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Equal Playing Time: Should It Be the Rule, Not the Exeption?

The Fifty Percent "Solution"?

Nick* coached my son's travel soccer team one fall season. The season consisted of eight games, one every Saturday afternoon. The policy of the Massachusetts Youth Soccer Association was for every child to play a minimum of fifty percent of each game.

Seems fair enough, right? Think again. The way it worked on Nick's team was for six of the players (one of them his son) to play between seventy-five and one hundred percent of the game while the remaining twelve boys (including two of my sons) shared the remaining time. Sure, they all played fifty percent of each game, but thirty-five minutes, instead of the upwards of seventy the "favored six" played each week.

The Coach’s Favorite

One of the players seemed to get special consideration. Ricky was a strong, natural athlete: big, fast and tall. Yet, despite the fact that he had never played travel soccer, missed all but two of the team's sixteen weekday practices!! due to other sport team commitments, he never came out of the game! Ever!

The favoritism that Nick showed Ricky wasn't lost on the parents, many of who grumbled on the sidelines about how unfair it was that he was always playing.

Building Resentment

It wasn't lost on the players either. Most players were essentially sharing a position with another boy and by the end of the season, each had played the equivalent of four full games, while the "lucky" six had played almost eight full games. Yet, each family paid the full price for their sons to be on the team.

Since it is generally agreed that the more one plays, the better one tends to get, not only did playing the less developed players less than the more skilled and experienced players make it harder for them to catch up to the other boys, but, worse, it made being on the team less fun and tended to build resentment among the "half nots" towards the full time players which was clearly destructive of team chemistry and cohesion.

Playing, Not Winning, Should Come First

Dr. Milton Fujita, a California-based child-adolescent psychiatrist, has seen plenty of children harmed by participation in sports. "Organizing games for children is fine as long as it's organized so all the kids who want to play actually get to play," he says. When the whole issue of winning becomes primary, then participation suffers. "Winning is kind of inherent. You can't really de-emphasize it. But winning at costs is something that needs to be looked at very seriously," says Fujita.

Why The "Best" Players Don't "Deserve" More Playing Time

Giving the "best" players more playing time than the so-called "weaker" players may help a team win more games, but at what cost? Some boys never missed practice, yet only played the minimum. Others hardly ever, or never, came to practice, yet were "rewarded" for their lack of commitment with extra playing time because the coach wanted to win. A major league superstar earning $10 million a year and leading the league in batting and home runs deserves more playing time than a kid fresh up from the minors with a batting average less than his weight. Saying that a player deserves more playing time because he is leading the Little League™ "Majors" in hitting simply doesn't wash. Every child deserves an equal chance to play and learn new skills.

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