coach and nothing changes, it can always be a valid reason to move to another team the following season. As always, your thoughts…..