Playing Time vs Status – A Player/Parent/Club Dilemna and a look back at our childhood.

As a parent of two teenagers, I will tell you that I want the best for my kids. I want to provide for them, to protect them, and want them to succeed in every area of their lives. I am quite certain that I am not alone in that mindset as every generation seeks to make things better and easier than their generation had it. This societal ideal has created quite a challenge in competitive youth athletics. It manifests itself across playing fields and courts all over the United States, on a year round basis. For me, in my role as a coach and administrator for a youth soccer club, summer is the time of year that I see it the most and the time when emotions over logic often prevail.

I happen to live in a market which I am sure is similar to a lot of other areas in the country where there is so much access for those that can afford club sports (different topic for a different day). There are clubs competing for the same players literally a few miles apart and in our area there is a huge “Keeping up with the Jones” mentality that clubs are expanding with satellite groups in different geographies in an effort to grow. What happens in reality, is a further dilution of the player pool and the creation of more “Elite” or top teams. If a player tries out and does not get invited to a top team, they can easily zip to another nearby tryout and in the hopes of making that top team AKA “Elite”.

So what does this have to do with the subject line anyway? The preceding commentary was really to provide a bit of a back drop about the landscape. That environment also creates this “Grass is Greener” and club exodus every spring. See, as soon as things don’t go well for a player, whether that is positional or playing time which could be the result of a number of factors, there is a culture of secrecy, rumors and schemes where parents and sometimes groups of parents begin to plot their course for their next move. Instead of speaking with the club or the coach, they choose to seek out other options.

Our club has tried to create a progressive development model that would allow for multiple teams per age group. The idea behind it to create tiers of teams that compete at the appropriate tier and have success. It seems to be working so far in that 25-30% of our Regional Eligible teams have advanced to Regionals at their respective competitive tiers. There are a few other larger clubs like ours that have had similar experience.

From a player perspective, the idea is that a player can move up or down at any time throughout their career based on where they happen to be developmentally. Whether they got a late start and need to be in a development environment to build a foundation or perhaps a player who is early in the birth year and enjoyed a size, strength and speed advantage early on that suddenly finds themselves surrounded by players that have caught up. Of course there are the late bloomers that sometimes do better in an environment where they can build more confidence and return to individual success.

While well intended, it appears that not all people agree with the model especially if that means that their son or daughter does not make that coveted “Elite Team”. Refer to the second paragraph. Every year, every club seems to lose players to other clubs due to either playing time or team placement. Often, the response to less than desired playing time is that perhaps that player would be a better fit for different team in the club where they may be able to have a larger role, play in their preferred position, rebuild or develop increased confidence or even develop leadership capabilities. The unfortunate part of that is in a number of cases, that conversation does not always happen as some folks are already in search of the next opportunity. Times have certainly changed since the days that most of us participated in sports.

Below are 3 examples from the past that illustrate where taking a larger role on a “Less than Elite” team worked out for the player.

Over 35 years ago, when I was 12 years old making the transition from 6 Little League teams to 2 Pony League Teams, I found myself in new territory. In little league, I was the lead off hitter, played shortstop, second base, center field and pitcher. When I went to Pony League, I was very small and had a June birthday which meant I was also young. I was somehow selected for the “A” team as a backup center fielder. I batted way down in the lineup and played only sparingly in Center Field. The next year I asked the coaches if they thought that I could play shortstop if I played on the “B” team. Imagine that, I rode my bike to the fields without my parents and spoke to the coaches myself. That same year, I was the lead off batter and primarily played short stop. I also pitched and played second base, third base and center field on occasion. I had a lot of fun with my teammates and made the all-star team. For me, it was more important that I played than the team I was on. I had friends on both teams and quickly became friends with the players that I just met. It was only recently that I even recalled having done that, likely because as kids, we rode our bikes to the park or carpooled in a big wood-paneled station wagon and the parents didn’t seem to be as involved. They knew that if we were playing on a team, or in a game, that we were probably not getting in trouble.

Mark Kelso is a member of the Western PA Sports Hall of Fame, and Played 8 years for the Buffalo Bills in the late 80s/early 90s. Mark chose playing time over status and it resulted in 4 Super Bowl Appearances and a great NFL Career. According to Mark, he was looking at two things when selecting a college. “I wanted to be sure that I received a great education first. Second, I wanted to be developed as a football player and go to a school where if I worked hard, I would be able to play as a Freshman. I didn’t really want to go to a big school and be what the coaches called a 2 year player.” Mark had some offers from some bigger schools but attended William & Mary where he started as a Freshman, earned Academic All-American honors, and a 10th Round Draft Pick of the Philadelphia Eagles. He ended up signing with the Buffalo Bills as a Free-Agent and played his entire career with that one Team.

Only 3 years ago, I coached 2 U11 Boys Teams, Blue and White. As we were moving to U12, I had a player that was a little quiet, small in stature with developing skills and nice vision. I felt like he may be overshadowed a little by some of the big personalities on his current team. With a full roster, each player essentially played 1/2 of every game. I approached his father at tryouts and shared the potential that I saw in him. I suggested that if he played on the white team, he would get more playing time, could play and more prominent position and possibly develop leadership skills. The father said to me and I quote…”You are the expert, if you think that is best for his development, I trust your judgement.” It is a less than typical response and we proceeded. That next year he developed as a central defender and never came off the field, each week you could see him becoming more of a leader and his confidence grew. After that year, we had a large merger of two competing clubs as well as the age group change from school year to birth year classifications. Despite the bigger player pool at tryouts with the merger, he made the clubs’ regional team and has remained there ever since.

In all 3 cases above, players were willing to participate on teams where they would see more playing time over the name brand or title of the team and therefore, accelerate their development. The challenge for parents and players today seems to be as much about status of team as anything. There is a tendency and desire to “manage” the situation. It is only natural to want to what is best for their children and the key is to examine what is best for their overall development both as a player and a person. If you are a coach or a player finding yourself in this situation, consider having a conversation about the both the “why” and the development opportunity. If you are a coach, be open with the player and do it early so there are no surprises. If you suspect something as a player, talk to your coach. Let these be life lessons that your child can learn from. It is not a bad thing to develop leadership skills or confidence and learn how to manage and hopefully overcome adversity. So, if your son or daughter is destined for a different team in the same club, know that they will still have something to strive for so consider that before jumping ship and starting over in a different club.

Perhaps these are a bit “Old School”, perhaps not. Let’s try to remember what is was like back in the day when we all had to to walk to school in 2 feet of snow, uphill, both ways. Back in the day, players fought for playing time and there seemed to be fewer questions and challenges to the decisions of the coaches and administrators. Maybe times should not always need to change.

“There is nothing wrong with setting goals for yourself to achieve at the highest levels, and working as hard as you can to realize them, even if you fall short, you will learn a lot about yourself.” – Mark Kelso.

There are a plenty of life lessons to be learned here both from positive outcomes and disappointment.

Coach Rich

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