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Playing Time: Winning, Expectations & Long-Term Development

By Steve Mann, Special to Minnesota Hockey, 02/09/21, 11:30AM CST


If there was ever a single, universal hot-button issue across the youth sports landscape, it’s playing time.

Few topics consume more headspace or create more angst, and it’s no surprise as to why. Players want to play and parents want their young athletes to play. That’s why they sign up and commit their time and resources. So when parents see their son or daughter sitting on the bench, especially if it’s more often than their teammates, the coach will often hear about it.

And while most coaches and parents agree there are legitimate discipline reasons for players to be benched, sitting kids based on ability at young ages often has a negative long-term impact. After all, if young players don’t get ice time in the games, why would they continue? Shortening the bench might help win some games, but at what cost?

So it’s up to all of us to create the right balance of short-term goals, like victories, with long-term goals like skill development and fun.

“Winning is absolutely fun. No one goes into a game and thinks, ‘it would be so much fun if we didn’t win today,’” said Heather Mannix, USA Hockey’s ADM manager for female hockey. “We all want to win. But more importantly, kids want to compete. They want to play and have fun. We won’t ever see the best hockey player play at the highest levels if they stop participating at age 10 or 11 because they didn’t get the chance to actually play.”

Why Playing Time Is So Important

Mannix works with local hockey associations and programs across the country to support age-appropriate training, competition and long-term athlete development. She believes kids learn by doing and must be put in all different situations in order to learn how to perform in them.

“Playing time gives our athletes a chance to see how the skills learned in practice are applied to the game. This is the practical side of their learning, and drastically important to help ‘connect the dots,’” said Mannix. “If we sit them for their lack of ability at that point, we deny them the opportunity to get playing time in high-pressure game situations.”

“So, if your goal as a coach is development, ‘shortening the bench’ to win a game at any age before 12 or 13 is not doing much to help you achieve that goal."

Reward vs. Punishment

Coaches at all levels of sport often look to playing time as a motivating tool to reward a productive game or as a punishment when players aren’t making an impact. While this may be effective for older kids or adults, for young athletes between the ages of 6-12, it could be a detriment to their development, especially if based on performance alone.

“Hockey is a late bloomer sport. I don’t know any college or professional coaches that look for Mite, Squirt and Peewee championships on a player’s resume when it comes to making their next recruitment or draft choice,” said Mannix. “As coaches in the prime stages of your players’ development, it is critical to reward effort and use mistakes and undesirable plays as an opportunity to ask your kids questions like, ‘what options did you see?’ or ‘would you do anything differently next time?’

“Instead of focusing on these external sources of motivation, we as coaches should do a better job at cultivating the intrinsic motivation within each of our athletes, so that they want to do better as a result of the process, rather than just focusing on the outcome.”

Tips for Parents & Players

Coaches are often told that communicating their goals, expectations and processes prior to or early in the season – and continuing that conversation throughout the year – are critical to ensure everyone is on the same page. This is particularly true when discussing the issue of playing time.

According to Mannix, there is a right way and a wrong way for parents and/or players to broach the topic with their coach in season.

“Almost all concerns are legitimate,” said Mannix. “That said, it is important for a coach to have a clear avenue to talk over expectations and any frustrations that may arise. One rule that has worked well is a standard I put in place. I am more than willing to talk about your child, his or her playing time, development, progress, etc. But I will not talk about any other child or compare one athlete’s playing time to another. I would also highly suggest trying to stay away from discussing topics when you are emotionally charged. Always be respectful.”

As player get older, it’s important they start to take ownership of their own concerns and start to have these discussions directly with the coach.

“If the athlete trusts that the coach will listen to the concerns, and that they are safe to talk about their feelings, any time is the right time,” said Mannix. “It is important as players get older that they take ownership of their own concerns and have these discussions with their coach in a respectful manner. Approach the conversation with a ‘what can I do to get better?’ attitude, if you truly want to develop into the best player you can be.”

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