Does Every Player Deserve Playing Time?

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

13 thoughts on “Does Every Player Deserve Playing Time?

  • Very interesting topic Brian. I’ve coached every level from 3rd grade CYO to Intermediate School, to High School Frosh, JV, and Varsity. My question for a long time has been, “When does it go from being developmental, playing everyone, to winning, playing a smaller rotation?”

    I don’t think a hard line can be drawn at age, or even Frosh, JV, Varsity. It should be a player by player, team by team decision made by the coach, taking into consideration the betterment of the team and each individual.

    The problem remains that not everyone (players, parents, fans) will see situations the same way as you, the coach. Parents, understandably, want their kids to get more time, more shots, more points. Until the people questioning the coaches decisions spend 2-15 hours a week in the gym, and countless hours spent in thought outside of organized practice times, they should leave it up to the leaders’ discretion and plan. Maybe the parents, or the players, should take the time to be sure they know the coaches philosophy along these lines before they sign up for a program.

    Having said that, it is easy to get every player court-time if you have a team that is winning some games by 40 – 50 points. What about the teams that are regularly winning/losing 5 pt. games?

    Coach Bob

  • We won a game in overtime, a game by 3 points, a game by 2 points, came from 15 points down in the 4th to win by 7, lost by 2, etc. and every player played in every half of every game with the exception of two players who missed time for disciplinary reasons (one was our best player who missed the 1st half of a tournament championship game for missing the bus).

    It’s a matter of priority. If you say at the beginning of the game that everyone is going to play, then the score does not affect your decision-making. We were playing a league game and were down five in the 4th quarter when I subbed in two of the players who see less time than others. They had played in the 1st half, so I could have overlooked them in the 2nd half and said that they had an opportunity. One played really well and scored a huge basket with about 2:00 to play. If I had said that I’ll try to play everyone, I doubt if I would have taken out my top two players to play the other two.

    To me, games aside, the biggest advantage is practice. Every player improved their confidence and skills because every player felt like an important part of the team. I watch a college team play, and it’s like there are two sides: those who play and those who don’t, and it barely looks like they are on the same team. The players who play the most have the most opportunities to improve, and those who play the least have few opportunities to improve, to the gap widens and practices become less competitive as the players who don’t play struggle to keep pace with the starters.

    I have always used an 8 – 9-player rotation in the past and did not agree to play everyone when the varsity coach told me that it was his philosophy. But, after doing it, what is the harm in not playing everyone? an extra loss? Based on personnel, we finished with the same or better record than we should have. We lost one game against a team that I think we were better than, but we beat 2-3 teams who were definitely more talented than us. The team that beat us also played everyone or nearly everyone. The teams that we beat played only 6-7 players. Did their coach’s over-competitiveness work? Did playing everyone hold us back?

  • Obviously every situation differs. However, I often see teams where the perceived difference in talent is much greater than the actual differences, and if the coach gave everyone the confidence that he or she gives the “stars,” everyone would be better off.

    When I coached AAU, we played everyone. We won one of the top districts in the country, beating the defending national champions. When we went to nationals, we told the parents that everyone might not play in every game. We ended up 15th or so (we lost by 3 and 5 points). Some players and parents were upset. Would we have finished any worse if we played everyone? Probably not. Would everyone have had a better experience if we played everyone? Most certainly. Would we have won one of the game that we lost? Probably not, but who knows.

  • For these teams that you speak of where everyone plays at what age are you talking about? I think that there are ages where all should play, but as soon as you hit high school things have to change. Would you consider sophomore level a developmental stage?

  • It was a junior varsity high school team: 6 freshmen, 5 sophomores, 1 junior.

    Yes, I would consider any level before the varsity a “developmental level.” Truthfully, I would consider all high school basketball to be a developmental level, but it is a little more difficult in the States because most players do not continue after high school. Therefore, varsity is the change from developmental to competitive with elements of each. However, when speaking about Europe, I would consider u18 to be a developmental level as the u18 team serves to prepare players for the u20 and senior/adult teams.

