Equitable Playing Time

This isn’t the first time we’ve talked about equitable playing time here, but we recently had a ras hof parent complaints in our Rec league, so we took some action and that spawned an interesting debate among our coaches.

Our league mandates that all Recreational players should play a minimum of 50% of the match, except at the youngest ages where there can be more than double the number of kids on a roster – so we encourage as close to equitable playing time as possible. But for U8 and above, roster sizes are such that it is easy to get kids 50%, even if you leave a couple players in most of the match. Our goal in choosing ‘50%’ over ‘equal time’ was that it gave coaches some flexibility to coach. While some advocate mandated substitutions (every 12.5 minutes everyone subs), we felt it better to let the coaches maintain control over substitutions, while ensuring kids got a fair amount of playing time. For the most part it has worked, but the complaints were increasing, mostly in U8 of all places. So the league decided to add some teeth to the existing 50% rule.


­We published some recommended sanctions for coaches found to be playing their players less than 50%. The idea was this would grab their attention, and hopefully ensure coaches who were ‘pushing it’ to shape up. Here’s what was sent. It boiled down to this:

  • First Complaint: Written warning from the league.
  • Second Complaint: If we could verify the complaint via talks with the referee, coaches, and/or parents – the team would forfeit that match. Regardless of the verification, the league would send a league representative to monitor playing time for the next two matches.
  • Third Complaint: If verified, the team would again forfeit said match and the coach would be suspended for one match. If we couldn’t verify it, the matter would be referred to to our Discipline & Appeals committee.

This was a pretty harsh set of guidelines, and that was on purpose. The idea was most coaches would get a warning and know the next step was punitive, as simple warnings weren’t working up to this point. Now some complained the kids shouldn’t ‘suffer’ via a forfeit – but honestly most kids forget the score 10 minutes after a match ends. If a match flipped to a forfeit, only the coaches and parents would care. Which was good.

I’ll admit, I didn’t expect the debate that ensued. But it was a good debate to have. While some coaches took the debate off topic to deal with coed vs gender split teams (a whole other issue we dealt with last year), it was interesting to see how people reacted. I was sort of surprised by the people who felt mandating fair playing time was somehow coddling players and that everyone should ‘earn’ their playing time. This is Rec soccer we’re talking about. After a number of back and forth emails, I sent this:

For those of you who believe we are coddling players by requiring equal playing time, a question…

In practice, when you coach, do you allow certain players to sit out drills? Do you let them watch the rest of the team work on a soccer move? If not, and every player is out there in the hot and cold weather practicing, trying to improve, doing the drills you setup – have they not *earned* their playing time, regardless of skill? Do we really want to tell kids as young as 5 or 8 that even though they worked hard at practice trying to get better, that they still can’t play much in the match because some other kid can do it better at that point in time? If you really want this to be about life’s lessons – do we really want to teach younger kids that hard work won’t pay off unless your one of the most athletically gifted on your team?

I would hope as coaches you push all your players to THEIR limits and to improve beyond THEIR current abilities. Allowing them time in a match to show off THEIR development should be a given. They’ve earned it.

Which brought up an interesting debate. In our Coaches Code of Conduct, we stipulate that Rec players must get 50% playing time:

I will ensure that every player on my team plays at least half of each match unless they are ill, injured, or being disciplined.

The goal with this was to give coaches flexibility to deal with problem situations. Obviously if a kid is on the bench sick or injured they won’t play 50%. But the disciplined part was put in to allow coaches to use playing time as a carrot of sorts. The intent of this was to ensure players attended practice when they could. The league felt that it wasn’t fair that a player who missed all the practices and then showed up just for matches should get 50% playing time. Players who were being disruptive in practice could also be told they risked not playing much (and actually it works better if you tell the parents that). But not everyone agreed this was the right thing to do. Some felt you should give 50% no matter what. The fact that it was so vague, meant coaches could say a kid sneezed wrong and thus didn’t deserve 50%. But the hope was if we noticed a coach abusing this, we could refer it to D&A and so far none have abused it.

But what do you all think about this? Should players get 50% no matter what? I tend to believe if a player attends practice and does what they are asked, regardless of how well the perform in practice they should get 50%. But when we’re practicing in sweltering temps in August or freezing temps in February – a player who habitually misses practice while the rest of the team works hard in those conditions – that player shouldn’t get 50%. Maybe 25%. it sends a message that players need to practice (at least once a week in my opinion) to play. Do you think a kid should be allowed to attend only matches and not practices?


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  1. I had a problem with this on my competition team last fall. We had 3 of our better players who decided to play football. They never came to practice, but showed up to every game. I don’t think this is acceptable and I showed that in the amount of time they saw on the field. The real tough part is when every player shows up to practice every week. How do you decided who gets more or less time?

  2. We make very clear in our competition team materials that players should not consider playing both football and competitive soccer because they can’t dedicate the time to the soccer team given the number of days per week football practices. While we don’t outright state football players won’t make teams, it absolutely comes up during roster assignment meetings.

