Monday, February 27, 2012

Unequal Playing Time in Youth Sports

The One Sport Voice blog recently posted an article titled Why is unequal playing time the norm in youth sport? In the article, Nicole Lavoi advocates equal playing time for all players up until age 12, regardless of competitive level.

I posted a comment in response, but for whatever reason my comment didn't make it past the moderation filter. But hey, one advantage of having my own blog is that I DO get the opportunity to comment! So here we go.

Although I don't fully agree with Nicole's perspective, she raises a good question, "Why shouldn't every child receive equal playing time in organized youth sports?"

In competitive organized youth sports, there's undoubtedly a wide range of opinion held by parents and coaches regarding playing time (and the overall merits of this form of play). I'm not going to address this side of the issue except to make two points.

  • First, in some (most?) team sports there is an inherent conflict between the greater number of kids needed to conduct productive practices and the smaller number required to field the most competitive player rotation in a game. On a basketball team, for example, coaches usually consider ten to fifteen players the ideal number for practices. But in a competitive game, coaches typically prefer to rotate 7 or 8 players in and out. To optimize a team's chance to succeed, coaches (and many parents) understand the above reality and why playing time will likely be unequal in a more competitive setting.

  • Secondly, I would suggest that as long as coaches are honest and transparent with parents about the overall opportunity that they will afford a child, less playing time for some is okay. On most youth sports teams, there is usually a mix of players who are at different stages in their development (age, skill, etc.). For those who are slightly younger, inexperienced, or less skilled, they may initially benefit from smaller roles that don't overwhelm them. As they get older and improve, their playing time will likely increase and possibly exceed that of their newer, younger teammates. (This is especially true of programs where teams are comprised of both younger and older kids.)

Regarding sports programs that DO emphasize equal participation, there are instances where a coach may believe it's best to play one child somewhat more (or less) than others. To this point, here's the comment I submitted:

"Without wading into the waters of older, more competitive youth sports, the goal of providing players with equal playing time in participation based programs is a good one.

But even in this setting, there are qualifiers to an approach of simply dividing playing time up equally.

Most team sports require a certain level of competence in key positions. Without a minimum level of performance in these positions, the play can disintegrate resulting in NO FUN for many of the other players.

For example, a competent point guard in basketball is needed to handle the ball against pressure and make good passes to his or her teammates. Likewise, a good “big-man” is needed to provide a young team with second shot opportunities (there are MANY missed layups).

In the pursuit of equal playing time, taking out a key player can ruin the play for others. It also can diminish the self-esteem of a young player who does not yet possess the necessary skills to play a certain position. This is even more evident when teams are not equally matched in terms of talent and age (something that regularly occurs in the real world of organized youth sports programs).

I generally prefer an approach that builds individual paths to success—especially for kids in the 10 to 13 age group. Teach Everyone Everything in practice, but tweak playing time as necessary in games so that everyone is placed in the best position to succeed. (I discuss this approach in several articles on my Inside Youth Sports blog.)

Yes, the emphasis is on equal playing time in each game. But the goal of equal playing time may also be achieved over the course of a season, with better players possibly getting a little more playing time against the tougher opponents, while the weaker and younger players receive more time against lesser opponents. The goal is to challenge players, but not put them in situations where they are destined to fail. Unfortunately, some parents only look at each individual game in judging whether their son or daughter is receiving equal playing time.

Like many other issues in youth sports, the equal playing time one is magnified by today’s youth culture that places so much emphasis on adult-run organized youth sports. Promoting more opportunities for children to engage in self-directed play (e.g., pickup games) would enable kids to naturally get the “equal playing time” they need to develop their skills and have fun."

As I was finishing this post, I saw a tweet referencing an older MomsTeam article that expressed similar sentiments to the One Sport Voice article. The MomsTeam article also includes several reader comments that express varying views. It's a worthwhile read. The article's main anecdote highlights an instance of questionable coaching behavior that touches on several issues including: The Coaches Kid Always Plays, coaches who are too win-oriented (and consequently distort the intent of playing time guidelines), and not reducing playing time for those who consistently miss practices. But I would disagree that the remedy for these instances is across-the-board equal playing time in all youth sports programs.

Finally, one "equal playing time" practice that I didn't see mentioned in these other articles, is mandatory substitution stoppages. These provide coaches with a reminder and easy opportunity to get players into a game. This practice works well within the participation oriented basketball leagues in which I coach. In addition to asking coaches to substitute players at the end of each quarter, play is also stopped half-way through each quarter. In the younger leagues, coaches are not permitted to substitute players except at these points. This helps ensure that players stay in the game even when things start to go bad.

The above approach can also improve substitution patterns in more competitive programs. A variation of this practice is successfully used in my YMCA's more competitive middle school basketball league. (Coaches can freely substitute players in the 2nd and 4th quarters.)

Do you have any thoughts on the best approaches to playing time in youth sports programs?

