Recently a Hockey Director asked me “How do I get my coaches and parents to understand the importance of equal playing time?” Endless studies show the number one reason why kids play sports is because IT IS FUN! They play for the pure enjoyment and love of being around their buddies. They also play to feel part of the team and enjoy competing. Conversely, studies also tell us the number one reason kids leave sports is because they aren’t having fun. I think we can all agree that sitting on the bench is not an enjoyable experience for anyone, which raises the issue of equal playing time.
Regardless of age, every youth roster consists of early and late developers. We all know that a star at 10 years old does not necessarily mean a star for life. Unfortunately, too many future Amanda Kessels and Patrick Kanes are quitting the game or losing their excitement for the game at an early age because they are not having fun and are not feeling good about themselves. The problem is that coaches are labeling 4-12 year olds as elite or non- elite players and are managing their ice time during games accordingly. What we should see happening is coaches giving equal ice time to all players under the age of 12, and meaningful playing time to players 13 and older throughout the season.
In key game situations with older players (i.e.: tie game or down a goal in the final minutes) it may be acceptable to give better players key shifts, but coaches should remain open to giving different players those opportunities over a season. All of the kids should understand why and be reminded of their importance to the team. It is a skill to be able to perform under pressure, a skill that should be developed.
There is no benefit to sitting a player to win a game, however, there are a lot of negatives that can affect team dynamics and the player’s confidence and passion for the game. At young ages the focus should be on long-term player development and building confidence. Shortening the bench does not accomplish either goal. These aren’t pro athletes. These are kids (families) paying to play. How do kids improve if they are not playing? Teams are generally only as strong as their weakest players and increasing all players’ abilities will not only help with long-term development of each player, but also the ability of the team to play better together and have more success throughout the season.
Nicole LaVoie, associate director at the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sports, discusses her thoughts on equal play in her One Sports Voice Blog. She states, “up until age 10-11, developmentally children cannot discern between effort and ability. They equate effort with being good at something. Therefore, under an unequal playing time system, a child who gives full effort but does not get to play, is likely to think he is not good at that sport.” Based on evidence in sport psychology, perception of competence is one of the biggest predictors of enjoyment and sustained participation (Article- More thoughts on equal playing time in Youth Sports 8-10-10).
It is imperative that youth coaches communicate their playing time coaching philosophy with parents and players at the beginning of the season and reinforce it throughout. Coaches and parents need to put development ahead of winning in youth hockey games. These games are for the player’s development not for the adult’s satisfaction. In the end, youth sports are about having fun, teaching a healthy life skill, instilling work ethic/effort, motivation and helping players reach their full genetic potential. This requires opportunities to practice, and compete in a healthy and supportive environment. It is the job of the coach to prepare every player for game time scenarios. Players do not rise to the occasion; rather they fall to the level of their training!