I’ve been a youth soccer coach for about six years now. I’d say that probably makes me a novice. Definitely not a n00b anymore, but a novice. I’m still constantly learning and trying to improve how I coach my players at all levels. I feel comfortable helping out other coaches, but realize I still have a lot to learn. Yet as a coach and a parent, sometimes you see things you just know are wrong. This is one of those times.

I often find in talking about youth soccer that many coaches try to apply the same guidelines and principles to players at all competitive ages (U10-U18). “This is select!” is a common refrain when parents and players are uncomfortable with certain methodologies. In saying that, they are grouping all the kids into one group. Yet it is clear, to me at least, that even at the highest competitive levels, coaching styles and methodologies have to vary when dealing with U10 players vs U18 players. This post is primarily aimed at U10-U12 age players and even for some U13/U14 players.

With that in mind, I want to talk about the use of playing time as a form of punishment or motivation.

You may be thinking “well those are two totally different things’, but more often than not – they are the same. The common refrain is this – how do I get player X to work harder in practice? Coaches all around struggle to find ways to motivate their teams, something I’ve written about before. While there are always players who will go pedal to the metal all practice every practice, they are the exception, not the rule, at least at younger age levels. Yet you find some coaches who will give players who ‘work hard’ in practice the vast majority of playing time during matches, while the rest sit. On a U16 Select team, this may be acceptable and make sense, as teenagers may be more prepared to handle it and understand the cause and effect. But at younger ages, you’re just hurting your player’s development. And before you say ‘well why should my stars be penalized by playing less?’, stop and honestly ask yourself if your stars would really be hurt by playing 40 minutes a match instead of 50 or 60. I’d venture to say that playing full matches can make them complacent and not driven to improve. Sitting on the bench a bit, when they are used to playing most of a match, can make them want back in more than ever to play even better.

Kids develop at different paces. They likely had drastically different coaches in Recreation when they were younger, resulting in a mix of skill levels. Their bodies AND personalities will develop at different rates. When they are 9, 10, 11, and 12 – that is still happening at quite a clip. So why should a kid who just isn’t developing physically as fast as other kids be penalized or pushed back into Rec? Why should a kid who mentally lacks the confidence to go all out in practice, because their skills aren’t very far along, be penalized and relegated to the bench? How will they ever gain that confidence? Most won’t. I have seen young players who have had their confidence absolutely crushed by coaches intent on benching them until they ‘shape up’ and more often than not the kids just quit because of it. They see “I’m no good. Coach never puts me in. I can’t play” and it just snowballs. How do you know how that 9 year old would have developed as a teenage player? You don’t. I’ve seen a coach sub starters back into a match while one kid continues to ride the bench – in U10! Do you really think that one kid is thinking ‘gosh I should have worked harder in practice’? More likely they are thinking ‘Man I suck!’. And that motivates how?

Our job as coaches in the U10-U12 age groups should be developing as many soccer players as we can. Not just the fast kids, but ALL the players wo want to play competitive soccer and are placed on competitive teams. Every kid on a team should be getting significant playing time, regardless of how they perform in practice. I’m not talking about a kid who misses most practices for another sport. But there is a clear line between kids who are slacking off by missing practices and kids who lack confidence to go all out in practice, but are at every practice. If you have players showing up at practice and participating, they should be playing in matches. Period. If you try to tell a kid they aren’t playing in matches because they aren’t working hard enough in practice, they will probably just shutdown and quit vs being driven to improve. Besides, there are so many other methods you can use to motivate kids to work hard in practice. Competitions, incentive awards, individual feedback/encouragement, sliding benchmarks, and more. Plus – they’re 9-12 year old kids. They have good days and bad days, and weeks, and months. They have drama. They’re kids.

So if you find you have players that lack the drive to give it all at practice, think long and hard before having them ride the bench. Playing time should never be used as a punishment except for the most egregious offenses. Most kids gain confidence by playing in matches. Not scrimmages, not drills. Matches. And not just stuck back on defense, but in all positions. I can say without a doubt from my experience that putting my weakest players back on defense hurt their development. Putting them up front or in the middle more often helped it. The stronger players weren’t very concerned with where they played (once they got rid of the mindset that defense = bad players) and just wanted to play.Plus they made it very hard for other teams to score.

It’s been said many times – would you be more proud of winning that entry level U10 division title, or knowing most of your players you helped develop went on to win the U16 1st Division title? At the end of the day, would you rather be undefeated with a handful of strong players or know that you gave every player you had the chance to develop to the best of their abilities? Your answer says a lot about who you are as a coach. And parents – the next time you get upset because your little star sits out 10 or 15 minutes in a match so some lesser skilled players can play, or that the team took a loss because some lesser skilled kids got playing time in U10, think long term in years, not in minutes. The question you need to ask yourself is this: Has your child developed as a player, mentally and physically, and overall as a person? If they have – who cares if they lost a few – I can assure you most of them don’t when the season is over.

So how do you think players should be motivated on younger competitive teams? What methods have worked best for you? If you have coached boys and girls, how did you adjust your methods for each to motivate them?