Unequal Playing Time in Youth Sports

Equal Playing Time: Should It Be the Rule, Not the Exception?

The biggest headache for a youth coach is figuring out playing time and rotations. USA basketball has shared some guidelines that make a youth coach’s job easier. Click here to visit USA Basketball Youth Guidelines: Rules & Standards

When I coached the 2nd grade these guidelines did not exist. I would encourage you to share these rules with the youth basketball league and board of directors in your town. It makes a great deal of sense to follow the advice of an organization that spends all of its energy on making USA Basketball the best it can be.

(In the spring of 2016, USA Basketball and the NBA came together to establish three expert working groups charged with developing guidelines designed to promote a positive and healthy youth basketball experience.)

Below are the USA guidelines for grade 4 / ages 7 & 8. I have added a few thoughts on the rules.


Playing Segment: Ages 7-8 / Grades 4 & 5

Playing Time: Equal playing time

Thoughts: WHY NOT? 

Pros: The players, parents, and coaches will be happy. No coach can tell who will grow, work hard, move away, or attend private school, so at this age play everyone equally. When a coach creates line-ups for each game, this consumes a great deal of time, It can take 30 minutes to an hour a week. Simply play everyone equally and focus your time on practice plan or anything else. Take the dog for a walk instead.

Focus on practice planning and skill development, not rotations and how many minutes your better players are on the court or how few minutes your weaker player plays. ALL players will play hard and develop. Over the course of the season you will have better players and a better team because of playing ALL players equally.

Cons: The only people who might be upset are the parents of the better players. You can give the same response a coach who plays his best players shares with weaker players, “Your child has plenty of opportunities to improve in practice.”

You might not win a championship…. but you might. No matter where you fall on the playing time spectrum, you will probably lose the last game of the season, so why not keep players, parents, and yourself happy. And do not forget there is next year. So in the long run, you will be developing players and a team that can succeed at the next level – 5th grade.  

Set Defense: Only player-to-player defense throughout the competition.

Pros: This is the best defense to help with skill development. Players who hope to play at the next level need to have a good understanding of individual and team defensive concepts. When you play man-to-man defense, this will allow you to have small sided 3 vs. 3 games that is a great teaching drill for both offense and defense. 

Cons: You will play other teams that run zones and will definitely succeed at this level because no players can shoot consistently. Your team may struggle offensively against zones, but with each year of basketball the players will have more skills to attack a zone. 

Pressing Defense: Pressing is not allowed throughout the competition. 

Teaching half court man to man is the best way to develop players. This may be a league rule for the majority of the game, but you can play a pressure half court defense. Teaching man to man principles at a young age will be very critical to later success and I assume you will be coaching a few more years of youth basketball.

Double-Team/Crowding: Double-team/crowding is not allowed throughout the competition

This rule will force players to focus on good man to man principles. It does not mean you cannot teach help and recover, but stick with team man-to-man concepts.

Stealing from the Dribbler: Stealing from a dribbler is not allowed throughout the competition

A very bad defensive habit is reaching on defense. This rule will encourage players to use their feet on defense. Off the ball defenders will have opportunities to steal the ball. This rule benefits the offensive player by allowing him / her to develop confidence dribbling the ball.