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The playing time debate


By Dan Klinkhammer

MYAS Executive Director


In my article last month (“Rec vs. Traveling”), I apparently hit a nerve with a few people when I said, “Another thing that both parents and kids need to remember is that playing on a travel team is a privilege, not a right. Athletes have to earn a position on the team; they are not entitled to it.” If my fading memory is correct, we received more requests to reprint that article than any other in the past.

So as a follow-up to the rec versus traveling scenario, I thought I’d address one of the most debated topics in youth sports: playing time. I recently read an article in a national newsletter addressing the issue of playing time. In a nutshell, there are two opposing philosophies on this issue. One side says that kids need to learn that the world is a very competitive place, and they need to realize they will be competing with the rest of the world and only the cream rises to the top.

The other side says these are kids who are still in the process of developing their physical and mental attributes. You develop much faster playing in real competition as opposed to riding the bench while more talented players represent your team on the field or court.

I pride myself as being something of an “old schooler.” In other words, I don’t apologize for saying that kids need to earn their way through life. I don’t apologize for thinking that all of our little “snowflakes” might need a good kick in the rear from time to time. I don’t apologize for believing that some parents hurt their children more by “helping” them than if they would let the kids learn something by failing. I don’t apologize for thinking that some kids are spoiled rotten. And I don’t apologize for thinking that some parents are so blinded by their love that they can’t see the forest beyond their little sapling. So with all of my “stand up for yourself, quit crying, suck it up” mentality, I was a little surprised when I found myself on the “everybody has to play” side of the fence. Read on.

Just for the record, this debate isn’t intended to discuss playing time issues for recreational players. It has long been standard practice that kids playing in local in-house programs should be treated equally in every way. In my mind, the only reason to take playing time away from a rec player is because they refuse to come to practice.

Today’s debate is focused on kids playing on travel teams. How much playing time should they be guaranteed? Should they get equal playing time? Do you play to win or do you play to develop? How much playing time is enough? How much is too much? What other factors (besides talent and desire) should determine playing time?

I don’t have enough time or space here to address all of these questions in great detail, so I’ll just touch upon the ingredients that swung me over to the side of the fence that says they all need to play. Once again, I’m trying to simplify this very complex issue and my answer revolves around the word “FUN!” If a kid isn’t having fun, they aren’t going to stay engaged very long. Kids have fun when they play. They don’t have fun watching from the bench. They don’t have fun when they realize that they only get to play when it’s “garbage” or “blow-out” time. To prove my point, all I have to do is point to a recent youth sports study that simply stated, “82 percent of the kids surveyed said that they would rather play and lose than sit on the bench and win.” Hear ye, hear ye! All kids want to play and if they don’t get to play, they are going to quit.

Now that I have endorsed the concept of everyone getting to play, let me make it perfectly clear that I did NOT say that everyone on a travel team should get equal playing time. In my opinion, that’s the big difference between rec and travel ball. Just as I believe that a position on a travel team must be earned, I also believe that playing time on a travel team must be earned. However, I don’t think that talent is the only criteria for establishing who plays a lot and who plays a little. If I were coaching a travel team today, I’d take into consideration factors other than raw talent, speed and size to make that determination. I think that desire, dedication, dependability, attention, attitude and understanding of the game are all variables that need to be considered when you are trying to determine who plays and when they play. But the absolute bottom line is that they all need to play and if you want me to be specific, I’d say that every kid on a travel team should be playing at least 25% of the time.

Some of the real hard-line old schoolers will probably scoff at my suggestion that even the least talented player on the team should be playing at least 25% of the time. They will always refer back to the notion that the world is a very competitive place and these kids need to understand they will be in competition with everyone else once they are turned loose into the world. While that’s very true, the difference is that when we turn them loose on the world they will no longer be kids. They will be adults, which is a big difference from being 12 years old and wondering who you are and what you are going to grow into.

Kids are going through a very difficult developmental stage of their life and it’s unfair of us to treat them like adults knowing they are not fully developed. As youth sport providers, it is my job and your job to provide these kids with an environment where they can develop into the best they can be. And nobody becomes the best they can be by sitting on the bench. It’s just that simple.

Dan’s Tip of the Day: There are lots of ways to determine playing time and still keep the peace on your travel team. Here’s one method that seems to work for a lot of teams: determine which is more important to you - tournament play or league play. Once that is determined, you can play your “studs” in the more important competitions and use your weaker players in others. But in the end, everyone is getting an opportunity to play and everyone is getting an opportunity to see the game from the sidelines.

Lastly, the playing time decision should be a team decision, or at the very least the coach needs to share their philosophy with all the kids and parents. You will all need to be on the same page no matter what method you use. In my opinion, the only way to keep them all playing is to let them all play!