Should a coach sacrifice a team's ability to win for the sake of one or two players?
Is there a way of guaranteeing playing time for certain age groups? If so, who enforces it? The umpires/referees? Parents? Other coaches?
For the first time since becoming a coach, I had the opportunity to watch from the sidelines as just a parent. I will reserve my comments about parental behavior for another day, although it has gotten a lot better in the last five years. I learned two very important lessons this weekend: kids want to play and coaches have a harder job than I realized.
The first thing I learned is that kids no longer want to be part of a winning team, they want to play. The trophy is meaningless without participation, it would seem. Is this an unintended consequence of the dreaded "participation award?" Perhaps. The kids are now so accustomed to getting a trophy just for showing up that they are now looking for something more — a bigger trophy, an MVP of the league/tournament, etc. Or could this possibly be part of the "I got mine" generation of ESPN highlights and "there's no I in T-E-A-M but you can spell the words AT ME."
I think parents and players need to make a distinction between intramural leagues in which everyone should get equal playing time, and travel/tournament teams where the coach decides who gets the bulk of the playing time, usually the better player or in some cases the players that made the effort to show to practices over the drop in players. Either way, neither the coach nor the parent wants a kid in tears because he didn't get to play.
The other thing that I learned is whether or not you are a volunteer parent or a paid coach under contract in the highest professional level, no one wants to lose. However, you have to balance that out by keeping the team as a whole happy, not just your star player(s). Winning is great, but it's no longer the be all, end all. Every coach would love a blowout win to rest their better players and also get playing time for the second and third string players. This is not always the case. There are time constraints, game situations and compatibility issues that the coach has to weigh before making changes.
My son came to me almost in tears in between games because he only got on the field once in three games. I told him there were still two games left and I'm sure the coach would try to get him some playing time and to do his best when he did get on the field. As a parent, I wanted to march over to the coach and demand that he play my son but as a fellow coach, I knew it wasn't as simple as forcing my son into the game. In fact, I saw that he was trying to get him in the game a couple of times, but there was no stoppage in play before time expired. No 8 year old wants to hear this, of course. All they know is they sat on the bench the whole game. His team got third place trophies, which I thought would help ease the pain, but instead he could only talk about the two minutes of playing time in five games.
Although it is usually up to the individual club or league, some intramural and even travel leagues do recommend that a player gets on the field at least half of the time in soccer and plays a minimum of four out of six innings in little league. For them, it's a way of growing the sport as well as their business. Even a not for profit needs enrollment to stay in business.
I know my philosophy as a coach has always been less about winning and more about teaching and having fun, but I have gotten kids come up to me and ask, "Why do we always lose?" or "Please don't pick me next year. I want to be on a winning team."