Right now all across the country an army of youth lacrosse coaches are gearing up for the regular season. They are putting their practice plans together, memorizing their players names and deciding if their kids are old enough to understand a zone defense. Many are head coaches for the very first time, and many still are looking forward to assisting their team’s head coach. I think I can safely say that all of these coaches are excited for the upcoming season. Which is why this post is necessary.
Many coaches are preparing to tell their payers and their parents this line: “Everyone will get to play as much as everybody else.” Don’t say that because you will fall short. In the heat of your last regular season game which determines whether or not your team gets the higher seed or the lower seed, you will leave your best players in at the expense of your less talented players game time. Am I judging you in saying this? No, because I have done exactly the same thing. I have told my players and parents that I will play everyone equally regardless of circumstances. Then, during a close game, I favor some kids over others. This is the Coaches Lie, and I believe it has to stop.
It needs to stop because equal playing time is a myth at the youth level. While we say we will play everyone equally it is usually the last thing on our mind when the whistle blows to start the game. We become more concerned with our team’s win/loss record than with what is best for all of the players on our team. Consider the following statistics from Sports Illustrated for Kids:
95% – said that the number-one quality in a coach is the ability to help the payers improve their athletic skills.
64% – said that they would rather play on a losing team for a coach whom they liked than to play for a winning team with a coach whom they didn’t like.
62% – said that they wanted equal playing time for all the kids on the team.
61% – said that it was okay for the coach to yell during the game – but only if the yelling was of a positive nature.
93% – said that they wanted and needed the coach’s full support, regardless of the kid’s athletic ability.
Ninety-five percent of young athletes surveyed said that the best quality in a coach is that coach’s ability to help the player improve athletically. Winning a lot of games wasn’t even in the ballpark for the players surveyed. One statistic that I find telling is that kids would rather play for a coach they liked and lose, than play for a coach they didn’t like and win. This data tells us that kids do not rank winning as high as adults do. So why do we as coaches feel the need to win at the expense of all of our players? It could be simple human nature. Perhaps it is our win first ask questions later culture. I think it is our mistaken notion that kids want to be on a winning team, despite the data showing us that the kids truly do not care about winning. They care about getting better.
How then do kids get better? Getting onto the field is a good start. Regardless of their athletic ability or sport-specific skill set, every player deserves to play as much as their buddy next to them. I will go so far as to say that every kid has a right to see the field. Who are we to say that Johnny doesn’t get to play as much at Michael because he is less skilled or can’t run as fast as Michael? As one astute young player quoted in Sports Illustrated for Kids said,”Everybody should play the same amount so that everyone has the same amount of fun.” Is that not the most perfect statement on the necessity of equal playing time in youth sports? Our job as youth coaches is not to win games. It is about improving our players as athletes and as people.
I’m not going write about the importance of equal playing time without leaving you any guidance on how to successfully play all players in a lacrosse game. So here it goes:
- U9 – The best trick I’ve learned on getting little U9 players as much playing time as possible is called “The Bump,” which is a simple substitution process that occurs every three to four minutes. When it is time to substitute the players from the box go onto attack, the attack players bump to midfield, the midfielders bump to defense, and the defense bumps off the field. “The Bump” continues every three to four minutes and guarantees that the little players will get maximum playing time.
- U11 – Now we are playing full-field with a substitution box, and most kids are gravitating to the position they like the most. “The Bump” may still work well if your players have not found their favorite position yet. However, if your players are set on their positions and are happy with them it is important to have a stopwatch. Every time you substitute you start your stopwatch again. Every three to four minutes do a wholesale substitution. Switch out your midfielders with the middies on your bench. Tell your defense to switch up with whatever poles are on the sideline. Finally, get your attack group to sub out for any short sticks who are still on the bench. Whenever possible, do a wholesale substitution. It is a great idea to talk to your opposing coach about your substitution plan and see if he is on board with doing the same with his team every three to four minutes.
- U13 – Now most of your players are probably set in the positions that they most enjoy so the bump will not work for your team unless it is a brand new team with players who have no idea what position they like. Now it is time to start subbing your players piecemeal instead of wholesale. Sub your midfielders every four minutes or whenever they are slowing down. Every six minutes sub your defense and attack through the box while they stay onside. This will teach your players how to properly substitute through the box, and get them ready for their middle school teams when they will be doing that kind of substitution often.
To recap: Kids want to play, they would rather get better than win every game, and they would rather play for a coach they like and who is confident in them. Do kids want to win? Certainly, but there isn’t a kid in the world playing pickup soccer or basketball that is keeping track of their group’s win/loss record throughout the spring. They just go out there and play and then do the same thing tomorrow. It is about playing not winning.
So if you are going to say anything to your players and parents do not tell them the coaches lie. Instead say the following, “I promise that I will do my best to play you all equally, but if I mess up one game and don’t get everyone in I want you to let me know so I can fix it for the next game.” That is a promise any coach can live up to.