Steering Clear of the “Playing Time” Conversation
It’s a tale as old as time itself. A young athlete comes home after a long day of practice, or perhaps even a game and is sullen due to a lack of time on the field for their team. The parent of said athlete, distraught over seeing their child so disheartened over the sport they enjoy decides it’s time to confront the coach over playing time.
Coaches hate dealing with this sort of situation, and it can be an awkward and sometimes hostile confrontation for all parties involved. In extreme cases, a playing time conversation gone bad can lead to irreparable damage between the coach/player or coach/parent relationship.
So how can parents handle a situation where there is a perceived lack of playing time being allocated to their children, especially when a lot of coaches and athletic departments at schools refuse to have these conversations?
Coaches will Avoid Talking To Parents about PT
“Many times, or most times, it’s about playing time, and we are very clear that that’s not a conversation we’re going to have, nor do we want our coaches to have. That’s a conversation that should happen between an athlete and a coach,” said Steve Kryger, the Athletic Director at a large high school in California.
This is the overwhelming sentiment from most coaches and athletic departments. Talking about playing time with a parent is a non-starter, and frankly, it should be that way. So then, what can parents do when their child feels they deserve to play more?
When you talk to high level coaches or athletic directors, their answer is simple: it’s up to the player.
“An athlete has the right, I think, to understand why they are getting the playing time they’re getting, or not getting what they want, and to know exactly what they need to do to improve,” said Kryger. “Both from a skill perspective or a team understanding and philosophy– and how they can get more playing time.”
This is a sentiment shared by most coaches, if they player works hard and shows their dedication to their team, the coach will be open with them about why they aren’t seeing the field, and what they need to improve on to get there.
Playing Time is Dependant on Player Effort
John O’Sullivan, a longtime coach and founder of the Changing the Game project, says he recalls a conversation he had with his own father about what he perceived as a lack of playing time on his youth soccer team.
“I remember when I was in high school and I didn’t feel like I was getting the playing time I deserved. I remember I was feeling all aggrieved and wanted my dad to talk to the coach, and my dad said something to me really important,” O’Sullivan recalls. “He said, ‘Are you doing everything that you can to earn playing time?’, and I said, ‘Well, what so you mean?’ and he said, ‘Do you show up early? Are you staying after? Are you doing extra fitness before school? Are you working harder than everyone else in training?’”
This is a conversation every parent should have with their child when their child comes to them with their playing time blues.
Only the athlete themselves knows if they are putting everything they can into their sport.
“He said, ‘I’ll tell you what: if you start doing all of those things, and you still aren’t getting to play, then maybe I’ll have a conversation with your coach. But, until that moment, you have to do everything in your control to earn your own playing time,” O’Sullivan said. “You have to have a relationship with your coach to earn your own playing time. If you’ve done all of those things and you still feel that this isn’t a good situation, well then maybe I’ll help you have an additional conversation.’”
Even NBA head coach Doc Rivers had to have a similar conversation with his youngest son, who came to him with a similar problem to the one O’Sullivan was having.
“One of my kids was just complaining about the coach. My youngest one, because he’s the only one still in high school playing. He’s like, ‘I wanna play more minutes, I think I should play more minutes,’” Rivers mentions. “And I said, ‘Well what do you want me to do about that?’ that was my answer. He says, ‘Well, you should call the coach.’ That will not happen. You earn it. Go earn it.”
Rivers then breaks it down even further, establishing that the player’s actions and work ethic is what truly determines their playing time, no matter what they and their parents may believe.
“I have yet to meet a coach who wants to lose. Trust me, if you do the right thing, minutes go up. I think that’s sometimes what they need to hear instead of, ‘You’re right, I’ll call them, he is doing you an injustice.’ I think kids need to learn how to fight for it, and you can do that in a positive way. You gotta keep working, you gotta keep playing and working at it,” Rivers said.
Parents should be there for their child, but it is important to realize the coach is seeing the effort and work they are putting into their sport everyday.
Despite what a parent may believe, in most cases, the coach is making playing time decisions based on who he believes gives the team the best chance to win.
The Athlete Should Know where they Stand
As Pat Fitzgerald, the head coach of the Northwestern Wildcats football program says, a parent or guardian is a key member of a support system a player will lean on. Hearing the parent bad mouth the coaches due to a perceived lack of playing time, that could manifest itself negatively and cause the player to develop a negative attitude.
“When it comes to parents, my standpoint is that we want to be as transparent as we possibly can. At the same time we want to help our parents understand that they’re part of the support network,” Fitzgerald said. “The support network can either lift the player up, or take a player down. It’s going to go one of two ways. We’re all here to have tough love and help them improve and get better as a person, as a student, and as an athlete.”
He then reiterates what most coaches believe: your young athlete will know where they stand and why they may or may not be receiving playing time.
“I’ll always be here for our parents, I’ll always listen. If it comes to playing time, I’m typically going to ask the parent if they’ve talked to their son,” Fitzgerald said. “Their son usually always knows, especially in our program– it’s pretty clear where you are at and what your role is. What you need to improve and if it’s not, we need to do a better job communicating. We make sure we are as transparent as we can possibly be.”
Parents should realize that playing time is a decision a coach doesn’t make flippantly. When your child approaches you about not receiving enough playing time the natural instinct is to assume the coach is making a mistake, but it’s best to have an honest conversation with your athlete first.
Ask them if they are doing everything in their power to get better and show the coach how their skills can help the team win, in order to secure more playing time. Have them really reflect on if they are truly doing all that they can do.
If they still feel they are being slighted, encourage them to speak to the coach themselves first, as the coach is likely to be more open with an athlete than their parent, since they deal with them everyday.
After all of that, if they are still unhappy with their situation, then it could be a situation where a parental intervention is necessary, but this should not be the initial move, it should only be considered when all else fails.
It’s an important lesson for your young athlete: their actions and work ethic determine their playing time, and there’s things that their parent won’t be able to help them with in life.