Since I started playing hockey at the age of 8 it was apparent to me that playing time is an issue, and has been a discussion right up until present day coaching U16s U18s and the Ladies 1st team. At younger age parents are quick to ask why their child has not been playing as many minutes as others and so they should. Raising the discussion with their coach as to why they do not play as many minutes as others in their team should not be seen as a complaint but as a positive parenting move to get the best for their child. Unfortunately, this usually feels like an attack to the coach (especially parents coaches or younger coaches) but this is often not the case, many parents just do not understand the game well enough to understand that their child is doing wrong (or not well enough) to play as many minutes as another.
As every situation is different in relation to team, level, and age I think it is best to break down each of these areas and hopefully give a rough guide to what should be happening in my opinion in regards to playing time in each of these areas:
Youth Sport (6-10 Years):
All youth teams should be playing for fun and learning how to work as a team, I do not feel that there should ever be a situation where players should constantly play more minutes than others regardless of ability. At my Club Hisalis, I know that the U10 coaches for the boys and girls have a substitution rotation schedule where every player plays every position and this works very well as the players enjoy playing many minutes per game but they also get the chance to learn how every position is supposed to be played. This will pay dividends later in life when they have to learn to play a specific position in the U12s.
For those who feel that their child is not playing the same amount of minutes at this age should pick a convenient time to speak to the coaches or trainers of the team and have a discussion regarding not only their own child but the team as a whole. Learning and Enjoyment go hand in hand at this age so it is important that both are addressed and not just focusing on how many minutes ‘my child’ plays. Many coaches especially parents do not even notice that the playing minutes are different per player, a substitute schedule is often a great way of making the minutes played better in regards to the whole team.
Junior Sports Non-Performance Teams (11-18):
These teams are those which are not a first team which main aim is player enjoyment. There are of course some cases where 2nd and even 3rd teams in the juniors are also performance teams but here I will be referring to those teams which are made up of friends and the goal is not to win but to have fun and develop in a safe environment.
Similar to the younger youth teams here enjoyment and development are the most important things to take into account when thinking about playing minutes. Unfortunately, the older children get the more attuned a specific position and they simply play better when they are in that position. For example, someone who has been a defender for 6+ years is more than likely going to be better for the team in that position. The negative side for this is some positions do not need to substitute as often as others. A forward is going to run more meters than a defender, especially in lower level teams. This means that players who are playing as a forward are going to get tired quicker, thus needed to chance more often.
An ideal situation which is used with almost every team at this level is ‘block substituting’. This is where the team will have one substitute for each of the positions (blocks), Forward Midfield and Defence. The players will rotate in turn with these positions, which means that more often than not, a defender needs to know how to play all defensive positions and the same applies to the midfield and forward players. I do not feel that a substitute schedule will work in regards to timed substitutions as it is impossible to know which players are going to get tired faster than others.
At this level if a player is not playing many minutes and they are are not enjoying I feel that it is very important that they talk to the coach/trainer to discuss this, although at older ages winning becomes more important the pleasure of every single player in the team is important but expectations should also be managed, it is impossible that every single player plays the same minutes per game.
Junior Sport Performance Teams (11-18):
Currently, I am the head coach of the girls under 16s and the head trainer of the girls under 18s. Both of these teams have an issue in regards to playing minutes for players which I am currently struggling with for two completely different reasons. Firstly starting with the under 18s, the team has had many injuries this year, especially recently, this has meant that the team has been using players from other teams almost every week. Although having fewer players from the normal team playing per week would sound like the there is more opportunity for players who do not play very many minutes to get a chance to play more. This is often not the case, due to the fact that girls from u16 who are supporting the u18 do not have much of a gap in regards to technique and tactical knowledge they often play very many minutes.
The biggest difference in terms of playing time per player in the u18 actually comes down to two major things: Effort & Commitment. Players who are playing a lot of minutes per match are always those who work the hardest, digest advice and give as much as they can while training and playing matches. Also, players who miss training due to social aspects often play fewer minutes, although social life is very important at this age, by playing for a 1st team the girls have decided that they want to be in an environment where they often have to make sacrifices for the good of the team. Ability comes into account when choosing how many minutes players will play but a perfect example of how effort and commitment are more important was shown this year already with the u18s. Two individual players were not the same level as the better girls but they were there every training session and gave 100% during matches and training, slowly they gained more and more playing minutes and now both of they play more minutes than those who played the most at the start of the season.
