by Paul Cortes
Head JV Boys Coach, Jewish Community High School of the Bay
Youth Basketball Coach, San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department
AAU Coach, Bay City Basketball
Disclaimer: These thoughts relate to coaching youth players. My approach would certainly change if I was coaching a high school varsity or older squad.
As an AAU coach, one of the issues that comes up frequently is playing time. There are certainly many trains of thought when it comes to how to manage rotations and get kids in and out of the game. I’m not arguing that my way is best, as there are many other coaches I work with that manage rotations differently and very successfully as well. Here I’m going to talk about some of the things I do with my player rotations and why I do them. There is no perfect way and with anything you choose there will be both pros and cons—the main thing is making sure your style aligns with your overall philosophy, whatever that may be.
My philosophy is to give players autonomy while holding them accountable at the same time. I will not pull a player out of the game for performance unless I believe he is playing in a way that is unduly selfish or lacking effort. That being said, if for example he misses good shots and commits a turnover or two trying to make the right play I don’t want him looking over his shoulder afraid that he is going to come out of the game. This aligns with my goal of empowerment and long-term player development. I emphasize trust with my players, that they must trust each other and also know that I trust them to figure things out. I’m not saying that other coaches with different styles don’t build trust in their players just that this has become such a core tenet of my philosophy that it factors into how I manage my bench during games.
I don’t believe in equal playing time. It is in my opinion that every team has players who love and value the game more than the others and thus work harder at improving their skillset. Yes, giving equal time gives the other players the chance to develop that same love for the game and work ethic but I think this is not fair to the players who already spend extra time during, before and after practice and have the results to show for it. Showing players that playing time is earned will motivate them to put in the effort outside of games.
That being said, I also do not believe in burying kids on the bench. I think that playing a kid a minute or two each half can destroy his confidence and lead him to play tentatively or recklessly when he does go into the game. There’s also the importance of flow and letting players settle in during games. I do not believe that this can be achieved in a mere 1-2 minutes of playing time. While later in the HS Varsity and College years players are more fully formed, at the youth level kids are blank slates much of the time, still awaiting or going through puberty and still with tremendous levels of room for improvement. I feel very strongly that not giving a kid at least a few minutes of time each half is doing him a disservice and wasting crucial time in his basketball development. As such, my goal is to give each player at least 1 quarter of playing time in each game.
Putting the Bench In
I generally make my first substitutions halfway through the first quarter. I’ve found through trial and error and observing other coaches over the years that this is the perfect amount of time to make substitutions. You don’t want to make subs so early that the starters are never able to get into a flow, but you also don’t want to sub too late where your bench guys are wasting away waiting to go in. In a 20 minute half, I’m making my first substitutions 5 minutes into the game. In a 16 minute half, I’m making my first substitutions 4 minutes into the game.
Once it’s time to make substitutions, the next question becomes how many to sub in at once. I do not prefer to sub 5 for 5. Earlier I talked about the natural break-in period that occurs when a player begins to play. This has nothing to do with “being ready”. A player can be warmed up, mentally attuned, give complete effort, and his skillset may be on point right away but I still believe that there are adjustments that are made whenever a player enters the game. If you sub in all 5 players at once, they’re all adjusting at the same time. If you sub in a couple of players at a time, they’re surrounded by other players who are already in the flow which in my opinion makes for an easier transition.
I prefer to make two substitutions, usually a guard and a big. I’ll have in my mind before the game who the first two players to come out of the game will be, but I also leave myself flexible so that if a player is playing particularly well, I’ll leave him in longer and bring someone else out instead. Now, however long is a half of a quarter, I’ll cut this time in half again and this is when I’m putting my 2nd group of subs in. So if it’s a 10-minute qaurter and my first subs go in at 5 minutes, I’m putting my next group of subs in 2-and-a-half minutes later. If it’s an 8 minute quarter and my first subs go in at 4 minutes, I’m putting my next group of subs in 2 minutes later. These times are not exact, this is just a rough guideline. I have a general structure in mind but I’m not a slave to it.
Now when the quarter ends, whoever hasn’t gotten in the game yet is going in. This way players are never sitting on the bench for more than a quarter. These guidelines have a crucial purpose to me in that they ensure that I get players in and that there’s a flow. By the start of the 2nd quarter, everyone has gotten into the game.
Putting the Starters Back In
A common mistake that I’ve seen at the end of each half is coaches not putting their starters back in until it is too late. You want to have them in for a long enough amount of time so that when “crunch time” hits, they already have a feel for what’s going on and are mentally and physically locked in. A side note to this is that if you put your bench in too late, unless you want to pull them right back out then the starters are going to be going back in too late as well. This is why getting the bench in earlier is crucial.
Two or three minutes after the 2nd quarter begins, I’m putting a couple starters back in—the first bench players are coming out. By the time we reach halfway through the 2nd quarter, all the starters are back in. This is “crunch time”, with my top players in at the end of the half to end on a strong note.
Overall a 12 player rotation for the first half will look something like this (click to enlarge):
The 2nd half is pretty much the same, although I might put key starters back in a bit earlier if I feel they’re needed to make a push. You have more flexibility to do things like this when you have 10 players or less instead of 11 or 12.
Rotating 11 or 12 players can be very difficult. Having 8-10 players is ideal as you have more flexibility with your bench. Once again this rotation isn’t exact. I might put someone in a minute earlier, a minute later. I might have an idea of who’s going to go in and then that changes. You have to adjust for personnel, foul trouble, the flow of the game. That being said, having this basic structure in place allows me to think more clearly and make better informed decisions during the heat of the game.
My rotations as laid out of above accomplishes the following goal for me:
-All players get at least ¼ of playing time
-All players are in the game for at least half a quarter before being subbed out. This gives them to time settle in. Exceptions to this is selfishness or a lack of effort.
-All players have gotten into the game by the start of the 2nd quarter
-The top players are back in the game halfway through the 2nd quarter.
These are my goals and they strike my ideal balance between competitiveness and participation. There are coaches out there that might have different philosophies and thus different goals. That’s OK. The main thing I’m trying to get across is that putting thought into your rotations and having a basic structure and plan in place can be very helpful at the youth level, especially with a deeper bench. No matter what you do, know why you do it and put some thought on how to best accomplish it.