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how to talk to coach about playing time

How to Talk to Your Child’s Coach about Playing Time Issues

If your child is under 14 years old, is attending all practices with a positive mentality and they are playing less than half the game in MOST games – chances are they are starting to underperform because they are lacking in confidence.  And, just as important, they are not developing to their potential because playing in games is important to development.

Obviously, this is a stressful situation for a parent.  There is fine line when it comes to our children developing resiliency and losing confidence or inspiration.  As a parent, your job is to make sure your child is in the most appropriate playing environment so therefore, this is a time when you likely need to get involved.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t start this conversation with a note about resiliency.

Obviously, you want your child to play sports so they learn important life lessons in resiliency, being a warrior and teamwork. When your child is faced with stressful situations – such as playing time – you don’t necessarily want to jump right in immediately. Your child working through uncomfortable situations and growing from them is essential to their personal development.

I mention this because the last thing you want to be is the “Lawnmower Parent” and mow down all the obstacles in your child’s way. Lack of playing time is an obstacle. An appropriate initial response to your child not getting adequate playing time in a few games may be “Well, what can you do about it?” (check out Sport Psychologist Stuart Singer's article on this topic)

However, when your child is under 14, at some point you arrive to the place where it becomes a developmentally INappropriate environment based on your children’s mentality and athletic potential.

As a parent, you need to identify the tipping point – the point where it goes from them building resiliency and learning to fight through stress and take care of the situation (by working harder, being more prepared, developing technique) to the point where they lose confidence, inspiration, and lose their love for the game.

Sidenote:   I use the under 14 age throughout this article, but in reality this is important for all ages. It can certainly be argued that the age could be through high school club soccer.

With that in mind, if you feel like the lack of playing time is starting to affect your child’s level of inspiration – you need to have an honest and open conversation with the coach.

This may be a conversation your child can be a part of, but I don’t think it’s a conversation your child, under the age of 14, should have without you present. As was discussed in previous articles about Communication – there are often gaps between what a coach says to a player, and what a player hears, and what a player relays to a parent. While a player talking to a coach about many things is completely fine, I think the parent should be present for this important playing time conversation.

Additionally, if you are really stressed about the situation – then it’s probably best if you don’t have your child with you. Get as much information as possible from the coach, and then ask the coach to meet with you and your child at a later time.

Sidenote:  As much as we would hope the coach would call us and have a conversation if our child isn’t getting a lot of playing time, we need to remember that our coaches receive very little training and education when it comes to player (and parent) management. They may not have the emotional intelligence necessary to think about going out of their way to call you about this playing time situation (which may seem unimaginable because it’s been occupying so much of your thoughts). Parents are often the more experienced communicators in the parent – coach relationship and often parents must initiate the call.

3 Suggestions for the Playing Time Conversation:

1. Frame it appropriately

Let the coach know, in a non-confrontational manner, you have some concerns about the amount of time your child is receiving in games and that you would like to meet to talk about what is going on.

I’d like to talk with you about the amount of time my child has been playing in the games. While I certainly understand playing time won’t necessarily be even amongst all of the players, I do want to understand why you are choosing to put my child in the game for so few minutes. I would like to discuss what the best environment is for my child to develop.”

When you do meet, make sure the coach understands that your number one priority is that your child is having fun and developing as a player and person through sports.

I want to make sure you understand that my number one priority is that my child has fun and continues to develop. I think playing in games is essential to their development. I am afraid that if this lack of playing time continues, he will continue to lose confidence and underperform, and will ultimately stop having fun and therefore will not develop to their potential, or worst case scenario – quit.”

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Everything you need to help your child be inspired by the game!

2. Ask for some honest feedback

Open the door for the coach to talk openly to you and LET THEM TALK.

Please be very honest with me, why is my child playing less than half of a game?”

The coach should have a handful of reasons for you. You need to be ready to hear some things you may not want to hear. The coach may discuss behavior or attitude issues or they may discuss your child’s size (this is often an unfortunate reason coaches site check out this article about size) -or playing abilities and potential. Keep an open mind and ask some follow up questions so you are confident you understand what the reasoning is.

