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How to Divide Playing Time?

Coaching a competitive travel team, involves distributing playing time. The big question for a coach and one whose answer will never keep everyone (or perhaps anyone) happy is “What is FAIR playing time?”. There are many different philosophies regarding this question. Is fair equal? Should different players start each game? If playing time is not equal, how much should the better players play? What is the amount of time the less talented players should receive?

On an ideal travel team, most of the players will have similar skills and a high level of commitment so the playing time can be relatively equal. The reality is that on many teams there is a wide range of skills and ability in addition to varied levels of commitment.

When determining playing time there are a few things that should be looked at 1st.

What is the league policy? Are the mandatory minimum playing time rules for the league. One 4th grade travel A league has the following guideline:

There are no minimum playing time rules. However, this is a development program and it is hoped that all players get playing time.

As a coach looking for guidance, there is no help here. Playing time is completely up to the coach. If a coach has a win-at-all-cost attitude. He can play his best players for the majority of the game.

What is the town policy? Very often if a league does not have a set rule, the town may. My town has the following expectation:

The Board of Directors has a 25% of the game playing time expectation (8 minutes / 32 minute game). One board member explained to me his playing time ranges “from 9 or 10 minutes to 20 minutes.

Another town (or league) might institute an equal playing time rule. The players may receive a number and the coach will simply rotate the players in 5 at a time based on the numbered system.

Possible Options

Unless there are clear guidelines by the league or the town, the coaches will ultimately decide how the playing time is distributed. There are many ways to distribute playing time and a coach can try different options to see which one is the best for his team.

Playing time can be seen like a political spectrum ranging from liberal (even playing time for all players) to conservative (we need to win, so the best players are going to play!). Age, experience and competitiveness of the league will all be factors in deciding a philosophy.

#1 Even playing time (Equal Playing Time Rotation Sheet): This is the philosophy that perhaps is the easiest and the one that will receive the least resistance from parents. A coach can just simply assign each player a number and follow a numbered system. The coach will make substitutions after a set amount of time (3 – 4 minutes). The coach can start over each game with the #1 player, or he can be truly equal and continue the rotation for the entire season.

Pros: Even playing time allows for player development for all the players. There also will be very few parent complaints. The better players might raise a concern, but the majority of parents will be happy with even playing time.

Cons: The team will be less competitive and will be at a disadvantage when playing teams that play their better kids more. Although all players will develop, the better kids will not receive the playing time that may have been earned through working hard (camps, AAU), being committed, and improving in practice. It also may be difficult to balance the line-up with guards and forwards.

#2 Merit Play: Following 25% (or minimum) playing time expectation: This philosophy divide the playing time based on skill level, commitment, and ability to perform in a game. The coach can set a rotation where the weakest players receive the league minimum (or a little more) and the other players receive more playing time based on skill level.

Pros: The team will be more competitive team. The better players will get more opportunities and will have a chance to develop chemistry on the floor.

Cons: The less talented players may get discouraged and display a poor attitude. Parents will not be happy with their son not getting as much playing time as other players. In the long run, player development is the main goal. Players will grow, attend camps, and will improve. It is difficult at a young age to put all your eggs in one basket by identifying the players who you think will be better down the road.

#3 Combination of the two (a middle ground): This maybe the best option for some coaches. For two quarters (1st and one other), the top players can receive more playing (60 % – 40%). During the other two periods, the coach can give equal playing time.

Pros: By playing the better kids more in the 1st period, a coach can see how competitive the team is. It is a good test to see how the top 5 players play against the opposing team’s starters. It also keeps the less talented players (and parents) happy.

The better players will get more opportunities and will have a chance to develop chemistry on the floor.

Cons: The team does not have the best chance of winning, however with youth sports, winning should not be the most important factor. Having fun and player development should take precedence over winning.