    Other sports are a bit different. We have plenty of competitive players who play basketball and softball/baseball because they usually overlap little and they can at least make on practice each when they do. I have a number of dancers on my girls team and have players who come to practice a little late. That’s fine because they work hard when they are there. I’ve found most players try 100% overlapping sports for about a year then realize they need to make a choice to stay sane.

    I absolutely don’t believe coaches should force kids to choose a sport when they are younger – let the kids decide that. One of my daughter’s non-soccer coaches told her that once – that she couldn’t miss or be late to practice due to any other activity. I told him flat out that was crazy – she’s 8. If he felt she needed to sit more because she was too late, so be it (she was usually 15 minutes late once a week) She played plenty.

    But football is the exception in my mind because of the practice demands on the players when they get older. So while I have no problem with competitive players who play baseball, basketball, softball, swim, dance, etc – football is too much of a conflict. But again – we don’t force it, but it’s considered.

    While my post was primarily about Recreation – we see playing time issues on our competitive teams too. Let’s face it – U10-U12 competitive teams are still about development and while we don’t necessarily ensure 50% playing time, I try to play all my player significant minutes. And in a close match where they didn’t play much or just had an off day – guess who starts the next match? They love the idea of ‘starting’ even if they sub out five minutes later – so that can help balance things.

    As a coach in a growing league, our #1 focus is player development and retaining as many players as we can to ensure we can field teams as the players grow older and roster sizes jump. So sometimes you make accommodations that some coaches in larger established leagues may not. I think it’s the right thing to do anyway. Develop them at U10-U12 and the wins will come later. Sit the mid level players to win it all in U10 and you’re just hurting yourself in the long run.

  3. I’ve coached 5-8 year olds in rec throughout the last few years. I have been pleasantly surprised to see the “weaker” players improve when they played more in games–I usually found out that they would work harder when the “super star” wasn’t always on the field and I learned (or tried to learn) to be more patient with them. Everyone in rec deserves 50%–if they aren’t coming to practice, it’s usually the parents not bringing them.

  4. Even at younger competitive levels – the more you play everyone, the better your team gets. I look at it this way. On a competitive team with a mix of skill sets (not unusual) the top players won’t usually advance as quickly as the less skilled. Note I said usually. So if you really work to get your less skilled players decent playing time – they often will improve and advance faster than your top players. The goal being that everyone improves, but the lower tier of players start to catch up to the upper tier. And one of the most important aspects of that is discovery through match play. Anyone coaching to win at all costs in U10-U12 is just hurting their team’s chances in U13 and beyond in my opinion. You can still win and get your players plenty of playing time. It’s not easy and takes some planning (and often some on the spot decisions during matches) but it can be done.

  5. I completely agree that playing time in the u10 – u12 ages helps immensely with advancement in skills. I’ve seen it first hand this year with my team. Last year we had 2 left footed players on the team, one that already had a lot of skill and one that was still working on controlling his game. This year the stronger of the 2 decided to play for a different team, so the other became our starting left wing. He has advanced in his game significantly over just the past month or so and I have been very happy to see it.

    Thanks for the comments about players playing football, I’ll have to keep those things in mind this fall.

  6. Back in march we played in a tournament that had a pretty good solution to the playing time issue. They played in quarters with no substitutions except at the end of a quarter or at halftime. It was easy to tell whether you were getting 50% or not. Just see whether you played at least 2 quarters.

    Personally, I play my more committed players more than those who don’t come and practice. I figure that if they are more committed to practice and working at their game, they should be rewarded with playing time. That being said, any player in a rec league should get to play 50% of the game at minimum.

  7. We’ve talked about the quarter based substitution. I’ve always felt uncomfortable with it – too structured and too many of my kids might want to come out earlier than 12 minutes in, etc. It sure makes 50% playing time easy to manage, but too many downsides for me.

    I always get puzzled by coaches who are upset because it’ll be ‘too hard’ to track playing time. it’s really not, but if you’d rather not be distracted, have an assistant do it for you.

    I’m with you about the committed players at the younger competitive level. Even if a committed player isn’t a top sill player – if they’re out there busting tail to get better, they should play a sizable amount.

  8. As a U11 and U14 Rec coach, I’m basically a fascist about every gets a least 50% playing time. With my littler girls its easy, if everyone shows I have 2 complete squads and its an “everyone on, everyone off” sub model. With my big girls, I have 4-6 subs and my co-coach simply has a list where we track the subs. Since I sub in waves, its still pretty easy to do.

    Those that show up and hustle in practice, get rewarded by starting.

  9. I’m still amazed at the mental impact ‘starting’ has on players. It’s a fantastic reward that is so easy to give, yet some coaches don’t get that, starting their hot shots all the time. The funny part is, it means less to them and more to the ones who may not be the most skilled, but my, as you said, show the most hustle in practice trying to get better.

    So definitely keep that in mind – ‘starting’ a match means something to the kids and can be used in many ways as a coach to give a pat on the back.