Many coaches wonder about the best way to allocate playing time within their team. But when deciding whether to give kids equal playing time in youth soccer, there is no blanket rule. Factors like the environment we’re coaching in, the individual needs of our players, and what we’re trying to achieve as a team will all impact our approach. To establish the best course of action for our team, we should consider the various impacts of how we allocate playing time, as well as how to manage game time to get the best outcomes for all of our players.
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Factors to consider when allocating playing time
Age, ability, and where we play: What is our team environment?
One of the first things to consider when determining playing time is our environment. Things like the age group we’re coaching and where our team sits on the spectrum from grassroots clubs to ‘high-performance’ settings will influence what our players need, what their aims are, and the kinds of experiences we need to give them to help them achieve their goals.
“We need to talk about these players loving the game and playing football every single week, but how you divide that up does vary from club to club,” says PDP Technical Advisor Dan Wright. “If you divide everything equally, everyone gets the same experience, but whether that should be true from Under-8s through to Under-18s, and whether that changes in high-performance environments, is something we need to tackle.”
There’s no one-size-fits-all approach; as well as asking if we should give kids equal playing time, we should also consider whether there’s an age at which we should begin to allocate game time less evenly. Ultimately, the best system for our players will vary from one setting to another.
Winning isn’t everything: What are we really trying to achieve?
No matter what the age of our players or the level they’re playing at, our primary aims should always be to help them enjoy the game and to assist their development. Every child is different, and we must cater to every individual, striving to give them the right challenge at the appropriate time.
“The most important thing is to remember it’s not about you,” explains former Ajax and Netherlands coach John Van’t Schip. “You have to give the players the right education to become the good player they want to be in the future. You shouldn’t be a coach who is only out there to get results.” This means taking a holistic approach to player development that challenges each of our players individually, helps them to develop as people, and gives them a positive sporting experience.
Jonny McMurtry, rugby coach and researcher with Rugby Australia, describes player-centered coaching as “creating an environment where players explore their ideas, test their capabilities and work towards identified goals.” To accomplish this, we need to give kids the freedom to experiment and play without fear of making mistakes. And that means team selections that prioritize individual development over results and give all of our players plenty of learning opportunities.
Promoting team values
As kids get older, we may also decide to use playing time as a way to promote team values, recognizing their effort, commitment, and regular attendance at training through our team selections. By working with players to establish team principles and goals at the start of the season, we can encourage them to hold each other to account and work together to maintain standards, and perhaps reinforce positive behavior through our allocation of playing time.
“With older players, you can have that discussion around them taking some ownership of how they see their team,” says PDP Co-Founder Dave Wright. “Players need to be on the park, they need to be playing and getting opportunities to be in an environment where it’s not just training. I do think, as you get towards the older players (U16 and up), it’s important to start rewarding those who are committed, particularly in those grassroots environments where some players might be stretched across different sports and deciding which sport to dedicate their time to.”
The potential costs of unequal playing time
As coaches, we should also understand the potential costs of not giving all members of our team enough playing time. Children develop at different rates, and by only picking our strongest team in order to win matches, we may deprive some kids of valuable learning experiences when they need them the most.
“The reality of development is we don’t know who is going to break through,” says Kristjaan Speakman, Sporting Director at Sunderland AFC. “We believe in player development being completely non-linear. The player at 4th or 5th in your group at age 12 might be your best player by 15.”
Steve Lawrence, consultant to Cruyff Football and Ajax FC, has spent years researching the relative age effect, finding that children born latest within an age-restricted cohort frequently experience developmental disadvantages that are reinforced by biases in team selection as they get older. This in turn can cause them to doubt their own competence, lose their enjoyment of the game, and even stop participating.
Recognizing the risk of missing out on late-developing talents who don’t receive enough opportunities when they’re younger, a number of professional clubs have trialed initiatives like bio-banding in an attempt to counteract the relative age effect when identifying talent, with many also allocating playing time evenly in their junior teams.
“Even in a high-performance setting, clubs tend to ensure equal playing time — or equal starts, at least,” explains Dan Wright. “Otherwise, you are narrowing the options; if you’re only picking the same 11 or 12 players every week and some are only getting 20 minutes, that kid who’s getting 20 minutes might have been your best player — maybe not today, but if given the opportunity to shine. The main point for me is: what is the opportunity cost if we pick this ‘best 11’ every week? Who are the players who are going to miss out?”
“In academy football in the UK, the best of the best are doing equal playing time,” concludes Dave Wright. “They’re trying to expose kids to lots of different environments.”
How to allocate playing time
So how do we allocate game time in order to ensure every child in our team receives a fair amount of playing opportunities? The ideal solution will vary from one team to another, and while some coaches might opt for equal playing time in every game, others may alter their approach for different games and tournaments. As coaches, we can use a variety of methods to give every kid a good range of learning experiences over the course of the season, tailoring them to meet the specific needs of our players.
