A Question About Equal Playing Time in Youth Sports


I’ve been asked to give an evidence-based presentation to a youth sport association on equal playing time. I’m interested in what you think about this issue. Here are the questions I have:

1. Why should youth sports have/not have equal playing time?

2. Who should decide?

3. If you believe in equal playing time, at what age should equal playing time cease?

If you have solutions , ideas of opinions, please leave a comment.

12 Replies to “A Question About Equal Playing Time in Youth Sports”

  1. Equal playing time for me is an essential part of the game for youngsters, not just in single games but also across a season. Why? For me the greatest teacher of the game – is playing the game. Also, children develop at different paces, and at different ages. Some children will be more physically, and emotionally developed compared to others – others will need more time to grow. We learn from winning, but we also learn from mistakes and losing.

    To what age, I am not sure – is it 11, 12 , 13? The coach should decide after consultation with the payers and parents. The apparent pay-off coaches face is that of ‘if we equal playing time, we compromise the chances of winning’ because it’s assuemd that lesser players with more time will decrease the teams overall chances of winning.

    (Forgive my promotion here, but as a side by-product to our users is a record of total time played across the season; and how many starts players get compared to starts as a substitute).



  2. Oh my, you went “there”. Playing time is a very sticky issue in youth soccer. I am a former player now turned coach. To cut through a lot of the argument I think one must do like Positive Coaching Alliance, and the athlete/coach/team/parent differentiate between recreational versus competitive participation immediately. Recreation leagues should assure of equal playing time whether the kid is 7 or 17 years old. Unfortunately this does not always occur and at the younger levels where it should due to more parent coaches in recreation leagues. Parent coaches have the best intentions, but many cannot see their own conflict of interest (or worse ignore it) so things often go wrong there…
    “Competitive” youth sports is where it becomes tricky and where I think your questions are specifically directed. Basically, I’d say that kids should be prepared to deal with unequal playing time around the age of 12, definitely by 13 years, especially if huge disparities in 1) talent, 2) effort and 3) commitment levels exist.
    It was said in a US Soccer coaching course that before 10 years of age, kids really DO equate effort with success. If they come off the field and you tell them that they did awesome with all that hustling even though they truly were “beaten”, they will more likely believe you and feel great about themselves and their participation in general. After a while though, kids are realistic and realize when/if they truly are a “weaker” player or that they are consistently getting beaten and you are just blowing smoke. I believe that is where/why they it said that the dropout rate increases there… With that, competitive youth sports should shift to more of a system that also accept the reality of different skill/ability levels and try to teach life skills through that recognition.
    I’m not seeing how equally playing a kid who knows that they are getting beaten like a drum and hurting the team is good for that player. If the player in competitive sports is happy for the team to do subpar only because the team it is not using it’s assets properly (ie allowing better player a bit more time), then maybe this is a good time for a life lesson in that the team is “bigger” than the individual and should come first.. I coached a team where there was a rather big disparity in game performance output. Yet, one girl wanted equal play when she was just coming off knee injury and body couldn’t keep up, another wanted time although she ignored/disrespected my coaching in practice, and another wanting to stay on the field who was so out of shape that she couldn’t play five quality minutes before getting winded. It was amazing to me that each kid acted dumbfounded and/or even crushed when they received less playing time than others. They “cried” a lot to their parents, and then the reality check (that you have to earn certain things) followed. Some parents didn’t like it, while others loved it. By the end of the season, I had a more committed group of girls on and off the field, ready to work hard for each other. Not sticking to the old coach’s principle of equal playing time (and remaining consistent to enforcing principles of excellence while being patient through attack after attack) is what did it.

    2 – Competitive youth sports clubs should provide (and many do) coaches with a general structure at younger ages to assure that equal playing time. Most competitive coaches could use the reminder/education because most don’t have coaching licenses or training… Beyond that age the coach should set the policy and make it clear from season beginning what the criteria for play is. Coaches must be consistent in enforcing rules based on effort and commitment with the more skilled players on the team. When this is done, their playing time decisions are less questioned.

