Why Project Play recommends equal playing time for kids


By Jon Solomon


My co-coach Brian and I looked at each other with concern. Our under-9 boys soccer team trailed 1-0 halfway through a 25-minute tournament semifinal game, and the clock was ticking without us generating much offense.

To that point, we had treated the entire season with fun and development as the backbone philosophies for the team, which included our sons. I still wear the scars of my oldest son Daniel declaring he was “retiring” from baseball at age 6 – a stunning and heartbreaking remark from a child that age. It was the result of Daniel getting stuck in the outfield almost all season in an absurdly competitive T-ball league, where parents yelled at umpires and each other, games got delayed 20 minutes to settle disputes, and coaches felt pressured to win.

Daniel has barely played team sports since T-ball. I vowed to myself that his younger brother Josh, and any kids I ever coach, would be different.

That means, among other measures, equal playing time. Every soccer game last fall, I pulled out my iPhone stopwatch and subbed players roughly every five minutes in a 50-minute game. With a 13-player roster for 7 v. 7 soccer, we looked like hockey players making line shifts. We also tried to mix up roles and distribute opportunities in a fair manner. If a kid played defense one shift, he moved to offense the next.

Then came the semifinals. Brian and I decided to keep our best players in for the remainder of the game and on offense. We justified to ourselves that the chance for all of the kids to play one more game outweighed equal playing time. It was defensible logic. In truth, we also got caught up in the competitiveness of the game and seeing third-graders want to win.

There’s a time to sort the weak from the strong in sports. It’s not before kids grow into their bodies, minds and true interests.

Through age 12, at least, the Aspen Institute’s Project Play recommends that sports programs invest in every kid equally. That includes playing time – a valuable developmental tool that too many coaches assign based on player skill level and the score of the game. You will see this recommendation reflected in our Parent Checklists and companion videos.

The argument is simple for equal playing time: Research shows that what kids want out of a sports experience is both action and access to the action. Getting stuck at the end of the bench does not foster participation. And we all know greater participation is sorely needed in youth sports. Only 37 percent of kids ages 6 to 12 regularly played team sports in 2016, down from 45 percent in 2008, according to data from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association in the Aspen Institute’s State of Play 2017 report.

Kids who quit sports often do so because of lack of playing time, which can be a result of lack of confidence. Confidence is a byproduct of proper preparation and adults who believe in the players, according to IMG Academy Head of Leadership Development James Leath.

“From a small child to the world’s greatest athlete, those who are confident are confident because they have taken thousands of shots, tried and failed many times, then tried again and got it right,” Leath said.

Playing time shouldn’t be earned at younger ages. It should be paid forward to develop a future athlete.

According to a 2014 study by George Washington University, 9 out of 10 kids said their No. 1 reason for playing sports is to have fun. Getting playing time was one of their top definitions of having fun. Winning was ranked No. 48. In another study, the Josephson Institute found that 90 percent of children would rather play on a losing team than sit on the bench on a winning team.

Academic research in psychology, physiology and sociology suggests that equal playing time is needed for younger age groups, though this topic is rarely discussed in literature. In 2017, Norwegian scientist Torbjørn Lorentzen tackled the question from an academic perspective in a published article, “Allocation of playing time within team sports – a problem for discussion.”

Lorentzen identified two types of ways to organize teams. One is performance-oriented, which focuses on using athletes who have the best skills in order to compete and win. The other is mastery-oriented, which typically views sports as a learning process and allows equal playing time since athletes are not differentiated by skill.

The article noted that the Norwegian Federation of Sports views that sports activities with children 12 years or younger should be practiced without any form of discrimination (i.e., give them equal playing time). The sports federations for Sweden and Denmark follow similar rules, the article said. When kids reach about 12 or 13 in those countries, teams are free to prioritize competition and rank athletes according to the skills and performance level.

“We conclude that equal playing time is still important to practice – especially with regard to the younger age groups,” Lorentzen wrote. “One way to start solving the recurrent discussion of playing time is that federations of sports and clubs explicitly operate with organizational guidelines and rules that correspond with the level of development of the athletes.”

Youth sports in America offer a mixed bag of how we treat playing time for younger kids. This is a country, after all, where 8-year-olds play for national AAU basketball championships. Some major youth organizations address playing time in different ways:

  • The Jr. NBA website cites a guideline from the Positive Coaching Alliance: “Good coaches get players into the game. Players who stay on the bench don’t benefit as much from sport.” The Jr. NBA, which will soon start a world championship for 13- and 14-year-olds, encourages coaches to have strategies to get all of their players into games for meaningful minutes, and not just in garbage time of a blowout.
  • Little League Baseball requires that every player participate for at least six defensive outs and bat at least once each game. If that doesn’t occur, the child is supposed to start the next scheduled game and play any previous unmet requirement plus that game’s requirement. Managers can be penalized for not following playing time rules – first with a warning, and then “more serious penalties” if infractions continue.
  • USA Hockey recommends equal playing time for kids 12 and under. The only exceptions are in the last minute of a game if a team is up or down by a goal, or players are misbehaving, not following the rules or disregarding the coaches’ instructions.
  • USA Football’s website has an article by a reporter and parent who believes every kid deserves the opportunity to play, especially if league rules mandate a minimum number of plays for each player. The author says that the best players should play the most, adding that players who work hard in practice should also see significant playing time. No ages for players are identified in the story from 2015.
  • U.S. Youth Soccer’s website has at least one article related to playing time. The 2011 story encourages coaches to communicate clearly with parents and kids about playing time and cites tips from Positive Coaching Alliance, such as the need for youth to earn their playing time through attitude, talent, effort, ability to learn, personality, and embracing their role on the team. The article did not identify what age kids should earn playing time, presumably leaving it up to each soccer coach to decide.

Another potential benefit of equal playing time worthy of research is the impact on adult behavior. Parents want to see their child in the game, and when they don’t, it hurts. Lack of playing time can cause frustration directed at coaches, and kids on the car ride home. At Project Play, we wonder how many of the problems we see in youth sports would be mitigated if programs simply invested equally in each child and parents weren’t put in a tough spot.

It’s not like youth sports is a meritocracy. The kids who coaches favor are often just early bloomers and more biologically advanced than their age peers, and thus able to help a team win that day. That may not be the case once they hit puberty, but for now they have an advantage, often an unfair one.

Many simply happen to be born early in the birth year that determines eligibility – what is known as the Relative Age Effect. At age seven or even 11, an 11-month difference in birth date can make a huge difference, physically, cognitively and emotionally. It’s why national teams at the senior level often have players with favorable birthdates; they were favored by coaches from an early age.

In the case of my son Josh’s soccer team, we decided to use the best players in the semifinal game and won 3-1. The kids were thrilled. My co-coach and I felt so torn afterward that we returned entirely to equal playing time for the championship, a blowout loss against a superior team.

That’s OK. Leaving the field, Josh talked about wanting to invite teammates to his birthday party and his excitement for the upcoming basketball season.

For this son, the end of his sports career had been delayed at least one more season. Equal playing time can help stave off early retirements for so many more kids.

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