‘Win weeks’ and minimum playing time
“Working in academy football, different clubs do different things,” says Dan Wright. “Some clubs have a ‘win week’, where once a month they will pick a team to win games; some clubs have one policy for week-to-week games and a different policy for tours and tournaments. In the environment I work in, we tend to do a minimum of 50% game time.”
By ensuring that every player plays at least 50% of available minutes instead of guaranteeing equal playing time, coaches are afforded more flexibility when it comes to team selection. This enables them to give some players more game time when they feel it will be beneficial — for instance, if a player is enjoying good moments in a game and they don’t want to disrupt them, or if they have trained particularly well, or have recently missed playing opportunities and need extra time on the pitch.
“We also do 50% starts throughout the season,” adds Wright. “Because constantly being a sub, even if you are getting equal playing time but coming off the bench, is a psychological challenge, especially with kids.”
The psychological implication of our team selections is worth remembering. Children are regularly subjected to the pressures of comparison and evaluation in our education systems, and this mentality can easily seep into their sporting environments if we allow it. Evenly distributing starts and playing time within a team is just one way we can shift the focus away from results and social comparisons towards self-reflection and appreciation of the learning process.
Divide games into smaller sections
In academy football, it’s common for games to be split into 20-minute quarters, enabling coaches to plan their team for each period of the game. It’s important to be flexible and make changes if circumstances require — for example, if a player gets injured — but this approach still allows coaches to think carefully about their line-ups, choose them in advance, and ensure all players receive the playing time they need.
Coaches could replicate this in a grassroots environment by selecting a team for each half of a game and communicating it with their players at the previous training session, giving themselves a clear plan and helping their players to understand the reasons for their selection.
Use tours and tournaments to make different team selections
Equal playing time and competitiveness don’t have to be mutually exclusive. In addition to ‘win weeks’, tours and tournaments provide excellent opportunities to field a stronger team and encourage competition, and are a great way to acknowledge hard work and commitment over the course of a season.
“I think players should learn to earn things,” says Dave Wright. “Tours or tournaments could be something that players work towards, with players saying ‘I want to be a part of that squad and I’m going to show, through effort and commitment and performance throughout the season, that I deserve to be there.’”
By taking a more selective approach for one-off competitions, we can teach kids about hard work while also helping players who aren’t selected learn to overcome disappointment. “The reality is: there are lessons in life where sometimes things don’t go your way,” concludes Wright. “And that little bit of adversity can be so important for players’ development.”
Forget league tables and redefine success
One way we can take the pressure away from team selections is to redefine success within our club, removing the emphasis on results and league tables and making it clear that our priority is to help our players develop.
“If your club decides your purpose is to ensure that players stay with the club, ensure that they have a great experience, and that they continue to develop as players, I would go with equal playing time,” suggests Dave Wright. “I think it would be really good to have those values across the age groups and say ‘we’re going to put league tables aside and make equal playing time and developing all of our players within our club the priority.’”
Ultimately, if we can help our players, their parents, and everyone within our club agree to prioritize development over results, redefining what success on the pitch looks like to them, we can select our teams without being hindered by the pressure to win every game.
“It’s remembering that it’s it’s really about the players; it’s really about their learning,” says PDP Co-Founder James Vaughan. “Losing can be a fantastic learning moment — getting beat four- or five-nil can actually be really beneficial for a team, helping them to kick on and go and improve in certain areas. It’s how you use these moments; if you’re clouded by ego, it’s difficult to see the learning moments for what they are.”
The role of effective communication
Communicating with parents
No matter what we’re trying to achieve, it’s always beneficial to develop a strong culture within our team and to engage parents within that culture. When it comes to playing time, informing parents about our team’s policy and helping them to understand why we’re allocating game time a certain way can help to avoid conflict around how often, and for how many minutes, their child is playing.
As Gordon MacLelland, Founder of Working with Parents in Sport, explains, “We’ve got to have a very clear philosophy around our club — on what’s important to us, whether we’re developing whole people, our playing time policies, our selection policies, all of those things. And we need to communicate them and live by them all of the time.”
“I think it’s really important to have a parents’ meeting at the start of the season and maybe touch base with those guys regularly to say ‘this is why we’re doing this, these are the outcomes that we’re seeing as a result of this process,’” adds Dave Wright. In this way, we can work in partnership with parents to create an effective learning environment, with consistent messaging, for our players.