Now looking at the team I spend the most time within the juniors, the girls under 16s. This team has 15 players including a goalkeeper which means I have 4 substitutes each week. This is great because if someone is sick or injured I do not have to ask for a player from another team. This is actually a rare occurrence which means I have 4 substitutes per game, which means some players have played a very low amount of minutes per match. In my team, I have a sizeable gap between the best players in the team and a few weaker players, which means that when these weaker players are in the field the performance of the team as a whole is lower.
With this being a 1st team winning becomes more important that it would be in a 3rd team for example. I have unfortunately had two players come to me as they are concerned with the number of minutes they play per game, both times I explained to these players that there is a difficult balancing game between winning and making sure all players enjoy themselves. After talking to these players I sat down with my assistant coach and we worked out a way in which they can get more minutes without it impacting the team as a whole. We decided that these players can learn other positions which means they can be used across the whole field instead of being a block substitute for a specific position. Another option which we discussed was to give them more of a chance to prove they are good enough, this is hard to remember but if players are playing fewer minutes they improve at a slower rate which means the gap between them and the better players grows instead of shortens.
Due to this problem, I am going to make sure these weaker players, who are just as important as the best players, play as many minutes as possible during practice games. We are going to play as many practice games as possible before the season starts again in March so these players can play at the same level as the others in the team. If you or your child are playing a low amount of minutes in a junior first team and they are either concerned or do not know the reason it would be a great idea to talk to the coach and ask them why and what can be done to earn more playing minutes.
Adult Performance Teams (Ladies 1st Team):
As I do not have experience coaching adult teams that are not the 1st team I am unable to comment on this but I have a large amount of experience with adult performance teams. I am currently busy coaching the ladies in my second season at a club in Lisse, The Netherlands and as with my junior teams playing minutes have been something to constantly think about the past 1.5 years. Obviously, it varies depending on club/team but the goal of the ladies this year is to finish in the top 4 (we are currently 6th after playing one half of the season). With this in mind the goal of every match is to win, Starting this year I had 16 players but due to two injuries I am currently playing with 14 players, this means 3 substitutes and the other two positions are usually filled by players from the under 18s to gain experience but also to play if they are needed.
In adult teams and my team, in particular, the difference in playing minutes varies weekly. Some weeks someone could play 5 minutes and the next they could play the whole game, this is obviously due to positions and ability but with such a large amount of variance, it is hard to manage expectations. I have learned that managing expectations are actually the best way to keep players motivated when they are playing fewer minutes than others. Two players who played fewer minutes than others in their same position last year had a hard time expecting that if they can not prove themselves they will never get a chance to play more minutes. What happened over the course of months is they got their chance to play more minutes, due to an injury of other players for example and they gained more experience and in turn, they played more minutes per game. These two players are playing the same minutes as others in the team due to the rate they have improved the past months.
Of course improving is a great way to earn more playing minutes but in all honesty, the most important thing for me is the attitude of the players. If they are coming to training every session and giving 100% during matches regardless of the number of minutes they are playing they deserve more playing minutes. This is something I have really been focusing on this season and it has really helped, now that I have 14 players (one is due back in March) I do not have the luxury of picking and choosing who is important per week. Now every single player needs to be working at their best in order to win.
For those who are playing in a first team and unsure why they are not playing the number of minutes they feel they deserve, have a conversation with the coach but most importantly the coach should manage your expectations and outline exactly what your role is in the team at this time. By turning up, giving everything and making sure you look at the team as a whole instead of just how many minutes you are playing, not only will you enjoy it more but you will start to improve.
To conclude it is always difficult when you are playing reduced minutes but it is very important that players & parents alike know exactly the reason for playing less than someone else. More often than not, if explained, the situation is rarely as serious as it first seems thus coach transparency is extremely important when coaching teams.