Should leagues mandate equal playing time for youth basketball?

When I coached junior varsity girls basketball and freshmen boys basketball, I committed to playing every player in every half of every game. Initially, the varsity coach instructed me to play everyone in every game with the JV team, but I continued to play everyone at the next school, even when I felt that the varsity coach disagreed with the egalitarian approach to playing time. To me, these are developmental levels, and playing everyone fits with a developmental model.

I had reasons for playing everyone. In a recent Washington Post column, Fred Bowen wrote “I think from the time kids begin playing sports until they get into high school, every kid on every team should get roughly the same amount of playing time.”

Theoretically, I agree. Practically, I disagree. I once trained an 8-year-old. He was the youngest player who I had trained, and it took several weeks for the father to convince me to work with his son. After a couple sessions, I learned that the son trained with me instead of going to his team practices. His father said that the coach of his son’s team didn’t know what he was doing, and he would not improve at the practices. However, the coach could not punish his son, as everyone was guaranteed equal playing time: each player played 2 quarters, just as Bowen describes. Whether he attended practice or not, his son would play two quarters, so he decided that his son would improve more by not going to practice. To me, this completely defeated the point of being on a team, and playing basketball in general. However, the coach’s hands were tied. He could not bench the player for not coming to practice, nor could he play him more to convince him to come to practice. This is the reality of a mandatory playing time rule.

Bowen wrote:

I thought equal playing time was important because it developed every player’s skills, not just those of one or two stars. Also, you don’t know at age 8 or 10 or even 12 who will be the best athletes.

I agree with this point, and it is one of the reasons that I played everyone, even at the high school level. The first group that I coached are seniors this year. One player from that team is being recruited to play D1 basketball. He was a skinny 6’7 stretch PF then. He was slow and awkward, and despite his size, he was far from dominant. However, he played every game. He rarely started, but my starting lineups were decided by practice performance, not personal choices. He is now 7’0 tall. Another coach may have cut him or never played him as a freshmen. Would he have continued to play? Would he be a potential college player if he had been cut or not played as a freshmen? My guess is that he would have turned to volleyball, as he expressed some interest in volleyball at the end of his freshman year.

Therefore, there is a reason for playing everyone: Talent development. However, is talent development the purpose of youth or even high school sports? Can there be a benefit to not playing?

Many have used Frank Kaminsky as an example of a player who hardly played who benefitted from patience and development. If we institute an equal playing time rule, do we eliminate the struggles that may develop more resilient adults? If everyone plays and everyone gets a trophy, when do players learn the life lessons that the public believes are taught during sports participation? Are the rash of transfers from NCAA programs due to players who have been shielded from adversity throughout their childhoods only to find out that college basketball isn’t fair? What is the cost-benefit analysis?

Furthermore, if talent development is important to youth sports, is playing potentially the best players only one half of the game fair to the best players? I worried about this when I coached the freshmen teams. Was I holding back the more talented players because they were not playing as much as players at other schools whose coaches only played 6-7 players when I was playing 12-14 players? I may have picked the wrong 6, but would those 6 be better players now on varsity if they had played more as freshmen? Of course, on one of those teams, most of the top 6 that I would have picked, if not all 6, would have been multi-sport players. What if they all chose to specialize in football or soccer? Who would be left for the varsity basketball team? Therefore, should I have picked the single-sport players who were dedicated to basketball, even if they may have been dedicated to basketball because they were less athletic or injury-prone? What if the best 6 were the best 6 because they had matured early? Is that fair to the other players? What is fair? Does youth sports have to be fair?

Bowen continued:

I once heard a coach say, “Coaches don’t decide playing time, players do.” In other words, if you are clearly better than your teammates, the coach will put you in the game.

I used to agree. I used to believe that talents wins out in the end. However, if we cannot trust coaches to do what’s best for all of the players and give every player an opportunity, can we trust these coaches to identify the best players who deserve to play? I believe that I am a pretty good coach, and a pretty good evaluator of talent, and I still question myself.

In the end, I fear any absolute rule. Was the mandatory equal playing time fair to the teammates of the player who skipped practices but played anyway? Was the mandatory playing time fair to the player who was superior to his teammates, but was limited to half of the game anyway? Is it okay that sports are not fair? Is it potentially beneficial for the long-term resilience of children if sports are not fair? Would Kaminsky be the same player today without having had to overcome some adversity?

Edit (3/3/16): Is this the right question? Are there ways that we could design youth leagues to negate the need for a mandatory play rule?

By Brian McCormick, PhD
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League
Author, The 21st Century Basketball Practice and Fake Fundamentals

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2 Responses to “Should leagues mandate equal playing time for youth basketball?”

  1. Albert Tremonti says:

    Could we make teams smaller in number so kids naturally get tired and need a subs. What is we played 4 on 4 with two subs. If gym time becomes an issue could games be made slightly shorter to accommodate an extra game here or their since everyone would be playing so much? Not sure what the correct answer is?

  2. BrianMcCormick says:

    Albert:
    I don’t know if there is a “correct” answer, or certainly not a universally correct answer. Every league, gym, environment is different. I think the important thing is to ask the questions. What can we change? How would those changes affect players? What changes can we make that would have the most position affect on players?

    What if, in a typical 5v5 league with 10 players per team and mandatory equal playing time, the first group played the first quarter then went to the locker room and talked about what worked and didn’t work before returning to play the third quarter, and the second group could discuss in the locker room during the first quarter their plan, and spend the third quarter discussing what went right and what did not go right?

    Or, with five-person teams, set aside two hours for 8 teams (same time frame as 4 games with 10-person teams) and play 5 minute games with the teams and opponents switching constantly. Don’t waste time with timeouts, quarters, half-time, pre-game, etc. Play 5 minutes, off for 5-10 minutes, play again, etc. Could easily do 20 5-minute games as opposed to 8 8-minute quarters for the 2 games, which is 40% more time for players to play.

    Again, the biggest goal is to ask the questions. No right or wrong answers. Objective is to find the changes that have the most positive impact on players.

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