Why it’s important that all members of the team have equal playing time.

Summary: Arguments for why and when it’s appropriate, maybe imperative, that players be given equal playing time in games. Also an argument for when it may be appropriate to relax that requirement.

There are two articles on the Resources page of this website that do a good job of answering this question.  I’d like to highlight what I think are their key arguments.  I’d also like to describe how this changes a coach’s approach to games.  Finally, I’d like to make the case for when it might be appropriate to not distribute playing time equally.

 The two articles I reference are:

I think that these are the strongest arguments in the two articles:

  1. Game play is just another skill.  By denying some players game time you deny them the chance to develop game-related skills.  If it’s unethical to deny some players practice time in favor of other players how is it any less unethical to deny them game time?  There is no way to replicate the experience of a game in practice.
  2. Team solidarity. When all members of the team get a chance to participate significantly in games and contribute to the team’s success or failure, the team behaves more like a unified whole – on and off the court.  If only a few players are responsible for the success of the team then jealousy and self-esteem issues create rifts between groups of players.
  3. Everyone is more motivated to work hard in practices and improve.  As a result the entire team improves as players push each other to increase their skill level.  The games serve as a test of where practices and players need to focus.
  4. The bench becomes much deeper.  The coach can confidently turn to the bench if a player gets injured or tired, knowing that there will be no loss of continuity or intensity as a result of a substitution.
  5. Get REAL!  As a coach, should your focus really be to win the “illustrious 8-9-year-old division championship trophy” – even if it means that half or more of your players don’t feel that they played a role in that achievement?  Maybe your goals for the team are more self-centered than you will admit to yourself.
  6. Game time is the #1 metric that parents use to judge if their child was well coached. A coach must realize that he or she has at least two sets of customers.  The players and the parents of those players.  In some cases, parents may be paying thousands of dollars to give their child an opportunity to become a better player.  They may believe that the only place where their child has a chance to advance on the team is in the games.  This is even more the case when leagues devote little time to practice and almost all their time to playing games.  Want disgruntled parents?  Relegate their children to second-class bench warmers.  Oh, and coaches have another set of customers for what they do.  They are the next level coaches who will want to know that all the players in the pipeline are getting a chance to improve and shine as much as possible.

 Here’s an argument that the articles don’t make but I think needs to be made:

There is no way to predict who will be a really “special” basketball player.  When I played high school ball we had a kid who was 6’ 9” and was the stereotype for being unable to walk and chew gum at the same time.  That was as a sophomore and he was often the butt of jokes about his clumsiness.  Two years later, as a senior, he was rated the best center in the state – division 5A.  I don’t know what happened in those two years.  Maybe his nerves finally connected – after all, it was a long way to go!  What I do know is that he would never have realized his potential if coaches had decided for him, at an early age (in this case right up through high school sophmore), that he was never going to be a “special” player.

These arguments make the case for giving each player “quality” playing time.  I think arguments one and six go even further and make the case for “equal” playing time.

If you’re focused on providing equal playing time as a coach, you can’t be focused on the score and winning.  You can have them in your peripheral vision but, instead, you need to focus on game-skill development.  Executing on practiced skills in the game and dealing with game pressures becomes the focus of your pregame speech, postgame speech and what you say during each timeout.  To be honest, I see this as a freeing concept.  It puts focus back where it should be – on player development.  They say that games are won in practice.  Well, if your players are executing on the things you teach them in practice, the wins will come.  If not, then the lack of execution or planning becomes the coach’s and team’s focus in the next round of practices.  Finally, I believe that this change in focus reduces the frustration level for coaches during games and the inappropriate behavior that often comes with it.  Games become a place for observing and teaching and not a place for yelling and berating.

Is there a level of play where equal playing time may no longer be justified?  Yes, I think you can make the case that once a player reaches their high school varsity team, the coach can begin to favor certain players over others – in practice and in games.  At that point the winning record of the team becomes a point of pride for the entire school.  Truly special players will generally have become obvious by this point – unless they’ve been held back or run off by their previous coaches.

Even then, a varsity coach has to be careful to keep a sufficiently deep bench and ensure that the second string players are experienced enough to effectively step into a game when necessary and push the first string players in practice.  JV and freshman team coaches should be focused on providing the varsity coach with the most skilled and well rounded stream of players possible.   That very likely means providing equal playing time.  That lumbering ox or mighty mouse may yet become the go-to scorer or floor general of your varsity team.