In Parents' Role in Youth Sports, Playing Time

I recently got a distraught letter from a father of a high school freshman football player. Dad felt that his son was being unfairly treated as far as playing time went given his skill level and work ethic. He felt that the coach had several favorites on the squad and that these kids didn’t work as hard in practice or play as well in games as his son, yet his boy still got far less PT than they did. He wanted to know why coaches act this way. Here’s my response:

There’s never any one logical explanation for how coaches hand out playing time. In the best of all worlds, the coach is fair and playing time is seen as a reward for having a good attitude, displaying a winning effort, being a team player, making improvements and displaying skill. Unfortunately, in middle and high school sports you will rarely find the best of all worlds!

Far too many of these coaches are either parents of players, poorly trained, seriously limited in their ability to work with adolescents, lack experience and knowledge of their sport or all of the above. Beyond this, a lot of coaches are just simply emotionally immature, unfair and unreasonable as people. They harbor favorites and these individuals always seem to get more playing time than others who are far more deserving. The really maddening, discouraging and frustrating thing for kids and their parents is watching the coach’s favorites put in minimal or inconsistent effort into practice, perform poorly in games and still get more playing time from the coach.

What a lot of these coaches don’t understand is that in all of their behaviors interacting with their players, they are continually teaching life lessons that go far beyond the athletic fields. The better coaches are exquisitely aware of the lessons they teach while their less skilled counterparts don’t have CLUE ONE about what they’re teaching.

For example, the unfair coach inadvertently teaches his athletes that they can cut corners, give a half-hearted effort and if you’re a favorite, you can still get privileges and playing time. In doing this, the unfair coach teaches his team that who you know is far more important than who you are, how hard you work and how you conduct yourself. Terrible lessons to teach pre-adolescents and adolescents if you ask me!

What can you do about the issue of playing time and an unfair coach? If you’re a parent you must be sure that your son or daughter does NOT learn any of these lousy life lessons that this individual is “teaching.” You must continue to encourage your son or daughter to keep working hard, NO MATTER WHAT and that sooner or later it will pay off, perhaps not with this coach, but with another one. You must reinforce with your child what it takes to become a winner in terms of effort, attitude and teamwork and steer your child towards these behaviors.

If possible, you could also encourage your child to speak directly to the coach and ask him what he needs to do in order to get more playing time on this team. Unfortunately, with the unfair, immature coach, your son or daughter will rarely get a genuine, helpful response to this kind of directness. All too often, this kind of coach will simply offer lip service and platitudes to the player like, “You just need to work harder and you’ll get there.”

The natural inclination when you feel that your child is being unfairly treated is to rush in and talk to the coach yourself. This is very slippery, extremely thin ice for you to be walking on for a number of reasons. First off, most coaches will get highly defensive and feel that you are questioning their coaching ability when you do this. They will also see you as an over-involved parent who is sticking their nose where it doesn’t belong. Furthermore, it’s not unusual for this kind of individual to then act out his displeasure with you at your son or daughter’s expense by limiting his/her playing time even more or embarrassing him/her in front of the team.

Depending upon how badly your child is being mistreated, you may feel that you have no other recourse than to go over the coach’s head and contact the athletic director. I wouldn’t recommend this approach unless you feel that your child is being either physically or emotionally abused. While your son or daughter may be truly suffering because of what’s perceived as an unfair lack of playing time, going over the coach’s head to the AD over this issue is complicated and fraught with problems.

Anyway you slice it, it’s brutally painful to watch your child, who has always loved their sport and dedicated so much time and energy to it, being unfairly treated to the point where their self-esteem and passion are suffering. If you can, you want to help your child use this adversity and unfair treatment to work even harder on pursuing their dream. The overall lesson to be taught here is that there will always be unfair people out there who will try to “rain on your parade,” who will discourage you by their words or actions. The key is to never let them steal your dream.


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