One situation you face as a coach is how to deal with players who are unhappy about their playing time. The truth is I want everyone who isn’t playing to be unhappy about their playing time. That’s actually a good thing. If you don’t want to play more, you probably aren’t much of a competitor. The problem comes when they don’t handle it the right way. But I’ve always said I want everyone on my team to want to play more.
The answer to the question is really more of a long-term one than a short-term one. It’s really not about how you handle that conversation with the unhappy player – it’s about the standards you set, and how you communicate to your players how they can earn playing time. By clearly explaining what you expect of them every day in practice and how that translates into playing time – and then following through with it when the games come around – you create a meritocracy. Here is what is expected of you. The guys who do it best every day in practice are going to play. If you follow that up by giving the majority of the playing time to those guys, the message is pretty clear. Playing time is earned every day in practice.
Now that not may be the approach you want to take. Plenty of coaches will place talent and production above everything else, and play the best players. I don’t think that in and of itself is an issue – although it’s not the approach we use. A problem arises when you talk to guys about how hard they work in practice, how tough they are, the way they compete – and then play the best players anyway, regardless of what they do in practice. When you do that, you are undermining your own approach and you lose the trust of your players. If you are just going to play the most talented guys, you should make it clear that the guys who produce will play.
I’ve always said we probably had less conversations with players about playing time in 9 years at Rhode Island College than anywhere else in the country. It’s not that guys were all happy with how much they played, of course they weren’t. And we did have those conversations, it’s not like they never took place. But for the most part our guys knew what was expected of them every day in practice and how they could earn playing time. We were consistent with our approach and we rewarded the playing time accordingly. It’s hard for a guy to complain about playing time when the evidence is in front of the entire team every day at practice.
We have always started with how hard we competed. We demand that our guys bring it every day, because we’ve always felt how hard we competed is under our control. We expect our guys to play with great toughness, and we expect everyone to defend. I’ve always told my guys that they could have the offensive end and make all the plays they want and play with freedom and confidence. But they were going to give me the defensive end. So we created a culture where the way we competed, the toughness we played with, and the way we defended was going to be valued. Compete, defend, play tough.
So if you want to talk about those things and demand them as a coach, you have to reward them. The guys who competed every day, the guys who played with great toughness, and our best defenders had to get playing time. Now, were these the only 3 things that determined playing time? Of course not. We always said that everything mattered. But those were our core values, the things we emphasized the most. If we were going to be true to what we said, those guys had to play.
It’s not always easy. We had a lot of conversations as a staff at RIC about getting certain guys more playing time or putting them in the starting line-up, even if they weren’t as good as some of our other players. And those conversations weren’t easy. Often it’s hard to start certain guys who don’t have the same level of natural talent just because they compete with toughness every day. We started a walk-on every year my last 6 years at RIC, and on our back-to-back Sweet 16 teams in 2010 and 2011 we started two. Guys that brought it every day and epitomized the toughness we always talked about. It wasn’t always easy to put those guys in the line-up, but ultimately we had to be confident in the values we felt were most important. If we weren’t going to reward them with playing time, then they shouldn’t be that important to us. The results were terrific, and even though I knew we were pretty tough, I was always amazed at how tough we really were as a team.
Figure out the values that are most important to you, and define them clearly for your team. Show your players the behaviors that reflect that behavior – the plays they make that represent those core values. Once it is clear to them, they will understand what they need to do to earn playing time. When the do, reward them. Your program will become a meritocracy, where everything is earned, and your kids understand who they have to be to get on the floor.