Unequal playing time in youth sports…what’s the deal?

I can’t tell you how many times this conversation comes up.

Unequal playing time is always a topic around team sports. Off the field, people are kind, sweet and giving. When the whistle blows, parents watch every second and secretly seethe over why their kid isn’t on the field…why someone else’s kid has been on for the entire game, or why “they” only play their favorites.

So, I know I’m going to get some negative feedback but that’s ok, it’s an important topic.


“Playing time should be equal. They’re just kids.”

“We should be playing to win.”

“The only way kids will get better is with more playing time.”

“The kids that are better should get more playing time.”

“If you’re not one of the favorites, you don’t get playing time.”

“Give or take a couple of players, they’re all at the same level so they should all play the same amount.”



Minimum playing time is usually set for younger kids and rec programs. In reality, you’ll see strategies like these:

  • Coaches use the organization’s guidelines such as players must get “40% or more” of playing time, or something in that range.
  • Coaches that use the minimum base as a standard and create their own goal
  • Players are played on lines and rotated equally
  • Time is divided into units and kids are rotated based on the unit
  • Time is scheduled ahead of the game

Minimum playing times are a great way to ensure that kids get enough in-game experience while also respecting the roles of certain positions.


Often older kids must earn their playing time. I’ve heard of teams that have had players sit on their bench an entire game without one minute of playing time, for no reason. That doesn’t sound right, does it? Good words to live by are “If you’re gonna take ’em, you’ve gotta play ’em.” Another way to look at it is, if you practice with them then you play with them.

But it’s difficult, especially for older kids. Some positions are less physical while others are much more demanding. This means that naturally there is a need for rotating – and breaks – for players in the more physically demanding positions.



Kids say interesting things….sometimes, what they say impacts the

rest of the team.  A child that doesn’t pay attention, refuses to play a particular position or is disrespectful isn’t going to get the same playing time as someone else.


All kids are not the same. Some kids can run for hours while others get winded after a few minutes. It’s up to the coach to know how much they can push your child. Does your child have the endurance to stay on a field for the duration, or are are they better in short bursts?


Some sports have robust rules that must be abided by or the team can incur penalties. Depending on the game tempo, a coach may opt

to play a particular player over another because they can rely on them to do what needs to be done without infractions.


A sensitive issue, but yes, talent is a consideration. Sometimes talent assessment is subjective (check out our post about why they didn’t make the team), other times it’s pretty clear cut. Studies have shown that winning isn’t a top reason why kids play sports. We say losing isn’t either.

lt is always a good idea to help your team be successful. Sometimes that means not getting enough playing time in one game. Ideally, your coach can make up that time at another game.


You would be surprised to know that sometimes, kids ask not to play. And, sometimes, kids refuse to play. On really hot days, rainy days or super cold days, or in an unpopular position. These moments are noticed.

 Volunteering to play where or when nobody else wants to is a great way to make a good impression on your coach.


Sometimes it really is better to have one weak kid play with four strong kids as opposed to having three weak kids play with one strong kid. The weaker kid is more likely to play up as well as adjust to a more advanced playing style.

Groups of weaker kids are more likely to play as usual.When errors occur (and they always do, they’re kids!) they are less likely to correct naturally.

So, it’s the age old question – Quantity or Quality?

It’s better to have less playing time with better players UNLESS the playing time is severely limited. So, if your child’s only getting a solid 5-10 minutes of an hour long game, then they are better off playing more time with less skilled teammates.

On flip side, if they are getting 30+ minutes with better players then they will develop faster. In situations like this, it would be better to take less playing time to get their skills up. You will find that more minutes will become available as they improve.


Playing time is a much bigger issue in team sports when skill assessment is more subjective. In other sports like swimming or track, the opportunity to compete is based on times and the ability to win. It’s understood that if your child doesn’t have the time to be competitive then they aren’t going to get a lane.  In a sport like swimming, swimmers may be able to compete in up to 4 races, so the coach is going to go with those that are most likely to be successful. Kids are encouraged to cheer for their teammates, which helps solidify the concept of sportsmanship.


  • Is the program rec, travel or school based? Each have different priorities. Recreational programs are best for kids to sample sports, learn skills and get equal playing time. Travel teams are for kids looking for more competition and hopefully, better coaching. Travel teams will have uneven playing time. School based programs are often an extension of the classroom. Middle school teams vary by division and for the most part, playing time is earned on High School teams.
  • Has your child been practicing as long as other team members, or are they fairly new to the sport? It’s very common for coaches to slowly introduce new athletes to a game as opposed to immediately taking time away from someone that is very effective or who has been playing for years.
  • Is your child open to playing a minor role over a major role? Will your child volunteer to play in goal or in a position where they aren’t comfortable, but where the team needs them? Or do they want to play a specific position even though there are other kids that are better?
  • Does your child want to get to the next level or are they playing for the fun of it?


Like we mentioned above, there are some coaches who feel that it’s ok not to play kids. This may be ok for older kids (we disagree), but for the younger set, it absolutely is not ok.

For kids up to 11, first start with recreational programs so that your kids can decide if a sport is right for them while also receiving equal playing time. Once they’ve expressed enjoyment, try to be in a program where the minimum is 40% playing time and encourage your kids to try all positions.

For kids 12 and up, encourage your child to have a good attitude, be willing to play where the team needs them, try to execute plays that were taught in practice and listen to the coach. Coach your child to speak up for themselves, in a respectful manner and reinforce the idea that practice helps improve skills.

For kids new to a sport, expect less playing time until they become more accustomed to the sport. Ask them to check in with the coach about what they can do to get better.









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