Notice: This article was written by Steve Jordan, Coach's Notebook. Email the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Basketball is a passionate game. It's fast-paced and exciting to watch or play. The passion inspires players to practice long hours and it keeps older players (that cannot play any more) in the game as a coach or a referee. For such reasons, many people love basketball, in one form or another. And, because they love the sport, they care deeply how the game is played, how basketball programs are run and how games are officiated.
There are passions more powerful than the love of basketball, of course, and one of the strongest is the love parents have for their children. When these two forces come together, the mixture can be explosive. Families can be significantly affected by what happens or doesn't happen on a basketball court. Coaches who don't recognize the volatile potential of playing time policies, for instance, may have a difficult time with players' parents.
The objective the game of basketball is to win. If you are not trying to win, you're missing the point. In real life, when a basketball game takes place, at whatever skill level, the players, coaches and fans all want their team to win. It doesn't matter if the score isn't shown or playing time minimums are enforced, when the buzzer announces the game is over, everyone will know the winner and the loser. And that is not a bad thing. Basketball is competitive by nature. Serious basketball players will lose interest if the focus of the program is not about winning and will find little incentive to undertake the level of physical effort and commitment necessary to excel at the game.
If the goal is to win, then it seems logical that the most talented players should be on the floor most of the game, and the less talented players inserted into the game only when the score differential is substantial. But, what happens when playing time allotment follows this strategy in high school or youth leagues? The result, by season end, is failure. Therein lies the irony. When all players on a team are not allowed a chance to contribute, you may be assured that four things will happen:
Let's look at the volatile issue of playing time from three unique perspectives:
Most coaches care about winning as long as there is a reasonable chance to prevail. The challenge for a coach, however, is to win through others. There is nothing you can physically do to influence the game but voice your opinions and provide direction. The game belongs to the players and its their actions that decide the outcome of the contest. Coaching can be very frustrating because there is so little that can be directly controlled from the bench.
The most direct power the coach has over the game's final score is deciding who plays and who sits. The justifications behind playing time decisions usually reside solely in the coach's mind. For instance, if certain players have the coach's confidence that they can perform and carry out the game plan, those are the players that will be on the floor. Conversely, if some players are prone to turnovers, do not play defense or fail to follow game plan, they will not play very much. Other factors may affect playing time, such as disciplinary action or inexperience (as in a new player to the team that doesn't know the plays yet). Notice that none of these criteria are visible to parent and may not be overtly known to the players.
Once the game begins, the coach becomes intently involved in the game. There are so many things to observe and many decisions to make. It is next to impossible to have an accurate, running headcount of who has been in a game and for how long. Players may be literally forgotten during the course of a tense game. The coach is thinking in terms of resources required to win the game. If thoughts about other peoples' opinions about playing time come to mind during the game, then the coach isn't concentrating on the primary objective. It makes a difference, however, when you look down the bench wondering which player is the solution to the problem at hand. The player who is intent, enthusiastic and eager will get the call. The player that is laid back, horsing around or carrying on an unrelated conversation will probably be one of the "forgotten".
Aside from referees, no one receives more criticism than the coach. Everyone watching the game is a self-declared expert and each has the advantage of second guessing every coaching decision. If the team is winning, faults are usually condoned, but if the team is losing, then everybody will believe they know the reasons why. Most of the time, folks should give the coach a break. Coach is the one putting the hours and making the decisions under pressure. Being human, coaches should be allowed to make a mistake once in a while. The only time the coach really gets out of line is when the coach feels the game belongs to him/her and not the kids. When coach boasts about his/her W/L% and is willing maintain it at any cost - even sacrificing players - its time to speak up. Basketball belongs to the players. Its their game to win or lose.
Thus far, this discussion seems to promote the concept that only the best players should be in the game and the players who are deeper in the lineup should only play when the score differential is wide enough to permit it. That practice, though seen in many programs, is self-defeating. Teams that do not nurture the full roster are weaker, ultimately, than those that do. The team with twelve confident, eager players has a big advantage against a team that has six talented players and six more who are insecure and disgruntled.
Players join team for the chance to participate and contribute. Denied that opportunity, they will lose interest. Kids understand this pretty well. Even star players that have a history of extended playing time accept fewer minutes if that is the team's style. In the most competitive of circumstances, some players learn to excel in some facet of the game and become specialty or role players. Sometimes the team needs a rebounder or a three point shooter and will call on their ace to help them out in particular situations. There is no point to establish roles for young players because they need to experience and learn the full spectrum of the game.
Young players that are designated as the team star have a huge burden to carry. If the team loses, they are likely to feel personally responsible. When there is no one else to share the load, the team will struggle whenever the star is out of the game or not able to perform at customary levels. Other players may be envious and begin to do things that will draw attention to them. The result is a dysfunctional team of individuals competing with each other rather than the opponent.
Sitting on the bench for an entire game is devastating to a player's confidence. The obvious conclusion drawn is that the coach feels the team will lose if he or she is put in the game. The player no longer feels like a contributor, but instead like dead weight. When put in the game, the player's strongest desire is to play well enough to earn more playing time. So, above the normal pressure of competition, there is the pressure of not making any mistakes, not taking healthy risks and not accepting responsibility for anything that goes wrong. A vicious cycle ensues that ensures the player cannot succeed.
If, however, every player feels needed, and that it is important to the team that they do their best, and coaches accept honest, well-intentioned mistakes, then there will be an atmosphere of enthusiasm and confidence. Players will be willing to take risks because playing time is not in jeopardy. Sitting down is not a problem when it is temporary. And, you never know when an unexpected player will have great game. There is a great game or a great play in every team member, but it won't be seen unless the player has opportunity to show it.
Parental concern over basketball is spread over a pretty wide range. Some parents don't care enough to come to the games while others will make significant personal sacrifices to ensure opportunity for their kids or to help the program. In fact, if it weren't for parental involvement as sponsors, coaches, booster club participants, etc. most programs would not even survive. One thing all these parents have in common, though, is the love for their children. If parents feel that their child is getting a raw deal, emotions can run pretty high. When that happens, the situation becomes uncomfortable for players, coaches, parents and administrators.
A coach should feel that the parents are part of the team. As mentioned above, there is a lot they can do. Further, the old saying that it is hard to rock the boat if you're busy rowing is quite true. When the parents are shut out and there is little communication, all their input comes from what they hear from their kids and what they see in the games. Once parents decide the coach is a problem, it is hard to turn that feeling around. Folks will sit in the stands and critique every little thing and point out everything that goes wrong and wonder why the coach hasn't taken care of such obvious problems.
What usually gets the coach on the wrong side of the parents is lack of playing time for their child. Most parents don't care as much about the win/loss record (although if the team is winning, they won't say much) or how the game is played. They do care that the player has a chance to contribute. Some parents go overboard and believe their child should be on the floor all the time and should be taking all the shots, but most are mature enough to accept a few minutes every game. When a player sits out the entire game, the scene afterwards at home can be pretty ugly. The player is upset and won't talk to anyone. Parents are angry to point of tears. Sometimes it is bad enough that the player will quit the sport or the family will make extraordinary efforts to enroll the player in a different school. It particularly hurts when a family has been closely involved in basketball for several years and then finds itself ostracized - the children can't play and the parents can't help. The answer is give everyone a chance. Minutes do not need to be equal, or even close to it, but everyone should have a chance to play. The younger the team, the more the coach should distribute the minutes evenly.
If this seems overly-emotional, remember, basketball is a passionate game.