3. Ask about the best developmental environment

One of the hardest things for a parent to understand is what is the best developmental environment for their aspiring player. I talk a lot at Soccer Parenting about finding a Coach You Trust. This is a situation where a Coach You Trust is essential. If your child isn’t playing for a Coach You Trust – then this is going to be a conversation you always second guess.

Do you think my child is playing in a developmentally appropriate environment? Should they be on a lower team?”

There are two ways this question is going to land:

  1. The coach will say they are in the right environment
  2. The coach will say they are not in the right environment.

If the coach thinks they ARE in the right environment, then you should have some follow up questions.

Are there any behavioral issues I need to address with my child?

Can you please talk to my child about anything specific they need to work on to get more playing time and follow up with me so I hear the specifics as well?

If the coach says they don’t think playing in games is extremely important to their development – then you have a decision to make yourself about what you think is best for your child.  There are some possible solutions to the playing time issue that you could bring up. For instance, if you are in a club that has teams at multiple levels in the same age group:

Do you think it would be possible for them to guest play now and then for the lower team at the club to help them build back their confidence and play in a less stressed environment?”

They are getting upset and frustrated, is there anything you can do to help them with this mental side of the game and to make sure they love the game?”

If the coach thinks they are in the WRONG environment, and need to move down to a lower team, then you need to come up with a plan. Is it best to do that mid-season so your child starts playing a lot more while on the lower team and has a chance to build up their confidence a bit before the end of the season? I would rather them be disappointed during the season instead of when the new teams are posted after tryouts… and possibly decide to stop playing.

Of course, there is a lot of emotion involved with thinking it may be best for your child to move to the lower team. However, it’s essential to remember two things:

  1. Your child is limited by their mentality and athletic potential. To put any pressure on them to try and compete at a level that is not developmentally appropriate gives them unnecessary stress and runs the risk of negatively affecting their love for the game and desire to be active and healthy.
  1. Just because your child moves down to a lower team when they are 11 has no relevance to what team they will be on when they are 15.

Our children grow and develop at so many different paces and ultimately, they are held back by their mentality and athletic potential.

If the solution is to move to a lower team, how you respond to this news and handle it with your child will have a long-term impact on your child and their self-esteem. It can’t be looked at as a failure for them to move to a lower team. It needs to be viewed as an opportunity. It’s an opportunity for them to play more in the game, to be a leader and to be in an environment where they are not constantly stressed so they are able to develop more freely.

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Skye Eddy

Founder, SoccerParenting.com
Skye is a former All-American goalkeeper, professional player and collegiate coach. She holds her USSF "B" License and USSF National Goalkeeper License and is an active youth coach, soccer parent and coach educator.

  • I find this story a definite way to worsen the gap between the parent/player/coach. Although that may be true in some cases where coaches do not have training or education in coaching, that’s certainly not the case in every situation.

    There are so many factors when it comes to playing time. Of course in the perfect world where every child is exactly the same, playing equal amounts would be extremely reasonable. But in competitive leagues (where who are we kidding), winning and losing does matter, strategy comes into play.

    Sure, every child on a team deserves to play, but what about the player who misses practices because they’re rostered on other teams and makes the “said” team a lower priority? What message does it send out to the other players (and parents) who work extremely hard with their own schedules getting them to practice?

    What about the apathetic player? The player who fools around during practice? Do those players deserve equal playing time?

    I have two sons 15 months apart. Often they are on the same soccer teams. The older one fools around and can be apathetic. The younger one takes practice serious and works hard. Is the younger one the best player on the team? Not exactly, but the younger one gets a sufficient amount of playing time, usually more than the older one based on the attitude, drive, and positive energy he brings to the team.

    There are many younger players who still do not understand that practicing any sport doesn’t only happen at the “team practice” times. At the tween ages, certain players are beginning to stand out who put the extra time in off the practice field.

    Wanting to communicate in a positive way with a coach is fine, however questioning a coach on their decisions is not.

