In competitive youth sports programs and high school athletics, coaches are free to select which players start a game and how many minutes of playing time each receives. Some players may not play at all in a given game.
Parents are sometimes confused as to why their son or daughter is not starting or playing more. You may watch your child score and dominate other players on offense and shake your head as the coach substitutes for your child. Your child may play great defense and shut down opponents, but still not make the starting team. It's natural for you to ask, "So why's my kid not starting?"
It's also natural in these situations to begin wondering if the coach is treating your child unfairly.
Yes, you and your child may sometimes encounter favoritism or parent politics (see The Coach's Kid Always Plays). But there are also plenty of valid reasons—many of which are not always obvious—for a coach to select one player over another.
Understanding the Coach's Evaluation ProcessCoaches evaluate their prospective players based on their physical attributes, sports skills, how well players fit into the roles that comprise team play, and on other more intangible qualities. Some of these factors are controllable by the player while others are not. Generally, the key to more playing time for your child is to understand this evaluation process, and to focus on improving performance in controllable areas important to the coach.
So let's dig deeper into how a coach evaluates players. To help you better understand the process, let's do some role playing.
We're going to name you the head coach of your child's youth basketball team. Let's also assume that it's the first time you've coached in a competitive league. You're fair-minded, want to develop each of your kids, but also want to give the team it's best chance to win. It's time for you to pick your team. Are you ready?
Although you're a novice coach, you do know there are some key team roles that need to be filled: a point guard to bring the ball up against defensive pressure, a "big man" who can get rebounds, and at least one player who can also score. So with this in mind, you watch your kids practice and begin the process of figuring out who can do what. Here are the 8 key points to consider and related questions you need to ask yourself:
- Your first and most obvious task in evaluating a player is to consider the child’s physical attributes. Is the child small, large, tall, short, athletic (i.e., quickness, speed, jumping ability) or non-athletic relative to his or her teammates? These physical characteristics sometimes initially dictate a child’s position and role. For example, the tallest or heaviest child often plays close to the basket in basketball; a small, quick child likely would play a guard position away from the basket. (Other sports have similar matches: the largest boy is a lineman in football; the child with the strongest arm is often the pitcher in baseball.)
- Next, consider the child’s skill level in each of the sport’s key individual areas and note the strengths and weaknesses. Each sport has its own set of individual skills. In basketball, for example, the offensive skills include ball-handling, passing, outside shooting, inside shooting (e.g. layups, half-hooks), free throw shooting, and rebounding. Defensive skills center on rebounding, blocking shots, steals, tenacity, and an ability to cover an opponent man-to-man. Consider whether a child's skill-set trumps his or her obvious physical attributes. For instance, one of the shorter players may still be an outstanding rebounder.
- Is the child’s nature and personality a good match with his or her skill set and position? Some players have a “scoring mentality” while others are more comfortable as role players. Mismatches here, trying to fit the square peg into the round hole, will often hurt the child’s chance to excel.
- Does the child demonstrate a high sports IQ—understanding player and ball movements, anticipation, spacing, and timing? Does the child minimize mistakes both in practice and in pressure game situations—and do the child’s positive actions outweigh the mistakes (plus/minus)?
- How does the child function within the team framework? Does he or she make other players better? Do the child’s strengths somehow compensate for another starter’s weaknesses, better balancing the team dynamics as a whole? Is the child willing to make individual sacrifices for the benefit of the team or is the child instead a disruptive force or otherwise negative influence on the team?
- What is the child’s attitude in both practices and games? Is he or she coachable? Does the child respond immediately to the coach’s whistle, or is he the last one to listen? Does she go all out in drills and scrimmages, or do only what is expected? (Average players who view practice as a necessary evil usually don’t get noticed by the coach. Early in the season, players earn their game minutes by what they demonstrate in tryouts and practice.)
- Does the child demonstrate outstanding personality characteristics (“champion’s heart,” “never gives up”)? Does the child have the ability to translate negative situations and energy into positive actions?
- How does the child’s age and year in school compare to other teammates? Does he or she have the potential to dramatically improve?
The differences are often small in determining who starts and who comes off the bench. For example, a coach may think that two players are roughly equivalent, but notes that one seems to play better as a starter while the other plays well off the bench. A player, who is extremely strong in some areas, but equally weak in others, will often come off the bench to play a specific role in a certain game situation.
What You and Your Child Can DoIf you child is not starting, but seems to have the necessary physical attributes and skill set, the best approach is for your child to concentrate more on the controllable factors. Your child should clean up any possible attitude issues, minimize mistakes, and seek practice matchups where he or she can dominate a starter and compel the coach to realize who the better player is. Every coach likes a player with desire, hustle, and a willingness to sacrifice for the team. These are all controllable behaviors that will often help a player receive more playing time relative to similarly skilled teammates.
Sometimes, even after calmly considering your child’s situation, you may be at a loss to understand why your child is not playing more. If you feel that the differences favoring your child are significant, you may want to arrange a meeting with the coach to learn more. Collect information and try to understand the reasoning behind the coach’s judgments and decisions. As you listen to the coach’s explanation, weigh his comments against the factors described above.
It’s not always easy to keep an objective perspective when it comes to your child. In your desire to see your child excel in his or her sport, avoid communicating negative attitudes that can lead your child to believe they are somehow the victims of poor coaching or other circumstance. Instead, stress to your child the controllable ways in which he or she can influence a coach’s decision. Hard work, practice, desire, tenacity, and a team-first attitude will go a long way to securing more playing time for your child.
By supplying positive parental support, you can make a difference—helping your child to learn what it takes to achieve success both on and off the court.
Copyright © 2012 Jeffrey S. Rhoads. All Rights Reserved
Copyright 2009-2012 Jeffrey S. Rhoads; All Rights Reserved