Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Playing Time; What is it Good For?

Another in a theme of LTAD influenced articles, this time using that framework to outline different phases of "playing time".

This is an aspect of sport that many struggle with. Young coaches want success, often like to win, and want to reward or display the ones they view as the "best" players (Ok, let's be honest, coaches at all levels usually want this). Parents want their children to play and if paying for a club sport then they expect that as part of a package of services or opportunities. Unfortunately early in sport is when playing time is most abused and it can be explained looking at LTAD and the first stages.

Young athletes should begin an activity in the Fundamentals Stage or where the focus is on Technical Foundations. This often takes them to the cusp of the PHV (max growth spurt) and the teen years of change. If kids are developing Fundamentals then they have to be given a chance to play as that is what they are working toward in game structure and in skill acquisition. Likewise with Technical Foundations, a skill can only be applied in a game setting ie timing, stress, external pressures when given a playing chance. Coaches who put winning ahead of player development at this stage do not understand the process and have the priorities wrong.

Does this mean all players should play equally? No, that is up to the program, the sport, the team, the organizational objectives. If a water polo player is learning to swim then asking them to do the same physical work as a player with aquatic physical literacy is misguided.
The next level of sport is where the big mistakes are made that turn off players with great future potential. In the Competitive Foundation stage an athlete is being asked to learn to apply skill under pressure as taught with a specific tactical objective. Players who do this can expect to get more reps in a game than those that fail, and fail again. The big mistake comes from parents who want their child to get lots of chances to play even when the failure of objectives has been demonstrated repeatedly in a game. Coaches have to find ways to let players try and succeed but the expectation is to do this with progress. Keeping a player in a game when they struggle can create problems of team rejection ie no passes or inclusion of that player in the team play by others. Coaches can manage this if they know the players and what they can do, where they can find success and how the team can have a focus that is not just "score" or "win" so any perceived error is not influencing the outcome as long as there is a progress made with that error/correction.

Usually in this stage the coach and the player have a very good idea of who plays and why, or why some don't. It's the parent, fan or outsider that might not know all of what is going on. Don't expect that a coach can talk to every parent, every game, every event to talk about every player. That is a huge burden when so much coaching or player management is already happening. However, coaches MUST be clear about how they approach playing time with teh team and make it clear to families as well if the sport is a club (or to school officials if it's an institution).

The last point to consider at this stage is that not all players have to have equal play time to be fair. A goalie might play a whole game if they are the only one, a centre forward might play less than others on the team due to the workload and constant corrections from coaches for what the 2M Guard is doing. Some will be better at coming off the bench when they have sen some play and relaxed a bit. Many things are being developed here and "fair" and "equal" are NOT the same thing.

There is one place that playing time does not have as much passion from outsiders and that is at the pro level or with the International game. Players can't play a whole match and be effective with water polo, coaches know that so player rotation is an art and if someone is in the water all game then it is a problem of team depth. The substitutions are for tactics, power, speed, recovery, defense, scoring - it's endless, so don't make the mistake of thinking that a coach is doing something right or wrong based on the subs if you don't know the team, the prep and the dynamic.

One thing to remember and that is "who is the most important person in this equation"? The athlete, they must know the playing time thought process - who plays and why, who doesn't and why. If they know their role and the team objective at each level then the dialogue with players and coach should be smooth and look to that to see if there is a misuse of this aspect of the game.