    * “supposedly” is said above because team issues arise when what is agreed to is playing time based simply on winning, which is the reality of what many D1 teams do at all ages. It ends up being a somewhat negative environment for player development. Such a playing time philosophy tends to teach more of the not so fun lessons in life.

    I get along great with my players’ parents during 3-weeks of preseason. When games start and “playing time” now exists, I can count on some to “turn on me” and I mean turn.

    Thanks, can’t wait to see your presentation one day!


    1. Staci- So many great points that are all very thoughtful and helpful. Thank you for taking the time to respond at length! Once I get this presentation together, I’m hoping to put it up here in some form. Stay tuned. -nml


  3. As youth coaches, our primary objective is to teach young players life skills. Here’s what I’ve done in the past, and from consulting coaches in Spain about this issue:

    U6 – U8: everyone plays as much as they can. some kids are more fit than others, and will probably play more.
    U9 – U10: probably continue doing the above, but rewarding those who play better a bit more playing time.
    U11 – U18 – Now is where coaches have issues, but the solution is real simple. It has already been stated that the best teacher is the game, and it its. But why? On doing your presentation research the following.

    Learning goes through three stages: 1. Exposure 2. Assimilation and 3. Transfer. I will not go into details about these, but it is self explanatory.
    In order for a player to transfer skills, he must play the game, but no necessarily equal playing time.

    Instead, players need to play to transfer those skills, but how much? What I and the coaches in Spain came up with, was 35 – 40% playing time in a season. In other words, if a team plays ten games, and lets say for simplicity, that is a total of 1000 minutes of playing time, then the minimum a player should get is 350-400 minutes of play. In order to keep track of this, I created a spreadsheet where I would input when a player came in and out, and formulas to calculate percentage playing time.

    When playing tougher teams, the coach can keep his strongest side. When playing weaker teams, he can give his bench more playing time. Also, he can go to a tournament, where those with less playing time, start and play as much as their fitness level allows.

    I said, that we must teach life skills. In life, those who perform better, usually, get rewarded for it. Think of medical school, who are allowed to enter? Do we want someone who got a C on anatomy to enter?

    This idea that kids get rewarded simply because they participate has lead this nation to a collapse of moral values. High school shootings happen because kids cannot deal with failures, and therefore look for an easy escape. Sports allows us to expose young minds to different pressures and to learn how to handle them.

    Children should learn that there will always be individuals that are better they they are at a certain skill, and others that will be below them. To appreciate those that are better and to respect those that are below, teaches respect, and that is a skill better learned than any fancy soccer move.

    In summary, equal playing time, medals for participating, does not fit with the reality of life. Sports should teach life skills and as coaches, we need to focus on these a bit more than just teach soccer moves.

    If you want to see the spreadsheet, just email me.


  4. As other readers have mentioned, providing children with equal playing time in organized youth sports is often determined by the children’s age and the competitive level of the league. For the youngest children in a fun, instructional program, each child should receive equal playing time per game. Moving towards the other end of the spectrum (older kids in more competitive leagues), playing time is determined more on merit.

    There are two related points that I believe should be considered by adults participating in youth sports. First, the goal of equal playing time (in all but the youngest programs) should not be solely oriented to a single game. Instead, providing equal playing time over the course of a season can provide a superior developmental opportunity for every child. Beginning less skilled players may receive extra playing time in certain games (against weaker opponents), while more talented players may likewise enjoy additional playing time against the better teams. The goal is not necessarily equal playing time, but playing time that provides the best opportunity for both development and fun.

    Secondly, one the drawbacks of adult-driven, organized youth sports is that it potentially preempts unstructured sports play — otherwise known as neighborhood pickup games. The pickup games that many of us remember from our youth, regularly provided opportunity for “equal playing time” and skill development. Although more competitive games with mixed ages might provide lesser opportunity for the younger, less-skilled children, the opportunity to organize pickup games with friends of equal or less skill were typically available. These games enabled beginners to practice and develop their skills in accordance with their own interest and desire. They were also a healthy lesson on the realities of life (e.g., crying rarely gets you more playing time).

