This season, I coached in a program that believed every player deserves to play in every game. I never coached this way. I usually stuck with an 8 or 9-player rotation.
From the outset, I told the players that they were not guaranteed playing time; they earned their playing time through practice. However, I played every player in every half of every game with the exception of two times when I benched a player for a half for a failure to communicate about missing a bus and missing practice.
Upon reflection, I believe in playing every player for several reasons:
1. Development. I had 12 players on the team. If I used a nine-man rotation, three players would have seen little to no playing time. During the season, the gap between the nine and the three would widen. Instead, one player who likely would have been outside the rotation hit a game-winning shot in a win that preserved a tie for the league championship and another player who would have been outside the rotation played a pivotal role in a 15-point fourth quarter comeback in the semi-finals of a tournament.
2. Inconsistency. At this level, you never know who will perform well in any given game. Players are inconsistent which is one reason they play junior varsity and not varsity. With 12 players ready to play, we had a good chance that someone would be on their game. We won a tough game without our two best players scoring a point because their back-ups stepped up and had great games. The players who played the majority of the minutes at the end of the season were not the same as those who played at the beginning of the season.
3. Practice Intensity. Because every player received meaningful minutes, every player was engaged in practice. Because every player played, every player continued to improve throughout the season, meaning more balance in scrimmages. In the past, as the season progressed, the starters improved more than the bench and the disparity between the two grew. This season, it did not matter how I split up the teams.
4. Team Morale. I did not see any of the usual petty jealousy that happens when some players sit on the bench and others play all the time and the bench players feel they deserve more time. Instead, players supported each other. Before our last game, one player suggested a new starting line-up so she would have a chance to start. One girl who this change would benefit was the loudest to disagree even though it would have been her first start of the season. Instead, she favored the regular line-up, the player who earned the starting line-up, because, a she said, “the game is important:” a win meant a tie for 1st place and a loss meant a tie for 2nd place.
During the season, we almost always out-played teams in the fourth quarter. We had a 15-point comeback in the 4th quarter against a good team; out-scored a team by 9 points in our one overtime game; came from 8 points down with 6:00 left against the co-league champions; and came back from 5 points down with 4:00 to play against the 3rd place team. Much of our 4th quarter success, I believe, was due to our lack of fatigue. We pressed and worn down other teams who refused to play their bench.
During league, we had several 40 and 50 point wins because our level of play did not drop off when we substituted five non-starters into the game. Our non-starters were accustomed to playing major minutes against good teams, so by league play, they were superior to some teams’ starters.
I do not play that every player should feel entitled to playing time regardless of their effort. I am not a fan of mandatory play leagues. However, I do believe that at the developmental level, every player who puts forth the effort and shows up to the practices deserves an opportunity to play.
In Little League, teams often put the worst player in right field for his mandatory two innings and hope that he draws a walk in his one mandatory at-bat, while the top players play shortstop, first base, pitcher and catcher and bat 3-4 times each game. How is the worst player supposed to have a chance if everything is slanted to favor the best players? The coach creates the self-fulfilling prophesy: he expects more and more from the favored players and less and less from the benchwarmer. Often, the difference between best and worst is a small gap at the beginning of the season, but widens through the season because of the opportunities afforded the chosen players. Also, the difference at the beginning of the season often has as much to do with age as anything else.
If development is the coach’s goal, every player should receive an opportunity to play meaningful minutes, provided that the player earns the minutes during practice through his effort and concentration. There is no reason to punish a player for not being good enough; that’s why he is playing: to improve!
By Brian McCormick
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League