“Deserve ain’t got nothing to do with it.” – Prop Joe, The Wire
I’ve had a lot of conversations with players over the years about playing time. I try and be as direct, honest and open as I can about how to earn playing time with my teams. For us, it was always three things – compete, produce, and be a great teammate. We would define those values as behaviors for our guys and get specific, so they knew exactly what it took. I didn’t want any confusion about how playing time was earned. But the main point was just that – it was earned.
Often the conversations with players involved something like, “Coach, I feel I deserve a chance to play. I’m at practice every day, I work hard, just like the other guys. But they are playing, and I’m not.” The word deserve always bothered me in that context. The implication is “I’m here practicing just like everyone else. Why don’t I get a chance to play?” It’s as if there are minimal requirements, and once everyone meets those requirements, everyone gets to play.
My response is always, “You say you deserve a chance to play. But how much playing time have you earned?” Deserve to me implies a low standard where everyone gets a chance. But this isn’t the YMCA. You didn’t sign up for youth soccer, where everyone who shows up to practice deserves a chance to play. Just because you read the book and completed the assignments, doesn’t mean you deserve an A. You deserve a grade. You earn an A.
When it comes to playing time, I’m not that concerned with what you feel you deserve. Playing time is earned, just like an A in history class. You complete the requirements, but you also do a great job with them – better than the other people in the class. As far as playing time goes, I’m with my man Prop Joe. Deserve ain’t got nothing to do with it.
You have to earn the right to get on the floor. There are 15 guys on the team, and only five get to play at a time. Odds are, some of them aren’t going to play at all. I’m sure those guys were at practice too, and in many cases they were giving their all. We don’t call time out with 10 minutes to go in the game to get the guys who deserve playing time on the court. This isn’t summer camp. We aren’t playing the Lakers for first place after stations. If you wan’t to talk about playing time, come to me with why you think you’ve earned playing time. Don’t come to me with what you think you deserve.
As coaches we have to do a better job of making the standards clear, and communicating them. This is where many coaches get into trouble. We don’t want to paint ourselves into a corner, or we just don’t think about it that deeply, so we don’t define the standards for playing time. As I said for us it was three things – compete, produce, and be a great teammate. We defined what that meant in behavioral terms and we celebrated and rewarded that effort. When someone was the first to dive on the floor for a loose ball, that was competing. We celebrated it with the team, and the guys who did it consistently were rewarded with playing time – or else I’d lose credibility.
Many coaches just want to play who they want to play – the guys who they think are the best players. So they don’t define anything as far as playing time, reserving the head coach card to make those decisions. This is what leads to unrest with the guys that aren’t playing. Sure, they want to play, but they also want to know what they have to do to play. They want a fair shot. Once we started to define our standards very clearly for our teams I had very few conversations with players about playing time. If the standards are clear, a player has to be able to come and tell me he’s earned the right to play. And when the standards are clear, the players know. Even though they all want to play, they aren’t going to come to you with a beef when they know other guys have been better than them based on your standards. If they can’t look their teammates in the eye and say they’ve earned the right to play based on practice, they probably aren’t coming into your office.
It’s also not as simple as just meeting the standards and doing them well. You have to do them better than the people who are playing in front of you. You can compete your ass off, produce, and be a great teammate, but still not do those things quite as well as your teammates. Elite teams are a meritocracy. I’ve had plenty of conversations with guys where I tell them they are doing what we expect of them in practice every day. The problem is, other guys are doing it better. Until they can defend, rebound, score, guard and compete better than the guys in front of them, it’s going to be hard for them to earn playing time.
I may be nitpicking with linguistics with the definition of deserve and earn. In many contexts they can be used as synonyms. But when it comes to playing time, deserve connotes some entitlement. I’m participating just like everyone else, so give me a chance. It’s not as strong as something earned, not when it comes to playing time. There are a lot of people who deserve to play. Fewer guys who’ve earned the right.
As a player, don’t come to me with what you think you deserve. Playing time is earned.