It is only two words and yet the depth of feeling they can generate can alter relationships forever, it is enough to send tingles up the spine of any coach, infuriate any parent, depress or elate any player. While the song tells us, "Only love can break your heart" clearly the writer never suffered through youth sport and the travails of playing time. In order for there to be any functional relationship between a coach, a player and a parent it is absolutely crucial that there be an understanding about how decisions are made, how playing time is handed out and what a player needs to do to earn their slice of the pie. Gone are the days when the coach walked into the gym and laid it out the old "My way or the highway" edict. Too many years of "Fight the power" and "Stick it to the man" has sown deep seeds of distrust in authority, not to mention that those in authority have done enough awful things to give even the most casual parent a reason to want to know exactly what is going on. You can no longer wield the big stick of authority, if you cannot create a détente with your parents and athletes around how you operate your program you are probably headed for some kind of problem.
What elements do coaches need to consider when deciding on whether to play an athlete. When asked about the epitome of acting Anthony Hopkins once said, "Know your lines." Katherine Hepburn, considered among the greatest female actors of all time was even more blunt when asked the same question, "...just speak your damn lines!" Just as you cannot begin to be a good actor if you cannot memorize your lines, so it is with athletes, they cannot be productive if they do not know the offensive and defensive movements that the coaching staff wishes executed. The baseline of any agreement between coach and players about who will get an opportunity to perform begins with a players ability to know the system. Players find nothing more frustrating then playing with a player that is either unwilling or unable to execute simple offensive or defensive maneuvers. If a coach tells players that playing time will be handed out to those that pay attention and learn and then plays a key player who can score but who gives no effort defensively or constantly breaks the offense to get their own opportunity then the message of discipline is undermined.
I have always been clear with players that I don't make decisions about playing time. That those decisions are made by the players. You can only play as many minutes as your fitness allows. Secondly, you have to demonstrate in practice that you know the system that we are employing or can perform within the guidelines that we establish. Next we value effort so we are constantly looking at how hard people practice and whether they are willing to exhaust themselves in the pursuit. The final step is to evaluate their productivity in games. We always used a player matrix, a ranking of certain stats and metrics that allowed us to form a picture about where a player fit on the team. Raw stats like scoring and rebounding average don't always tell the story of whether a player is productive. Metrics like plus/minus, how much the team is outscored or outscores the opponent while you are on the floor, player evaluation ratings that give weight to shooting percentages and all stats to give a numeric value to a players over-all contribution are much more definitive in painting a players true value. Ranking your players in these metrics and then using the those numbers to produce an over-all ranking gives a powerful; tool that can be shared with parents and players to demonstrate why certain players play more then others. Having data points that support your decisions, or often and more importantly, point out to you that you are overlooking a player's positive contribution, is crucial to the success and harmony of any team. If players understand where they fall on the totem pole of the team they can be motivated to improve the areas that they are struggling in as a means to gain more opportunity.
Once we have established the how's and whys of playing time we need to then use the information we have to construct a rational playing rotation. Science tells us two conflicting stories about playing time. Story one, the more we play our best players the better chance we have to win or be successful. Story two, the more we play, or overplay, our best players the more likely they are to be injured. Therefore, to have our best chance at success we need to find a playing rotation that maximizes our best players while giving them adequate rest and recovery during competition so that they remain available for the entire year. The truth is that a parent or player should be just as mad at a coach who plays them 40 minutes as they are at a coach who plays them no minutes. The simple fact is that we as humans are creatures of habit. If you are asked to play a full 40 minutes, no matter how athletic or fit you are, you have to take plays off either offensively or defensively. Once you develop the habit of taking plays off it is engrained and you will take plays off whether you play 40 minutes or you play 10 minutes. Thus, overplaying players has two harmful effects. It teaches players to take plays off while simultaneously making it more likely that they will suffer a serious injury. While you cannot really learn without playing, you equally cannot learn the right things playing too much. As a coach, adopting a sensible playing rotation that maximizes the contributions of your best players while also protecting their long term health is crucial.
We all, as coaches, have been in situations where our teams have lacked depth or leaned heavily on a particular player. You must in these situations reflect on what you are doing to develop depth and create a more sustainable playing rotation. Are you willing to sacrifice some early season wins in order to get players the playing time and opportunities they need to improve? Are you game planning to put certain athletes in situations that they need experience in so that they can handle those situations later in the year? Are you purposefully removing your key player in certain games so that the other players must develop a workable solution to playing without that player should the need arise? Do you explore alternate roles, like having your back-up point guard run the show late in a game even though you put the starter back out there as support to play the 2 spot, allowing the back-up to feel prepared if called on because of foul trouble or other problems. It is one thing to start a season feeling like you lack depth but to it is another not to take steps during the year to enhance your depth and improve your available players to create a more healthy rotation.
When it comes to playing time solid communication can help everyone feel more comfortable with what is to come. Having clear paths that have been demonstrated and communicated to everyone about how players earn their opportunities is a great first step in any team setting. Collecting data points in the form of stats or metrics that you value and the team is shown and understands is the next step in transparency in terms of playing time. If an athlete can show through the metrics they deserve a chance the same as a coach can show that they are actually utilizing their best players again we have gone a long way to avoiding confusion and confrontation. Finally, in constructing your playing rotation are you giving the proper thought to both maximizing your best players while considering their long term health and well being by not overplaying them. All of these practices can help make playing time just two words and create a lot less stress for all those involved.