It’s okay to encourage hard work
Striving to give kids equal playing opportunities doesn’t mean we cannot encourage hard work. “It’s okay to tell kids that ‘you need to work a bit harder’ or ‘you need to practice a bit more’, because that is life,” advises Dan Wright. “Perhaps not at under-7s; but at 15, if somebody’s doing more than you in training and they start more frequently or get more minutes, that’s preparing you by asking ‘okay, what are you going to do about it?’”
By letting team selections reflect our players’ effort and commitment, we can help kids to develop a strong work ethic while challenging players who ‘miss out’ to reflect and keep trying, giving them great opportunities to learn about adversity and how to overcome it.
“The more that we start to understand the world of talent, the more that we’re starting to find that the determining factors [of success], long-term, are the psychological and social outcomes,” explains Nick Levett, former Talent ID Manager at The FA. “Have kids got coping skills? Have kids got the ability to adapt? And can kids learn? If they’ve got that, there’s a chance they will go on to maximize their potential.”
Of course, the level of challenge our players need depends upon the nature of our team; what’s suitable for an U15 academy side probably won’t be appropriate for U12s at a grassroots club. But if we understand our players and their needs, we can use team selections as a tool to stretch them within a supportive learning environment.
Build trust with your players
How we communicate our plans with players is arguably as important as the way we allocate playing time. If we intend to give kids equal time on the pitch, we should let players and parents know. Likewise, if we plan our team selection in advance, sharing this information with players prior to game day can alleviate any anxiety around game time and reassure those kids who aren’t starting that they’ll still get their opportunity.
“I’ve never coached a player who hasn’t appreciated honesty,” says Dan Wright, giving the example of a situation in which he recently had two players competing for a single place in his team. “Both were performing well, both probably deserved to start. So in training, I told them ‘you both deserve to start, you both deserve to play half a game, what do you want to do about it?’… We decided one would start the first leg and play one half and one would come on, and then in the second leg, vice versa. I saw both of them accept it and understand it, and then perform quite well because of how honest we’d been with each other.”
By being open and honest with players, we can help them to understand our team selections and build a sense of trust with them. And by involving them in the process, we can encourage kids to think beyond themselves and appreciate the team as a whole, contributing to their social and psychological development. “When we are part of a team we are serving something bigger than ourselves, which gives us purpose and increases our chances of sticking at our goals through tough times,” writes Positive Psychology expert Lara Mossman, whose research has identified the appreciation of teamwork among a number of key character strengths that enable people to reach their highest potential.
Ultimately, it comes down to how we frame our team selection. “It’s not just the coach’s problem,” explains Wright, “it’s a problem the squad is experiencing. And we’re presenting some solutions to fix that.”
Not being able to start every kid on our team is usually unavoidable. As coaches, the skill is in being honest with players and explaining our reasoning behind our team selection. Even if they don’t always agree, they will hopefully appreciate the transparency, understand the team’s purpose, and find it easier to respond on game day.
Be open-minded and prepared to learn
When it comes to team selection, players aren’t going to agree with every decision we make, and both coaches and players are going to make mistakes sometimes. Even some experienced coaches admit that when they started coaching they tended to pick their strongest side, giving other players fewer minutes from the bench. But importantly, they learned and changed their approach.
“Keeping that open mindset about what you do and why you’re doing it, and constantly challenging it and saying ‘okay, is there a better way?’ is crucial,” says Dan Wright. We may experience times when our team struggles and where results or even performances aren’t good. But as coaches, we should try to maintain a clear sense of purpose, put our egos aside, and remember that player development is our priority.
Should we give kids equal playing time? The key points
- How we allocate playing time should reflect our team and its environment. While older players may benefit from team selections that acknowledge effort and performance levels, participation is key for younger players.
- As coaches, our primary aim is to develop players, not to win matches or climb league tables. We should give a range of playing opportunities to every child on our team, not just those we perceive to be the most talented.
- Children mature at different rates, and some will need more time to develop than others. A player who wouldn’t make your strongest team aged 12 may be your best player at 15 if given the right opportunities. Equal playing time is a great way to ensure that late developers still receive plenty of learning experiences.
- ‘Win weeks’, tournaments, and tours provide great opportunities to select more competitive teams while allocating playing time more evenly for week-to-week fixtures.
- It’s okay to encourage hard work; as players get older, it’s okay for our team selections to reflect their levels of effort and commitment, and for us to challenge players to work harder if we think it will benefit them.
- Effective communication is key. By being honest and open with players, and informing them of our team selections ahead of game day, we can help them to understand our reasoning, reassure them that they will still receive their opportunity to play, and alleviate any anxiety they may feel regarding game time.
- We should always be prepared to learn. Many coaches start out by playing their strongest sides before realizing the importance of allocating playing time more evenly within their team. By being open-minded and remembering that player development is our priority, we increase our chances of improving as coaches and, in turn, of doing the best for our players.