The “Coach-Athlete” Conversation about Playing Time

One of the hardest issues for kids in today’s competitive youth sports setting is playing time. No one likes to spend time on the bench; the fun is in playing the game. But, the more competitive the team, the more important the win. Coaches whose jobs and reputation depend on fielding a winning team play their starters. Maybe only their starters.

Experienced player, successful coach, and sports parent, Suzy Germain says, “Help your kid talk to the coach about playing time.” As a parent, she worked with her kids on ways to approach their coaches. Coaches generally avoid this conversation with the parents. Those discussions can get emotional because parents often don’t have an objective perspective on their own child’s play. But coaches, when approached at a time they can talk, generally welcome this conversation with the player. And self-advocacy and responsibility for changes that need making are great life skills for kids.

Suzy suggests having the player meet one on one with the coach at a pre-arranged time. She coached her kids on what they might say. “How do you suggest I earn more playing time?” or “What things do you suggest I work on to earn playing time?” Be sure the kid listens to and understands the coach’s suggestions. Suzy she even worked with her kids to anticipate the coach’s response. “If the coach says…then ask him ….”

As an experienced coach, Suzy has more insight about what the coach might say than the average parent. But key in her recommendation is to be sure your kid walks away from the coach-conversation with an action plan. Not just ‘Whew, I was brave enough to ask him what I wanted to,’ but ‘He told me to work on A, B and C.’

Then the kid needs to go work on A, B and C and come back to the coach after the extra effort he put in is showing in improvement on the field during practice. If the coach is not rewarding him with more playing time the kid now has grounds to say, “I did what you asked, Coach, but I am still not playing much.”

This is the moment of truth. Perhaps the coach hasn’t noticed the improved play. Some only look to their starters, having already decided on who is second string. Hopefully, the coach will give the kid a second look and like what he is now seeing.

My oldest daughter had just such a situation after her move to a more competitive team. Her coach told her that, as a forward, she needed to work harder off the ball. She needed to track back and win balls back from the opposing defenders. With this in mind she discovered a quickness and an element of surprise that really worked for her. The result: more playing time. And ultimately, she became a starter.

Not all kids can be starters, though. And some are rostered on teams that are really above their playing level. The coach may not feel he can give them more playing time. Suzy’s oldest daughter, Katie, had this happen on her college field hockey team. Katie approached the coach and was told to work on A, B and C. Katie worked on A, B and C and came back to the coach who then said, now you need to work on D, E and F. This, Suzy says, is a sign that the coach really doesn’t intend to reward you with more play. At that point the player has a decision to make. If she’s resigned to sit the bench in order to stay on the team, then so be it. But if the game is only fun if she gets to play on game day, then it might be time to look for a different team or a new sport.

Suzy said that as a coach she welcomed two separate conversations -one with the kid and another one with the parents. “These,” she said, “were two very different conversations.” With the kid she talked about what they needed to work on. With the parents, about what was or wasn’t working. Triangulating this conversation can be a recipe for disaster. Held separately, it is easier to be honest and realistic.

So, in addition to giving your kid a break from year round play, Suzy says, help your kid with the coach-kid conversation. But help him be realistic about his chances to play. Check out the next F2F post for part 3 in the conversation: taking an honest look at your kid’s potential and being realistic about the best place to play.

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