A lot of my time in coaching, especially during the winter months, has been coaching at the youth level. I have coached 8th grade boys for the past five winters. During that time, there have been many tough decisions that are made each practice, game, and throughout the year. I thought I would write a short blog on a couple of those things that may serve as a thought-provoking read for coaches and a different perspective for parents.
One decision that always weighs on my mind as well as every youth coach (and probably all coaches) is playing time. Should youth players get equal playing time? If so, when should equal playing time stop? This is always a constant struggle for me. On one side of the argument is the notion that youth basketball is for long-term development. We never know what kid is going to continue playing the game, who is going to physically mature, or even what a simple change in roles can have on a player’s performance. On the other side, is it really fair to just award equal playing time? What message does that send to kids who put in additional work, practice harder, or simply perform better? What does automatically granting equal playing time tell the kids who don’t practice as hard and don’t perform to a high standard, but yet get rewarded with the same playing time as other kids?
Overall, I think at younger ages (3-4-5-maybe 6th grade) playing time should be pretty close to equal, but some separation should start to occur as kids get older. How much separation is the million dollar question. Throughout my time in 8th grade basketball, I have always played every kid in every half of every game. While in most games there are players who receive more playing time than others, there are other games where I make a conscious effort to spread playing time around and get other kids more opportunity in other roles.
What remains a constant and will always remain a constant is equal opportunity in practice. Never have we maximized touches or opportunities for a set group of kids. There is always an equal amount of repetition and opportunity for instruction. In games, every kid is encouraged to take open shots and in practice every kid is not only encouraged, but begged to try new things and take a step out of what is considered comfortable for them. Each practice we switch up teams, lineups, and players in drills to allow each player to not only have opportunity to play with other people, but compete against every person on the team as well.
Is that THE answer and the perfect solution? I have no idea. What I am confident in, however, is that most players over the years would tell you that they never felt that they were given up on, they all felt as if they were an important part of the team, but they also knew that playing time would be earned, which in several cases was an ongoing motivation to compete harder in drills, commit to the weight room and put in extra time refining skills outside of practice.
Another decision that is always tough for me is how much room to give young players with mistakes. Many parents frequently complain about coaches who remove players after one mistake. I find that many don’t see it from a broader perspective in this scenario, but at times, I do think the hook can be too quick for youth coaches.
From a coaches’ perspective, questions to consider are: Do we remove a player from a game after one mistake? Two? Three? Does it depend on the trust that the player has earned? Do we factor in the type of mistake they make? My overarching philosophy is to coach players through situations and let them learn through mistakes as opposed to giving a quick hook, but again, many factors go into determining this decision. If a player isn’t performing up to a standard that has been clearly established within a team (effort, energy, being a great teammate), then a quicker substitution may be warranted. If it was a poor decision made in a game, regardless of the player, I believe in letting a young player (think this changes as kids get older) play and learn through it. If it was a mistake they commonly have made- and as a coach you have addressed it with a clear (visual and oral) solution offered- then you may need to think about using a quicker substitution to relay a message.
All in all, no matter what anyone will tell you, kids, adults, and coaches all care about the present game. Striking a balance between competing in the present game yet always keeping in mind the long-term process is one of the most difficult things to do as a youth coach. Here are a few thoughts to work on striking that balance as a coach and keeping perspective of the whole picture for parents:
Coaches: Develop connections with every player. Establish non-negotiable standards of expectation as it pertains to player effort, leadership, and attitude. Consider other people’s vantage point. Love and care about the kids regardless of their performance. Make sure every player feels important and provide everyone equal opportunity to coaching and practice repetitions.
Parents: Enjoy your child and their time in athletics. Consider how much time your kid’s youth coach is putting in on what is likely a volunteer basis. Try to see the coaches’ vantage point and how many decisions go into a season and how many things there are to consider not only today, but also for the long term development of EVERY kid. Find lessons regardless of the situation that you can relay to your child. Support your child and if you have frustrations- take a deep breath and a few hours. If they’re still there, then address them if you need to. Consider the practice environment that your child’s coach creates; do they have opportunities in practice to improve? And maybe above all, do an honest, mindful (not right after a bad game) assessment if your kid is having fun.