Copyright © 2012 Jeffrey S. Rhoads. All Rights Reserved

The Joy of Youth Sports
If you enjoyed this article, you may like my book:
The Joy of Youth Sports: Creating the best youth sports experience for your child (Amazon $8.95)

(Kindle Edition $2.99)


Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Player Success in Team Sports—Finding Your Role (Part 1)

  In my last post, I discussed how a coach typically selects players and builds a team. Although the article was directed toward sports parents, players should also understand how they are evaluated by coaches. By knowing what a coach is looking for, players give themselves the best chance to make a team, get more playing time, and possibly go from being a backup to a starter.

Not Everyone's a Star

One of the most important points I discussed was that a team's success largely depends on different players playing different roles well. Why? Because teams rarely consist of players who are each capable of playing every position and team role. Absent great all-around players, achieving success instead becomes an exercise in matching certain players to certain roles. Most teams need to leverage their players' individual strengths while hiding or minimizing many of their weaknesses. With the right mix of players, the whole can become greater than the sum of its parts.

This reliance on roles to achieve team success is what provides many opportunities for lesser athletes with limited skill sets. It can help open your door to success in sports.

So let's take a quick look at how you go about finding your possible team roles.

Finding Your Role

First, spend some time thinking about your situation. Start by asking yourself three basic questions:

  1. What strategies and tactics are favored by my coach?

  2. What roles are needed within this style of play?

  3. What are my strengths and weaknesses?

As you consider each of these questions and formulate your answers, try to see where the answers overlap. This is where you will find your best opportunity for success.

For instance, in football, a coach may prefer a run-first version of a “spread” offense. In contrast to a “pro” offense that requires a quarterback who is an excellent drop-back passer, this spread offense needs a quarterback who is first a good runner. Likewise, it may require more mobile lineman. The emphasis is placed on lineman who are quicker, have good feet, and can get downfield or to the outside to block their opponent. In this case, size and strength are less important than speed and agility.

Now, where would you and your unique set of characteristics possibly fit in the above example? If you do not possess good hand-eye coordination or outstanding size and weight—but you’re quick, intelligent, and like contact—you might target playing the offensive line position in a spread offense.

Of course, the ideal setting that best matches your abilities may not exist. (In the above example, your high school's football coach may run an offense that's based on a more traditional power-running game.) But you should try to understand where your unique attributes best fit in and whether a certain position or role is one that you would possibly enjoy playing.

TIP: Each coach has a unique view on what mix of players, strategies, and tactics best leads to success. To help you better evaluate and understand where you possibly fit in, don’t hesitate to ask your coaches where they believe your opportunity lies.
TIP: When you apply the above approach to all of the sports available to you, the possibilities expand for you to find the right role within the right sport.

Consider the "Defender" Role

Excelling in a defensive team role is an avenue to success for many young players who may have limited sports skills—especially in smaller schools with fewer athletes. This role is one that depends to a large degree on a player's desire, hustle, focus, and other attributes related more to the mind than the body. A good defender is appreciated in virtually every team sport and by most coaches.

In high school, I played varsity basketball for a coach who preferred an aggressive man-to-man defensive scheme. He appreciated players who hustled and could defend their man well. My junior year, having only limited offensive skills, I always focused on playing excellent defense—both in practice and in games. I wanted to shut down my opponent. This defensive role was the one in which I could contribute to my team, get more playing time, and eventually would leverage to become a starter.

In my next article, I'll talk more about team roles—both the primary and secondary ones that can provide you with your opportunity for success.

Copyright © 2012 Jeffrey S. Rhoads. All Rights Reserved

The Joy of Youth Sports
If you enjoyed this article, you may like my book:
The Joy of Youth Sports: Creating the best youth sports experience for your child (Amazon $8.95)

(Kindle Edition $2.99)


Tuesday, February 7, 2012

How a Coach Builds a Team—What Every Sports Parent Should Understand

A good coach knows that a team's success always begins with the players. Their abilities, both realized and potential, are the raw material from which the coach molds a successful team.

Every coach would love to have a team comprised of equally talented superstars—players able and willing to do it all. But that’s not how it works. At all levels of play, the reality is that each coach must put together a team from individuals who have different strengths and weaknesses.

So how does a coach go about this task?

Match Players with Team Roles
A coach needs to find players who can play the team roles necessary for the team to succeed. These roles can be viewed from the perspective of playing a certain position (point guard, quarterback, pitcher, etc.) or meeting a team’s functional need (scorer, defender, ball-handler, etc.).

With the right mix of players (ones who can play the required team roles well), a team can successfully compete—even against teams comprised of superior individual athletes. In more competitive play, a team's "chemistry" often makes the difference between winning and losing.

Roles are also important in equal-participation youth programs. At this level of play, team roles help provide beginners with an opportunity to find meaningful success. For instance, a young basketball player may initially have a limited role—setting screens, making good passes, and playing solid defense. But when a screen is set that leads to a teammate's layup, this player knows that he or she has made an authentic contribution to the team's success.

