Equal play time in youth sports?

Do young rec players play chaotically because they are kids or because of equal play time rules?

I “herded cats” while coaching in a rec league with equal play time rules. Rec ball is known for sloppy play. Like most, I chalked it up to the kids being young and beginners.

But, I hadn’t considered that equal play time may be a bigger part of it.

When we moved to competitive soccer, I began subbing players out who weren’t working on the fundamentals and team tactics we were teaching them in practice. I’d let them know what I saw, remind them what they should be doing instead and then put them back in at the next chance. That seemed like a competitive coachy thing to do.

I didn’t intend it as reward and punishment. I just thought it would be better than yelingl across the field, which rarely seemed to work. I figured they couldn’t hear me.

It didn’t take long and the players were telling me why I subbed them before I could say anything. “I was just kicking the ball, wasn’t I?” I thought that was awesome. I have never seen anything else get young kids to become aware of how they were playing like that.

But, I truly didn’t realize how effective this was until after a parent’s misunderstanding about how I subbed caused me to go back to equal play time to keep the peace. He thought I was punishing his child and thought they were too young to be punished.

Over the next few games the team devolved from playing their best. A parent asked, What’s happening they looked like 6 year olds in rec again?

Indeed.

That got me to thinking. What had changed? Equal play time.

What incentive do they have to work on what we taught if they got all the play time they wanted?

I went back to my subbing routine and they were playing well again within a couple games.

When game time became an entitlement, rather than doing what was best for the team, they became glory hounds or reverted back to their impulse just to kick the ball randomly.

I’ll add that over the years I coached I tried dozens of things to motivate the kids and that’s the only thing that did. 

This experience made me wonder if equal play time is a bigger cause for why rec ball is so sloppy.

Now, I’m not saying this is THE answer. This is a sample size of one, so it may not be repeatable. But, if you find yourself herding cats, give it a try and see if it works. But, also, make sure the parents buy off. I thought mine had, but when push came to shove a couple of them were bothered to see their kid being subbed out and didn’t bother to notice how quickly they were improving.

A few other things I’ll say about this…

I never sensed from the kids that it bothered them. The feedback I’d give them was low-key and calm. “Remember, I said I wanted you to try to control the ball and do something with it, like dribble to space or find a pass, right? What were you doing?” “I was just kicking it.” “Okay. Now get back in there and work on controlling the ball.”

When I think back on it, I could think of a few reasons why it worked well.

Kids love play time. Even the kids who aren’t that into soccer love to be in the game. So, it makes sense that was such a strong motivator.

The feedback was immediate. It didn’t wait until half-time, post game or the next practice when the message could get lost in translation. The players were receiving a consequence and feedback tied directly to their actions in real- time and they had full control of it. 

The kids who did what we were working on naturally got more play time because they didn’t need to be subbed off and they seemed to dig that.

This wasn’t about performance and winning. In fact, the strongest players were often the ones being subbed off more because they were the ones more likely to go off script.

I was always clear about what I was looking for in the game and when I would sub them, so it wouldn’t leave the kids guessing.

I was also clear that if they were working on these things, even if they weren’t doing them well, I wouldn’t sub them out. I’d rather lose by working on things that will make us a better than win by doing things that won’t.

The only downside was when they were all doing well, I still had to sub sometimes to get all the players in, so they did come off the field asking why they had been subbed. I was honest: “You were doing great! But, I do need to get everyone in the game.” Or, “Looks like you just need to catch your breath.”

Here’s about 90% of what I subbed players off for:

Just kicking the ball, rather than controlling it and trying to set up a good ball for the team with a purposeful dribble or pass. This one I thought was important to transition them from chasing and random kicking to feeling comfortable with the ball at their feet under pressure.

Diving in on the tackle, instead of slowing the attacker down first and then going for the ball with the full body.

Not marking the other team’s most dangerous scoring threat. This was responsible for another 20-30% of the goals against.