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Los Angeles Sports Foundation
Los Angeles Sports Foundation is a 501c3 organization focused on implementing a developmental
model of coaching in youth sports.


 ?i>On My Team, Everyone Counted the Same?/i>

Steve Venables   


Team sports provide powerful opportunities for developing positive values in our youth including teamwork, sportsmanship, positive communication, respect, and fair play.

A youth coach who is committed to developing each of his players should also be committed to giving all his players equal access to the experiences that facilitate such development—including playing time. That’s right.  Every player plays the same amount of time. For some coaches, particularly those bent on winning the illustrious 8-9-year-old division championship trophy, the idea of not playing their most skilled players the majority of the game probably seems crazy. However, in this article, I hope to persuade you and them to consider several good reasons to provide equal playing time for all youth athletes.

First, I cannot overemphasize the value of playing experience in a game situation. No amount of play during practice sessions replaces it.  Game-playing experience is essential to player development.  To deny players access to the circumstances that lead to their development sets up a self-fulfilling prophecy: Little Johnny gets benched because he can’t dribble with his left hand.  What typically happens next?

?span style="font-style: normal; font-variant: normal; font-weight: normal; font-size: 7.0pt; font-family: Times New Roman">         Johnny loses confidence in his abilities because he is relegated to second-class status on his team;

?span style="font-style: normal; font-variant: normal; font-weight: normal; font-size: 7.0pt; font-family: Times New Roman">         Johnny experiences increased anxiety when he does play because he is trying to impress the coach and earn more playing time;

?span style="font-style: normal; font-variant: normal; font-weight: normal; font-size: 7.0pt; font-family: Times New Roman">         Johnny feels increasing pressure while simultaneously becoming less familiar with playing in an organized game; and

?span style="font-style: normal; font-variant: normal; font-weight: normal; font-size: 7.0pt; font-family: Times New Roman">         Johnny begins to lose interest, practice less, and get worse compared to his peers who are playing more in games, practicing more and getting better.

So defines the path of lesser-skilled players playing less and being singled out as the “have-nots?who will soon join the thousands that quit playing organized sports every year. Over 50% of young athletes drop out of team sports by the time they are 13 years old. As a result, many families are turning to individual sports such as tennis and golf to find an enjoyable youth sports experience. If we believe that team sports are a more powerful vehicle for imparting life lessons and positive values then this is a big problem!

Youth basketball playing experience consists of two basic components—practice time and game time. During practice, players should be exposed to a variety of skills and drills that emphasize fundamentals, and be introduced to a structured practice format. This time should be instruction and repetition oriented. During a game, players are exposed to the pressure of competition, the referee’s whistle, and rules that may be new to them. It can be the only time they will play on a full-sized court. These two separate experiences carry equal importance in the development of a well-rounded player.

I advocate a developmental program that ensures kids the opportunity to do just that—develop. As a coach, speaker, and camp director, I am often asked, “What is the biggest factor that goes into winning games??My answer is simple: The teams with the best players will usually win. In fact, this is true at all levels up through the college ranks. There are two ways to achieve this.  Start out with a team of the best players or work to develop the players you have. The first way is nice, but the latter should be the mantra of every youth coach--teach your players how to improve! Practice time must be focused on improvement.  Unfortunately, this is rarely the case. Many coaches opt for practice plans that consist of little more than rolling the ball out and scrimmaging. (For more on planning an effective practice, see “Practice Planning?@ www.CoachV.org.)

“Ok, that sounds good,?you might say, “but how can I do that in a single one-hour practice a week??The answer is simple—you must plant the seed! When working with players, explain to them that working with a coach is only a small part of the picture and, to really improve, they must do their homework. Instead of telling them what they need to work on, ask them what was covered in the lesson that day that they can and need to work on themselves during the week. By taking a participatory role in their own assessment and choice of solution, they can begin to take some ownership of their own development. This makes them more likely to do the work they need to do unsupervised.

This is how it can play out. Coach A practices his team one hour a week and his players think this is all the practice time they need to improve. In contrast, Coach B has the same practice time, but follows every practice by giving the players homework to be done thirty minutes a day.  That adds up to another three hours of practice for that team in the next six days! After six weeks of the league have gone by, Coach A’s team will have practiced for 6 hours total, while Coach B’s team will have logged in 24 hours! It is only a matter of time before the increased practice time will spill over into game play. So “plant the seed?of self-directed improvement. Teach your players how to set specific goals. I guarantee you will be surprised at how much they improve!

I want to be clear about implementing a standard of equal playing time in developmental leagues. This is not to suggest that all youth leagues are developmental. The world of competitive basketball contains a myriad of traveling teams and leagues that offer large trophies for their playoff winners. But there should also be a place where kids can go to gain experience and build a foundation of fundamentals and confidence while developing positive values of respect and fair play. For this to happen, it must start with the coaches. I encourage everyone who chooses to coach in a developmental league, or even those who believe that kids deserve an equal opportunity to be successful, to adopt a policy of equal allotment of playing time for all their players. They will thank you for it.

Many coaches say that withholding playing time is the only way they feel they can punish players for missing or being late to practice. They often describe the games as “the fun part?and practices as the tedious drudgery that must be endured to get to the good stuff. Indeed, the countless practices that I have observed over the years have shown me that this is the case. But it shouldn’t be! Who is really responsible when 9-year-old Devon is late or misses practice? Youth leagues are comprised solely of players who rely on parents or others for transportation! To penalize a child because of issues beyond their control is not only pointless and ineffective but unfair. It is better to hold players responsible for those things within their control, such as showing respect for their peers and for themselves!

To introduce equal playing time to your team or league, make sure you believe in it yourself.  Think of ways you can express the value and ultimate goals of fairly distributing the time. I suggest using the substitution chart at the end of this article. Show them the chart and explain why you think it is important that all players play an equal amount, and how the numbers balance out to provide everyone with equal playing time over the course of the season. Point out how each player will get the opportunity to both start and finish games. (With some number combinations, it may happen that the same group will always start, such as the eight-player section of the chart. In this case, choose different starters each game.) Explain how this method relies on everyone to make a strong contribution throughout the season. You may even want to make a copy of the substitution chart for each player. These steps involve the players in the process by sharing your thoughts and feelings about how the game should be played with them. It won’t be long before kids who didn’t know if they would play again start to feel part of the team. They will begin encouraging their teammates and yelling out who is in when it is time to substitute. This is a powerful step towards building a team approach that emphasizes the collective rather than the individual. Last, but not least, it also eliminates the problems created by parents and kids who keep track of minutes—and seconds—and compare their times with others.

Equal playing time has been a highly successful strategy for me in coaching 5-13-year-olds.  I have also used it with high school and college players. Equal playing time conveys in a tangible manner the ideals I wish to promote with young players. It has also proven to be a powerful catalyst for conversations with players, parents, and coaches alike about coaching a team with the goal of soliciting contributions from each player. It can be the first time that the often clichéd talk of team becomes an authentic demand for group effort.

One of my most gratifying moments in coaching happened one summer at a camp I directed as we discussed what players had learned that week. A boy, who was one of the top players in his age group, raised his hand and said, “I never understood before how I could be a team player when I wasn’t in the game playing, but I learned that I could help my team by supporting them because I wasn’t always going to be in the game at the end, and because on my team, everyone counted the same.?


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