Identify Athleticism, Skills, Potential, and Intangibles
In evaluating prospective players, and the possible team roles they can play, a coach considers a variety of player attributes. Each player presents an observable body type, athletic quality, and set of sports skills. Athleticism and body type are often invaluable qualities necessary to a team's success (and ones that can't be taught). Similarly, excellent sports skills are important. Less obvious is a young athlete’s development potential and other more intangible attributes.

Although coaches need to have players who can immediately perform well, coaches are also interested in young athletes who may develop into exceptional players. For example, having just gone through a growth spurt, a young boy or girl may play a sport in an awkward, less-coordinated manner. But to a perceptive eye, the player’s movements and skills also demonstrate a certain grace that suggests the player will soon “grow” into his or her body.

A coach is also interested in players who demonstrate leadership, perseverance, a competitive nature, and other less tangible traits. These coupled with other valuable attributes such as a player’s attitude, willingness to prepare, and attention to detail all factor into a coach’s player evaluation.

Develop Individual and Team Skills (Improve the Parts)
Once a coach has selected the team’s players, he continues to build the team by helping players develop both their individual and team skills. The coach should focus on laying a solid foundation, one that is beneficial to the team and players in the long run. The coach's instruction should help players understand how the simple fundamentals connect to more advanced skills and how this, in turn, leads to both individual and team success. The coach should build connections. Start slow,and finish strong.

As the players’ abilities improve, the coach should consider whether their roles are still appropriate. A player's team role can evolve—even within the current season.

Matching Systems and Players (Improve the Whole)
Finally, a coach implements his or her team strategies and tactics—plugging in players that best fit his or her system while also modifying the system to better fit the players’ unique set of abilities.

Here's a diagram that summarizes the general process that coaches follow in building a team:

How a sports coach builds a team

Keep an Open Mind
As a youth coach evaluating players (or a sports parent evaluating a coach), try to see beyond the obvious. Don't be too quick to judge. In your evaluation, keep the above points in mind. Ask yourself questions such as:
  • Which players can fill the essential team roles (e.g., "scorer") and who are best suited to play the secondary, more supportive roles?

  • Do individual players, though lacking certain skills, somehow contribute an important quality to the team's overall play?

  • Though raw, does a young player demonstrate potential that will benefit the team down the road?

  • Are certain player's skills, and the team roles they play, essential to providing opportunities for teammates to succeed? (For example, a team unable to advance the ball against pressure will not be able to take advantage of its outstanding forwards.)

From these questions and others, try to understand how unique player qualities, individual development, player combinations, and well-matched tactics all represent unique pieces in the puzzle that is team success.

Copyright © 2012 by Jeffrey S. Rhoads; All Rights Reserved

The Joy of Youth Sports
If you enjoyed this article, you may like my book:
The Joy of Youth Sports: Creating the best youth sports experience for your child (Amazon $8.95)

(Kindle Edition $2.99)


Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Six Harmful Behaviors that Youth Sports Parents Should Avoid

Most parents naturally do a great job shepherding their child through youth sports. But there are many temptations that parents face that can derail their child’s success in sports.

One trap that can snare unsuspecting parents is living vicariously through their child’s sports experiences—and basing their own sense of worth on their child’s successes or failures. This leads to dysfunctional behavior for both parents and their children. To achieve success, parents may place an emphasis on the sport that far exceeds the natural interest of the child. The child, in turn, develops a distorted perspective of sports, and may improperly relate success in sports to his or her parent’s love.

Parents also too often see sports as a vehicle to reach some external reward such as a college scholarship. Despite strong statistics to the contrary, parents readily believe that their young sports star is on the fast track to a scholarship. Too much emphasis is again placed on sports with the resulting cascade of behaviors that lead to the child eventually quitting sports.

Here are six potentially harmful parental behaviors that youth sports parents should avoid:

  • Defining success only as winning (win/no-win). Conveying a “Winners win and Losers lose” value may destroy the intrinsic rewards that help drive your child’s long-term participation in sports.

  • Beyond introducing your child to a sport, forcing participation. The goal is for your child to find his or her passion—not yours. This may take a child in a direction away from sports and your expectations.

  • Viewing sports as a waste of time with no practical real-world value (and discouraging your child’s participation). Similar to the above item, a parent’s attitudes may neglect the child’s true nature.

  • Becoming too involved in your child’s sports experience. Whatever the motivation (caring, vicarious enjoyment, parental status, etc.), over-involvement can diminish or ruin your child’s independent enjoyment of his or her sport.

  • Continually blaming others for your child’s disappointments and setbacks. Attributing every negative situation to poor coaching or officiating promotes a destructive “victim” mentality in your child.

  • Coaching your child from the sidelines. Constant interaction with your child during a game can diminish a child’s confidence and self-reliance.

Copyright © 2012 Jeffrey S. Rhoads. All Rights Reserved

The Joy of Youth Sports
If you enjoyed this article, you may like my book:
The Joy of Youth Sports: Creating the best youth sports experience for your child (Amazon $8.95)

(Kindle Edition $2.99)