The perceptions and reality of playing time

I track wins and losses in every practice. On the day of a game, the first five on the cumulative leader board start the game, and number one on the list is our captain. From a continuity and competitive standpoint, it may not be the best way to decide on starters and captains, but I’ve rarely had a complaint in three seasons of using this method. 

This week, however, I realized that the players that I tend to play more minutes during games – essentially those players who I trust the most or who I feel are the best players – are not necessarily the ones at the top of the practice leader board.

Whereas there are many  variables that affect the winners of a drill or practice scrimmage, for the method to be valid, the better players should be near the top and the lesser players near the bottom? If not, there is a problem; if the best players are near the bottom of practice performance, then I may not be evaluating my own players very well or there may be a great disparity in terms of practice effort, which would need to be addressed, or the practice activities may have very little transfer to games.

Assuming that players practice relatively hard and the activities should transfer to games, shouldn’t I pay more attention to those who thrive in practice? If nothing else, shouldn’t I figure out why the players do not play as well in games (if that’s the issue)? Are they nervous? Do they play a different position in games than in practice? Do they cheat the drills in practice?

The system is not without flaws. Last week, I noticed that the player who I subjectively felt had the best practice on consecutive days did not earn a point on either day. Therefore, practicing well does not ensure wins; sometimes, a player ends up on the wrong team or a bounce goes the wrong way. Over the course of the season, the bounces tend to even out.

Flaws aside, what does the discrepancy between practice wins and playing time mean? I have spent the past two practices trying to see what I miss. Why do their teams win? They’re not the best shooter, best rebounder, best ball handler, best passer, best post player or best scorer. They just win. Isn’t that the point?

After watching more closely, one is probably the best defensive player and the other plays the hardest. These are things that are hard to quantify and oftentimes hard to see, whereas the best shooter, leading scorer, etc. are easier to identify.

From a playing time perspective, who should play: the player who wins or the player who I believe is the better shooter or rebounder based on my subjective opinion?

Every year, players and coaches see their performances differently. A player feels that he deserves more playing time, and the coach sees a player who does not. The families and friends of the players tend to take the players’ sides, whereas other coaches support the coach. Typical responses by coaches are that they are there every day at practice, so they know who is playing well and who isn’t. Do they? Or, do they see what they want to see?

Playing time tends to be affected by the self-fulfiling prophecy. Coaches think that a certain player is good, so they give him playing time. Since he is good, he gets a chance to play through mistakes. Other players who are deemed not as good by the coach receive less playing time and fewer opportunities to play through mistakes. Since the good player is good, the mistake is an aberration; since the bad player is bad, the mistake is evidence of his lesser skill level. This happens all the time, even with great coaches. We tend to see things in a way that supports or original perceptions.

Tracking wins has made me take a step back and make sure that I am not missing something. The two players who likely lead us in minutes (I don’t have anyone to track minutes) are the point guard who plays with the most composure and defends the ball the best and our post who rebounds, defends and finishes the best. Those tend to be the two ways to get playing time on my teams: Rebound and protect the paint for the bigs and stop penetration and maintain composure with the ball (These two also are generally between #2-6 in wins, and only that low because the post started very slowly after football; if I had a subconscious bias, it would be against one of the three who gets the most minutes, as I very nearly cut him). I also tend to keep at least one shooter in the game at all times. Therefore, in terms of the way that I manage playing time, there are three positions right there: ball handler, shooter, post protector.

The top two players in practice wins do not fit any of the three categories, which is why I think they do not get as many minutes. They are fighting each other and the others to fill the other two spots on the court. Despite their practice wins, they don’t necessarily fit my prejudices when I dole out playing time.

In other systems, despite their effort, they could get lost. However, because I track wins, I am making a greater effort to play them more extended minutes and to reward them for winning with more playing time, not just the start. After all, if they outplay their peers in practice, they should get more opportunities in the game, right? If not, what does that say about the importance of practice?

By Brian McCormick, M.S.S., PES
Coach/Clinician, Brian McCormick Basketball
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

2 thoughts on “The perceptions and reality of playing time

  • What exactly are you tracking in practice (games and drills both?), and how do you make the teams? I also tracked for awhile and soon realized that the only way to truly reward the best players over time is if the teams are created randomly. If you create “fair” teams then a weaker player is carried along by the strong player she is inevitably paired with. I imagine you’ve considered this already but curious about the details.

  • Todd:
    I change how I make the teams from day to day and drill to drill. No set method. I do not take the time to create true randomly selected teams.

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