More Thoughts on Equal Playing Time in Youth Sports

10 08 2010

Thank you for everyone who weighed in and took the time to provide insight and opinions on equal playing time in youth sports for a previous blog. It is clear playing time is a pressing issue across all sectors of youth sport and parents, coaches, and administrators alike are struggling to make informed decisions.

Existing and emerging evidence from child development, pediatric sports medicine, sport psychology, sport sociology, and moral development seems to point to the idea that equal playing time is imperative for children up to age 12 (and some would argue age 14).

From my observations and interactions with youth sport stakeholders the debate over playing time starts with differing views on the purpose of youth sport and the tension between winning/being competitive and athlete development/fun/enjoyment. I reject the notion that winning, athlete development and fun/enjoyment can’t simultaneously be achieved. This dichotomous thinking is part of the problem in organized youth sport.

Adults who run, organize, and coach youth sport consider many factors when making decisions about playing time and arguably factors change in weight as the child gets older. The graphic in Figure 1:  Playing Time Considerations illustrate this complexity.

I’ve outlined EFFORT in red as this is one of the few factors that a child can control. Giving full effort in practice and games regardless of the situation is a very important life lesson that can be taught and learned through participation in sport.

A father in a recent sport parent workshop asked me about the danger of “teaching children to be  mediocre” by awarding equal playing time. His point was that a child who didn’t work hard or give full effort would automatically be awarded the same playing time as a child who was working hard, and that if playing time weren’t used as “the carrot” (i.e., you work hard, you get to play) that kids wouldn’t work hard. It was a good question.

To answer his question used evidence and borrowed some wisdom from my colleague Clark Power, Ph.D., a scholar in moral development and Director of the Play Like a Champion Educational Series at the University of Notre Dame. Power argues playing time is not a reward for displaying virtue, it is a means for developing virtue. I also pointed out the carrot approach is a problematic way of using playing time. First, children need to be taught that working hard is an inherent part of sports, skill development, and life. Children should want to work hard because it is inherently enjoyable, as hard work can lead to improvement, satisfaction, sense of self worth, accomplishment, and many more positive outcomes. These intrinsic motives for giving full effort will lead to a much greater likelihood of long term participation than using playing time as an extrinsic reward that can be taken away or awarded by adults.

Second, up until age 10-11, developmentally children cannot discern between effort and ability. They equate effort with being good at something. Therefore, under an unequal playing time system a child who gives full effort but does not get to play, is likely to think he is not good at that sport. Based on evidence in sport psychology, perception of competence is one of the biggest predictors of enjoyment and sustained participation. The take home message here:  a child who believes he is incompetent because he is sitting on the bench even thought he believes he’s given effort in practices, will be much more likely to drop out. If he drops out before he can understand cognitively that effort and ability are not always the same, and that effort is a virtue, then he will not reap the developmental and health benefits which can be accrued through sport participation.

A great deal more evidence than what I’ve presented here exists in support of an “equal playing time through age 12” youth sport policy, but this is an evidence-based food for thought starting point for youth sport stakeholders to consider. For more information on youth sports visit the Minnesota Youth Sport Research Consortium.

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