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Finding the Right Time

Players benefit from getting playing time and it’s an important part of their development and growth as an athlete. Yet, in order to get everyone into the game you might have to be creative and recognize the right times and situations to do so. Overall, this will require finding a balance between your goal to win and your goal to create a positive worthwhile experience for everyone involved.

One common approach is to put the bench players in the game when it becomes a blowout. And while this is worth doing, Jim Thompson, founder and CEO of Positive Coaching Alliance, recommends in an article on the PCA website that coaches also try to recognize a blowout before it happens. If you know that there is a significant mismatch between you and the opponent, it might help to give non-starters some valuable minutes before the score gets out of hand. This will provide an opportunity for them to play alongside some of the first unit players and gain valuable experience.  

Thompson also points to a method used by an Ohio high school basketball coach who referred to his bottom 8-12 players as the “Mad Dogs.” These players were guaranteed to play the last minute of the first quarter and the first minute of the second quarter in every game, no matter the circumstances. According to Thompson, this provided a number of benefits for the entire team.

The Mad Dogs would practice extremely hard because they were motivated and knew they would get a chance to play. This in turn pushed the starters to work harder, which translated to success on the court. Since the Mad Dogs were excited to prove themselves in the short amount of time they had, they played aggressively and with 100-percent effort. Eventually, this created a competitive advantage for the team. This system also helped some of the bench players become starters. They developed self-confidence and grabbed onto the opportunity to get in the game and show what they were capable of.   

Thompson also says that hard work should be rewarded. In order to motivate weaker players to improve, you will have to show them that hard work pays off. This may mean upping their playing time, but the most important thing is to show that you recognize the effort they are putting into training and praise them for the strides they are making. It can be easy for players sitting on the bench to become discouraged, so coaches need to encourage them to keep working and trying to improve.

When talking to an athlete about their playing time, there are a few things to keep in mind. Jerry Smith, Santa Clara University Head Women’s Soccer Coach, is open to having these conversations and recommends that coaches help their athletes reach their goals. Ranking as one of the five winningest women’s soccer coaches in NCAA Division I history, Smith carries a large roster and can’t guarantee anybody playing time. But he is more than willing to help his players improve.

“When a player comes to talk to us about playing time we focus on the goals that they’ve set for themselves and the goals that we have for the program,” Smith said in a video on the PCA website. “Then we identify the objectives that will help them get that playing time. It might be pre-practice routines so they have an optimal arousal level when they come to practice, for example. Some students are not as focused as they should be or they don’t bring the energy that they need to on that particular day. It might be a tactical situation where they keep making a mistake in a certain part of the game. So we evaluate that and we set a goal for improving in that tactical area.”

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