    As I’ve written about in my blog, expecting organized sports to meet the entire developmental needs of children in sports is wrongheaded. Instead, seeking opportunities for children to compliment organized sports with self-directed play provides a better developmental model. This more balanced approach would also help reduce the parental focus on their child’s success or failure in sports being solely tied to the opportunities afforded within an organized program.


  5. Equal playing time is an issue that comes up across every sport. For me, during the formative years, there should be equal playing time, particularly if it is a recreation league environment. In addition, in some of the early years of travel sports (up to age 12 -14), I think there should be equal playing time. Why? Because at this age you are trying to teach the players two things: 1. Love of the sport; 2. The fundamentals of the game. If the player is not playing, how is she ever going to develop the “love of the game”? If she does not have the fundementals, how will she ever learn to advance in the game.

    Saying all of this does have its consequences. There will be other coaches playing to WIN. There will be parents who will quickly tired of the team not winning all of the “games they are supposed to win”. If you do not properly set expectations at the very beginning and reinforce throughout the season, you will run into problems as you go to set your team for the following year.

    For me, though, absolutely up until age 12, it should be about learning the game. No better way to do this than to play.

    — Dan
    Fastpitch Softball Coaching


    1. I completely agree that age 12 seems to be the bottom cut off date for equal playing time due to developmental evidence. Thank you for your perspective. -nml


  6. I am a firm believer in development of athletes and people. Where I agree that playing time should be a part of youth sports up to U12, past that, life starts to become an issue. Where playing time is important to the development of a player; loss, adversity, hardship, and disappointment are also things that these young adults need to be not only aware of but also, how does one deal with it. If they never deal with any of this, you are not helping them develop fully both as an athlete or as an adult.

    If coaches think their job is only to teach these children about the sport they are coaching, they should reassess what they are doing in youth sports. Each coach across the country will be lucky if they have one athlete go on to play there respected sport as a professional. Because of this, the lesson that these kids learn about the sport they are playing, ie. teamwork, communication, hard work, etc. along with the previously said of loss, and adversity, etc. are much more important. These are the things that will help shape them in life going forward. Learning how to overcome something may be just as important if not more than always getting something they didn’t earn.

    I could tell of countless stories of athlete’s being cut and going on to great things in their sport because of the obstacles they had to overcome. I may be getting off topic a bit but I don’t think playing time should be the issue. I think the issue is what are your goals as a coach and what are you trying to teach the kids based on their age.

    The kids will always learn more in training than they ever will in a game. The game is the great teacher but you are talking about one ball and multiple kids in a lot of sports and their time spent with the ball in their hand or on their foot is much more valuable than chasing the bloody thing around.

    If you are trying to teach kids and develop them, then all kids should get some playing time in all games, you never know if a kid will step up in a semi-final or a big match if they never have the opportunity to prove it. If you are at the age of development where winning is a part of that development, then that has to be the focus.

    At the end, it depends on the age and what level your team is at that will determine playing time for all players in my opinion.


    1. Douglas,
      Great addition to the conversation. I agree that the lessons learned through playing time rest on the skill of the coach to teach the virtues of effort, commitment etc. wrapped up in playing time. -nml


  7. Playing time is actually not an option if you read most leagues codes of ethics. It clearly states development over winning and there may end up being apparent law suits or class action suits if people start understanding the rules. For coaches and academies ignorance is not a defense. If they are professionals they need to use due diligence. They don’t seem to have a problem figuring out player passes and other regulations going into matches. For some reason playing time is seen as an option instead of rule. Playing time, as defined by most leagues, is a right not a privelege that can have repurcussions up to two years later in the form of fraud or misrepresentation. If a roster has 11 players and they sign 18 to the team and league rules specify development over winning there you go. Development is a verb if you pay (quid pro quo) for something you’re not recieving….


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