I’ve been a head coach for 13 years and I’ve always felt like I’ve had less conversations with players about playing time than most. I’ve been fortunate, and I’m sure there are a lot of reasons for it.
I’ve always played a lot of guys. Most of my teams feature 10-12 man rotations. We’ve had a lot of success. When you have winning behind you, it justifies what you are doing more directly. But even at Maine, where we weren’t winning, we didn’t have too many conversations about playing time. We always really emphasized practice. What you did every day on the practice floor was how you earned playing time. And as long as the standards were clear and the playing time was earned, the players didn’t really have much to argue about.
The big key there that I often think gets overlooked by coaches is standards. What are your standards for playing time? You learn pretty quickly when you start coaching that playing time is the most important thing to most of your players. So if they all want to play, and they aren’t all going to play, we need to make it clear why they will and why the won’t. I’ve always said I want a team full of guys who want to play more. Everyone should want to play more. But how they handle the fact that they want to play more says a lot about who they are, and has a significant impact on the potential for team success.
Head coaches fall into the trap of handling each situation individually, and therefore differently. You don’t define the standards, and each time someone is unhappy about playing time it’s handled in a vacuum. The freshmen who clearly isn’t ready yet is handled differently than the junior who just isn’t good enough. I feel this contributes to more unrest with regards to playing time within your team, and unhappiness that simmers just below the surface.
So I always wanted to define standards clearly for my players as far as what would get them on the floor. That way anytime someone wanted have a conversation about it we could be consistent with our response. Obviously the answer for each player maybe different, but the same standards allow you to give fair and consistent responses.
Our standards for playing time are very simple. Compete, produce, and be a great teammate. These 3 standards were consistent with the core values of our program, and they were simple enough and broad enough to cover most everything that was important to us.
Competing was always our #1 core value, and it defined our teams. The way you compete on and off the floor, in everything you do, was the first way to earn playing time. This covers mental and physical toughness, focus, effort, and just about every intangible that a player can control. Show up every day and be a great competitor and you will earn the right to play.
But competing just isn’t enough. You hear a lot of coaches talk about the 5 best competitors are going to start or are going to play the most, and I just don’t think that’s true. You can throw a team of great competitors out on the floor who aren’t very good and you’ll have a hard time finding success. Production matters. It’s not good enough to just run around all practice like your hair is on fire. You have to be able to handle that competitive edge and turn it into production. Those who produce will earn playing time as well.
Our last standard for playing time is to be a great teammate. Like competing and producing, this is a broad term that needs to be defined in behavioral terms for your players. So many different behaviors come under the umbrella of being a great teammate. You can define it so that it fits your programs core values, and make sure the players no exactly what you mean.
For me the guys that competed, produced and were great teammates earned the right to play. Obviously whatever your standards are, the evaluation is still very subjective. And that is your job as a coach. You don’t necessarily have to be great at all 3, but usually if you do 2 of the 3 you’ve earned the right to play. The next step, however, is to do them better than your teammates. Not everyone is going to get to play. So if your teammates are living up to those standards better than you are they are going to play ahead of you.
If you set clear standards that match your program’s values, and you are consistent with rewarding playing time, practice becomes your ultimate answer. If your program is based on merit, the players will know exactly what gets them on the floor. And they know what is going on in practice. Very few of them will be able to come to you and bitch about their playing time if they know they are getting outplayed in practice. If it’s fair and based on merit they really can’t have that much to say.
Spend some time thinking about what is really important to you and what really goes into your players earning playing time. Every program is different, and the standards have to be true to who you are. But when you make them clear to your players and define them in simple behavioral terms, you’ll spend a lot less time having conversations with your team about playing time. You won’t have to justify your actions. Your practices and your standards will take care of that for you.