Equal Playing Time in Youth Basketball

Playing time is a frequent source of misunderstanding and conflict among coaches, athletes, and parents. The head coach and/or the athletic/league/program director must develop detailed guidelines for playing time and clearly communicate these guidelines to all parties.

At the youth level, coaches should do the best they can with awarding equal playing time for all participants over the course of the season. There is a significant difference between competitive play at the high school and college level and competitive play at the youth level.

While it can be challenging for coaches to give each player as close to equal playing time as possible, coaches at this level must understand that meaningful playing time is essential to childhood development, confidence building, and overall athletic development. Simply stated, kids who sit benefit less from sports than kids who play.   

Equal playing time is hard for coaches to administer. It forces them to put more effort into practices and player preparation. Most importantly however, it also tests their priorities.

Reasons why equal playing time should be an expected strategy at the youth level:

  • Maximizes team development. How many times have we seen the star player suffer and injury during a critical time and be replaced with a less experienced player who lacks the game experience to compete? Equal playing time will allow a team to be much deeper and talented at the end of the season when the games count more. 
  • Minimizes player fatigue. In tough physical games, coaches will lack skilled players if the top players are exhausted and lesser players have limited game experience.
  • Recognizes equal investments: Players and parents make equal financial and time commitments to the team and program. Players at early ages should be rewarded with having the same equal opportunity to play.
  • Improves team chemistry. When players feel everyone is treated fairly, they are more likely to focus on working together. When players feel they can succeed by making someone else look bad or themselves look better, they are learning the wrong lessons about team play.
  • Wins mean more to everyone. When everyone contributes to a win, there are no lingering resentments that will interfere with the celebration.
  • Better reflects coaching abilities. Winning games with kids who are physically more mature is more a success of enrollment than coaching. Winning games by developing all the kids on the team is a better test of a coach’s abilities.

Equal playing time can be applied in a variety of different ways. Coaches can award equal playing time on a game by game basis, or, perhaps easier, award equal playing time over the duration of a season. For example, coaches can use lopsided games as a great opportunity to get less skilled players in the game.  

Naturally, good coaches should recognize a potential blowout game long before the game becomes lopsided and start kids who normally don’t start or play kids of lesser ability more than usual. If that puts their team in a competitive disadvantage, so much the better for the starters to come into the game behind, having to work hard to catch up. If the blowout is a blowout even with the subs starting, at least the subs know they played when the game was still at stake.