One of the most dreaded conversations between athletes, coaches, and parents revolves around playing time. Nobody likes it.
In my workshops on conflict resolution for coaches and directors of coaching, I ask them to identify the most common types of difficult conversations and conflict they encounter. Consistently across the country, the number one answer is the conversation about playing time.
Athlete and Parent Preparation
A playing time conversation should be between an athlete and their coach. A parent’s role is to help an athlete frame their concerns and prepare for the conversation. If additional conversations are needed, parents may be a part of them in a support role. However, parents should not be the primary spokespeople when it comes to talking to a coach about playing time.
I remember two conversations between my son and his coach about playing time over a decade ago. It was extremely difficult to quell my protective parent persona and tap into the trained mediator part of my brain. In retrospect, I wish one of us had asked my son WHY he wanted more playing time. That simple question could have made those conversations better and more constructive.
The first key question for a constructive conversation is “Why do you want more playing time?”
Why? Because a playing time conversation should be all about the individual athlete. It is not about other athletes, their playing ability, or their playing time.
Asking a “why” question helps people move beyond their entrenched positions, such as “I want more playing time”, and into an awareness of their underlying interests and assumptions. When we ask why more playing time is important, we validate the athletes’ assumptions and how realistic they are with respect to the athlete’s individual goals.
Consider some of the possible reasons why an athlete might want more playing time:
- Because it will make me a better athlete
- Because it will enable me to get the attention of college coaches
- Because I want to be an important part of my team
Before the playing time conversation, it’s important to identify the reasons why they want more playing time. This enables the athlete to approach the conversation with their coach constructively and with clear purpose and goals.
Empowering Athletes, Not Entitling
The first part of the playing time conversation should focus on the reasons that an athlete wants more playing time. If an athlete does not initially share those reasons, a coach can ask the question. “Why” questions can come in various forms, from the blunt “Why do you want more playing time?” to the curious “Help me understand why playing time is important to you.”
When a coach takes the time to understand an athlete’s concerns, they uncover the opportunity to suggest more than one way to meet their interests. Yes, it can include playing time. It also may include additional options, such as position-specific training or other valuable contributions the athlete can make to the team. It may also include dispelling inaccurate beliefs about what playing time can accomplish. Discussing why they want more playing time empowers a coach to tap into their skills, expertise, and knowledge.
What Do I Need to Do to Earn More Playing Time?
An important part of a coach’s job is to identify who will play what positions at what time during a game. Rosters include more athletes than are needed in the game at any one time so that substitutes are available. By design, not everybody on the team plays the entire game.
On recreational teams, there may be a requirement that every athlete play a minimum amount of time. However, even these requirements may be based on them following team rules about attending training sessions and arriving for games on time. For more competitive teams, playing time may be awarded on the basis of both following team rules and on competition. Athletes are rarely entitled to a guaranteed amount of playing time.
Athletes are empowered to take the initiative to work diligently and improve themselves. The power behind an athlete asking a coach how they can earn more playing time does three things:
- It communicates their willingness to put in the work to earn something they wants
- It avoids attacking the coach’s decisions about playing time and putting the coach in a defensive, and less constructive, mindset for the conversation
- It opens the opportunity for the coach to help them identify specific actions they can take to meet their goals
Location. Location. Location.
The time and location of the conversation can have a significant impact on how well it goes.
Avoid locations that are within earshot of other people, including other athletes and parents. The playing time conversation should be between an individual athlete and their coach. It is not the business or concern of other athletes or parents.
Also consider the timing of the conversation. I recall making the mistake of agreeing to talk with my son and his coach in the parking lot near a soccer field right before a training session. We all felt the tension of needing to finish the conversation before practice started. Additionally, it had the potential of increasing the pressure on both as they took the field with the other athletes after our conversation. The timing did not allow either of them to think about the conversation, consider what they had learned, or to prepare to make any changes to which they may have agreed.
Meeting after a game or training session near the field offers its own challenges. Imagine trying to have the playing time conversation while other athletes are waiting for you to finish so the carpool can go home. Choose a location and a time that’s convenient for everybody involved. Don’t let the time or location increase the stress of the conversation.
Final Tips for Constructive Conversation
- Ensure the athlete takes ownership of the playing time conversation. The conversation should be between the athlete and coach, without parents.
- When you feel stuck, defensive, or frustrated, ask a question. Questions like “Help me understand why” and “What do I need to do to achieve my goal?” open opportunities to share information and identify activities that can improve the situation.
- Arrange to have the conversation at a convenient time and location. Pick a time when the athlete and the coach are not pressured to get to a training session or other commitment. Pick a place that is not within earshot of others.
Ruth Nicholson is an internationally certified professional facilitator, mediator, and organizational alchemist helping sports organizations better support players and coaches. She is the founder of GO! offering proven governance, leadership, and administrative tools.
In 2020, Ruth was inducted into the International Association of Facilitators Hall of Fame. She was a co-creator of the international 2019 Think Tank to Improve Youth Sports which engaged over 60 speakers from two dozen sports. In 2018, Ruth was a finalist for the Hudl Innovator of the Year award for youth soccer. Her work has engaged sports enthusiasts in North America, Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, and South America.