  • One additional data point: I know a HS coach – girls basketball – who picked his 8-9 players in the pre-season and wanted the rest to play on the JV. The latter players resisted (the coach was new, and, by reputation, very good) so he told them to write him an essay about how they understood that their playing time would be limited and why they wanted to be on the Varsity anyway. Most of the girls did exactly this and he let them stay. I haven’t debriefed him, but it seemed to work well. Thus, asking the players is one solution to this dilemma.

    As an additional note, the playing time mix for the 8-9 was highly dependent on the particular game – given match-ups, score, who was hot, etc.; so the 8-9 were always ready to play.

  • I have enjoyed your discussion and would like to leave you with the following from my experiences from 5th grade to HS and AAU National competitions. I will try to frame this but largely depending upon one’s own environment within the community the situations may vary. In grades 3-5 and even 6 they should learn the game and focus on fundamentals while having fun. They need to develop the love of the game and not worried about the pressure of winning or losing that comes natural. They need to worry about building fundamentals and good basketball IQ. At the end of 6th grade I would let them know they need to get better in the summer and start really working on technique and good work ethic. Grades 7 and 8, I would play everyone equal until the last quarter. Unless you talent drops off so much you can’t but do your best to get them all good game experience. Playing time at the end should be determined by effort and success on both ends. Stress effort, rebounds, defense, good shots. This will introduce them to inner competition but in a good way. They will know they have to produce and play hard earlier and whoever is having a good game will continue for the close. Rotate the top 7 the last quarter or 8min. It should be the expectation in HS that its competitive, you have to earn every minute, you have to work in the summer and you have to have good fundamentals. Deal with parents at the 3-8th grade level but once they get to HS, the players need to start communicating with the coach. If there is a problem, last resort, go to the coach. HS Coaches, you have to develop a winning program, help the kids get to the next level if possible and reward the hardest workers and role players to keep them in the program. Make your own decision but winning while trying to help all your players will solve most of your problems. HS should be about developing the student-athlete, life lessons and a winning program. Those that have the ability to play at the next level, help them, those that don’t guide them and those that get in the way.. let them go. Bottom line, their basketball results don’t matter until HS, it should be about developing their skills and fundamentals, form and technique. They should start to develop their athleticism in the 8th grade. They hype around some kids is just hype, nothing matters until they are in HS. They can make their reputations in AAU during the summer. Cheers – CoachCater

  • I find it reprehensible that in highschool basketball the coaching philosophy seems to be that skills development and substantial improvement opportunites are reserved only for the “top” 5 to 8 players on the team while the rest of the players are there only as “sparring partners”, if you will. (Actually a sparring partner would get better practical experience) The other players are there to serve as extra bodies to facilitate those 5 to 8 players’ development. The valid point has already been made that with little or no game playing time these other players have no hope of improvement – and I think the coaches know this full well. How can anyone possible expect these kids to feel part of the team or even to feel good about themselves? Frankly I don’t think the coaches care if they feel part of the team – as long as the “star” players are developed and games are won.

  • From a story about the Baltimore Ravens:

    As he watched his defense fighting harder than you would expect a recent Super Bowl-winning defense to fight in an OTA, Pees was reminded of one of his great memories as a college defensive coordinator when in 1986 his Miami of Ohio team visited eighth-ranked LSU. To protect against his players tiring in the Louisiana heat, he split the defense into three units, mixing starters among the three groups. He discovered that every player – regardless of his standing on the depth chart – felt he had a role. Miami won 21-12. And Pees learned a lesson he would take with him forever.
    “The thing of it is that sometimes the more you get involved in a package and guys aren’t just looking and saying, ‘I’m a perennial backup,’ guys play a little harder and play a little faster and play a little more together,” he said.–loss-of-ray-lewis–ed-reed-creates-newfound-frenzy-on-ravens–defense-231026085.html

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.