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Playing time guidelines must be communicated from the beginning.Ah, playing time. Two words that can make almost any coach or athletic director cringe. Put any 10 coaches, parents, and players into a room and I guarantee that their philosophies will differ.

Where do you even start to develop your school’s philosophy on playing time? A study was published in 2017 in Open Review of Educational Research addressing why playing time is a topic for discussion among parents, coaches, and athletes. Finding the actual answer to that question in the study was a challenge. However, it did summarize the many philosophies and elements that impact playing time. Perhaps the reason why is because there are so many variables involved:

First, let us differentiate between equal playing time and fair playing time. For the purpose of this article, equal playing time is exactly what it says. All players receive the same amount of time in games. Fair playing time is based on many factors not limited to ability, attitude, and practice performance. What is fair can be subjective, and it changes from one person to another. It’s not fair to use the word fair!

When a school makes its overall goals for its teams clear, it helps coaches communicate what playing time will look like. These preplanned and communicated standards are one item that comes up repeatedly in articles on playing time. There must be a philosophy. The coaches must be willing to coach by that philosophy. Playing time guidelines must be communicated from the beginning. Confusion and hurt feelings may diminish with preseason meetings. Your athletic department needs to decide what the overall goal is: equal playing time or to be competitive in your conference. Not an easy question to answer, is it? How do you even decide something like that? Always, always begin with prayer. Ask God to guide you and grant you wisdom through the Holy Spirit.

The younger the athlete, the more equal the playing time should be.Start with the easiest and most predictable variable—the age of your athletes. Many studies and articles by psychologists and coaches indicate that the younger the athlete, the more equal the playing time should be. The exact number differs from person to person, but it appears that equal playing time should be the norm until somewhere around age 12–14 years. That’s sometime between sixth grade and high school. Most readers are probably working with athletes in elementary and middle school. Take a look at which age groups play on which teams and create your playing time policies from there. For example, your fifth and sixth grade teams have an equal playing time policy. Perhaps playing time is not equal game-to-game, but it is in the overall season. Your seventh and eighth grade team will have the goal of getting every player into every game, but not with equal playing time. These teams are inching towards the much more competitive level of high school. You can also consider tournaments separately from the regular season and decide if playing time will change for those events. You may have to consider each sport separately as well. Break it down as far as you find necessary. However, do not change your policies to match your coaching staff. If folks want to coach for your school, they will learn quickly, by reading your athletic handbooks and meeting with you, if their philosophy matches yours.

Do not change your policies to match your coaching staff.Now that you’ve identified your equal playing time teams and/or your competitive playing time teams, it’s time to figure out what will constitute the basis for playing time. Equal playing time teams that use the whole season to determine time will need to explain expectations. Will the differences in game time be based on time spent in practice, ability, attitude, seniority? This can be left to the coaches to decide, but it must be well communicated to the parents and players. Documentation throughout the season is helpful too. We will cover more on this in Part 2 of this article.

Next, we move into playing time on competitive teams. It just became even more important for coaches to back up playing time decisions to parents who do not view their choices as fair (there’s that word again). Once again, early communication of expectations is extremely important. Athletic directors will save themselves a great deal of anguish throughout the season if they do two things long before the season begins:

Some coaches ask parents and athletes to sign an acknowledgement that they have heard and accept the team expectations.Some coaches ask parents and athletes to sign an acknowledgement that they have heard and accept the team expectations. Sometimes these forms come in handy later in the season to review philosophy.

Once the season has started, we cannot assume that things will go according to plan. If the season goes smoothly, you can praise God because He’s the only one that can make that happen in our messed up sinful world. Check in with your coaches to find out if they are struggling to help all the players feel part of the team. Are they keeping track of the items on which they base playing time? Do they feel they have open communication with all parents?

Many coaches will value their athletic director walking beside them their first year.Most Lutheran schools do not get to pick from the best pack of coaches. We are off-off-off NCAA. Probably should add another off to that! We rely on teachers, parents, and congregation  members to fill these roles with very little to no pay (free shirt, anyone?). Most likely, very few of these well-intended people have taken even one class in coaching. Many will value their athletic director walking beside them their first year. It’s not our job to tell them how to coach their sport. But we are the people with the experience of what can go wrong and how it can often be prevented. That is, unless it is your first or second year of ADing. In that case, find yourself an AD mentor to walk you through your first year.

The most important actions that coaches and athletic directors can take when dealing with playing time are:

We will examine the methods coaches should and should not use to determine playing time in the Fall 2018 issue of ShapingtheFuture.

Jill Schmitzer is in her fourth year of co-athletic directing at Trinity Lutheran, Davenport, Iowa. She’s had wonderful sports seasons and challenging sports seasons. She praises God for the wonderful; and she thanks God for the increase in wisdom during the challenging.

Quoted Scripture from New International Version (NIV) Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Photos © iStock/DKiethr, Imgorthand, NTMW