Incentives matter: Equal play time in youth sports

Do young rec players play chaotically because they are inexperienced and immature or because of equal play time rules?

Like many youth sports coaches, I’ve discovered that there is no better reward than game time to promote the application of fundamentals and sportsmanship.

I “herded cats” while coaching in a rec league with equal play time rules. It was tough to teach the kids what seems like the simplest parts of the game and they repeated basic errors for far too long.

But, I hadn’t considered that it was the equal play time that caused it. I chalked it up the kids’ immaturity and inability to see the bigger picture consequences of their actions. For example, some players just didn’t seem to think they needed to mark-up, even though they had been repeatedly burned by leaving their man open.

Once we grew out of the equal play rules, I did what came natural and made lineup choices to reinforce the fundamentals.

If a player stopped doing the basics, like marking up, I would sub them out and let them know why. If someone applied the fundamentals — whether or not they were good at it — they stayed in longer. My philosophy was, win or lose, game time was meant for players to practice what we taught them.

I didn’t realize how effective this was until a recent kerfuffle on my team caused me to second guess those lineup choices and go back to equal play time rules.

A parent mistook my subbing order as ‘unfair punishment’ for his son missing practices. He left the game with his son and quit the team. I wasn’t punishing his son. I was giving the people who had attended the lesson the past few weeks a chance to practice it.

I’ve learned in the past that to teach team-play concepts, you need everyone on the field to have gone through the lesson or it’s harder for everyone to learn it. I’m sure that parent wouldn’t want his son taking a math test over a lesson he missed at school without first covering that lesson.

I found over the next couple of games, though, that I was a second guessing a lot of my lineup choices because I wanted to avoid another incident like that. I kept questioning, “how will his parent interpret this?” I found that second guessing distracting and stressful, so to avoid it I went back to equal play rules so no parents could complain that their kids weren’t getting play time.

Over the next few games I watched the team devolve from playing the best I’d ever seen them play, to playing the undisciplined, individual, sloppy playground ball that was characteristic in their rec years.

A parent made the comment — They looked like 6 year olds in rec. She was right.

That got me to thinking.

Not only had the kids quickly devolved from applying fundamentals that they had progressed on over the two previous seasons, but most became unresponsive to our coaching, as well.

That parent’s comment made me realize that they had lost the most effective incentive that encouraged them to apply fundamentals and listen to coaches — play time. They got to play whether they played like we were teaching or not, and over the course of a couple of games they (sub consciously) figured this out.

Game time became “theirs”. Rather than doing what was best for the team, they wanted to make something happen for their own glory during their time. And, of course, when half the team are being glory hounds, they don’t do the basic, boring stuff like marking-up and the team implodes.

This experience made me wonder if equal play rules are the main reason kids play sloppy in rec ball. Perhaps they’d learn the fundamentals faster by having the direct consequence of staying in the game or not based on their application of fundamentals.

So, the next time you see a sports team implode, consider that it may not be that the team is just performing poorly. Perhaps what you are seeing is a result of distorted incentives.

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One thought on “Incentives matter: Equal play time in youth sports

  1. Great observation. Have you tried to see if the experiment was repeatable for other teams, other coaches? Maybe I’ve been in grad school too long but I’m thinking there could be a research paper or two in there.

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