Why is unequal playing time the norm in youth sport?

I have written previously about my thoughts on playing time, click here to read them (scroll down to see them all).

When I tell coaches and parents that I believe all youth sports should have equal playing up until age 12, regardless of competitive level, it is not a popular idea. Especially when I say I really think the age should be 14! I thought  of a few more facets of this complex and contested idea in youth sports that are worth discussing.

As adults who play recreational, but competitive sports, equal playing time is almost always the norm. If playing time isn’t equal, problems, resentments, and hard feelings arise. For example, I play on a recreational women’s ice hockey team. We have 10 skaters, which means 2 lines. We all pay the same fee to play. Everyone plays equal ice  time. When one line takes a long shift and the other line gets shorted, people get upset because it is supposed to be equal. We don’t put special lines out on the power play or penaltly kill, whomever is up or feels like she has legs, they go. We all have different strengths and weaknesses, which we work with together. We try (and like to) to win, are competitive, and strive to win every game (which we don’t). We enjoy being active, doing something we love, battling to win, hanging with friends and enjoy camaraderie with other teams.

Do we think this is different for kids?

So why is it that as adults in our own sport endeavors we structure equal playing time, but when adults run and control youth sport recreational, competitive programs….we justify unequal playing time. (NOTE: recreational teams are just as competitive and want to win just as much as travel teams, the skill level is just different). As adults we don’t like sitting on the bench, we want to play, think unequal time is unfair, unjust and annoying, makes us feel poorly about ourselves, and is not fun or enjoyable.

Do we think this is different for kids? What is the rational for unequal playing time in youth sports before age 12? I’d like to hear it…seriously…I want to hear from you. I think this conversation is worth having.

I say equal playing time at ALL competitive levels because if you have a kid on a team where he/she doesn’t play much, if at all, then he/she shouldn’t be ON that team. Move that kid down a team so they DO play and have the opportunity to play, learn, and develop skills in competitive contexts. No kid should be on an elite travel team, pay high fees to play and then not play equally…that seems wrong. As adults we’d NEVER put up with that policy would we? (I understand parents and kids “choose” to be on that team, I also understand that some kids want to play with their friends even if it means not playing, but those are different blogs on the broken system of youth sports).

If equal playing time is what we prefer and what we like and enjoy as adults why should it be different for kids?

One Reply to “Why is unequal playing time the norm in youth sport?”

  1. Without wading into the waters of older, more competitive youth sports, the goal of providing players with equal playing time in participation based programs is a good one.

    But even in this setting, there are qualifiers to an approach of simply dividing playing time up equally.

    Most team sports require a certain level of competence in key positions. Without a minimum level of performance in these positions, the play can disintegrate resulting in NO FUN for many of the other players.

    For example, a competent point guard in basketball is needed to handle the ball against pressure and make good passes to his or her teammates. Likewise, a good “big-man” is needed to provide a young team with second shot opportunities (there are MANY missed layups). In the pursuit of equal playing time, taking out a key player can ruin the play for others. It also can diminish the self-esteem of a young player who does not yet possess the necessary skills to play a certain position. This is even more evident when teams are not equally matched in terms of talent and age (something that regularly occurs in the real world of organized youth sports programs).

    I generally prefer an approach that builds individual paths to success—especially for kids in the 11 to 13 age group. Teach Everyone Everything in practice, but tweak playing time as necessary in games so that everyone is placed in the best position to succeed. (I discuss this approach in several articles on my Inside Youth Sports blog.)

    Yes, the emphasis is on equal playing time in each game. But the goal of equal playing time may also be achieved over the course of a season, with better players possibly getting a little more playing time against the tougher opponents, while the weaker and younger players receive more time against lesser opponents. The goal is to challenge players, but not put them in situations where they are destined to fail. Unfortunately, some parents only look at each individual game in judging whether their son or daughter is receiving equal playing time.

    Like many other issues in youth sports, the equal playing time one is magnified by today’s youth culture that places so much emphasis on adult-run organized youth sports. Promoting more opportunities for children to engage in self-directed play (e.g., pickup games) would enable kids to naturally get the “equal playing time” they need to develop their skills and have fun.


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