  • Really Good points there Karen, as a coach myself I agree with what you are saying. I think we all know of players who are blessed with natural skills but whose attitude is not at the same level and players who aren’t the most skilful but who love the game and who really ‘put in’ at training. I think that is what Skye is talking about recognising and asking the question about “Are there any behavioural issues I need to address with my child?”. Most coaches I know would not mind a parent asking questions in the way Skye has proposed. If asked in that way I wouldn’t see my role being questioned or undermined. Some young players just want to play socially and for fun, others want to play to win and to achieve something out of their sport. Not everyone plays the game to become a National Team member but I think they do want to have fun and feel like they are part of the team and that means that some games they don’t get as much time as others but that doesn’t mean every game. Good coaches should be able to communicate that and the reasons for it to their players and their parents.

  • I agree with Karen and Dave. I believe the approach as outlined in the article will be more divisive than helpful. I would take a two-part approach to such a conversation.

    The first part is asking WHY? From a parent/player perspective, why is playing time important to you? For development in the game? To be seen by college coaches? For bragging rights and status among your school chums? Other reasons? What assumptions are you making about why playing time is important? (This isn’t a judgment thing, it is simply being clear about what is motivating or worrying you.) From a coach’s perspective, how does playing time and game competition support your goals for the team, including playing development? The first part of a player/coach/parent conversation about playing time should be focused on seeing how your expectations – your WHYs – match up. For example, there may be multiple ways to meet the needs of players and their development in addition to playing time, and your coach can help you identify them.

    The second part is asking what the player can do to earn more playing time. This is based on the assumption that players have a responsibility to do certain things and that playing time is not an entitlement. This assumption probably changes a bit in character as players grow in age and skill. The point is to avoid putting coaches and parents on the defensive and leading with statements that are based in unspoken assumptions or blaming behaviors. Go to the positive of what needs to happen to improve the situation in light of the goals for the team and its players (the coach’s WHY) and the player’s needs and desires (the player’s WHY).

  • I appreciate your thoughts on this subject. My 14 yer old son is just returning from a 6 game tournament. He Joined the team 8 months ago and has been a keen participant in the practices. He worked hard to raise money to attend the week-long tournament. He is not as skilled as the other kids but can certainly hold his own and is blessed with speed. We just found out that he only played a total of 5 min during the entire tournament. When I heard this I was quite frankly, shocked. We have not heard anything about behavioural issues (and the team has a low tolerance for this). I want to have a conversation with the coach and your comments are helpful. Am I missing something here or am I justified to feel upset about his missed opportunity?

  • This is an incredibly helpful article. I appreciate that it is framed to help parents have a conversation with their children’s coach about playing time, specifically for young players. A player accepted to a team with no behavioral problem and making practices has a reasonable expectation to play for more than a few minutes. The expectation isn’t that it is even play. I think non-confrontational conversations with coaches are healthy. Thanks for the tips.

  • …And all of this assumes a lot. A free enterprise system that takes its definition of “non-profit” status strictly from tax code, still requires (and encourages) enterprise. Enterprise requires results. Results are indelibly oriented toward coaching preferences, especially those with more experience. Experience comes with its own set of problems, set ways and club retention ability.

    US Club Soccer can urge, push, suggest all it wants; formations, interpretation of positions, etc. are hardly going to be universal. (I fail to see where mandate will help, either.) As it is regulations from clubs, up to their national affiliation are loose enough to ensure development AND for less honest clubs to hide behind. It is why playing time will be talked about freely, unless there is some present format for record. Then, words will be religiously development-oriented. How well do we adhere to the honor system?

    Bottom line, playing time is discretionary, based on what said coach believes will get the results, set by a board who seeks to make their club successful. The sad part is a given coach’s “starting squad,” the players that get the most time on-pitch, even the most gifted are squandered on position limitation, because it works.

    Not a perfect solution by any means, due to the country’s area and pockets of population, but clubs should largely be unable to carry a player in consecutive seasons. Now it’s on the parents and players to acclimate. Certainty of player compatibility is staggered, along with coaching philosophies; that is, until clubs begin to unionize or completely violate an already loose head-hunting regulation.

    Whatever the means, US soccer integrity demands enterprise be out of the picture, before the desired ends to any of this thread.

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