There’s a misconception in today’s play-for-play environment that it’s OK for youth soccer’s “competitive” teams to bench weaker players, or play stronger players noticeably more than weaker players, in order to win games. This is the BIG FAIL of the majority of American youth soccer clubs. If a child is good enough to make the team, they’re good enough to play, and the only appropriate amount of playing time for any player on the squad is EQUAL playing time.
Who Finances Your Club?
American youth soccer club players at EVERY level should get equal playing time for no other reason than the parents PAID for their children to PLAY soccer. Beyond that very obvious reason, is developmental; Players need the rush of adrenaline that can only be felt in a game type situation in order to connect the synapses of long-term memory, which is essential to mastering the game.
The closest replacement for game situations are competitive scrimmages, but they still don’t come close to the feeling of stepping onto the field with white lines, uniformed officials and your teammates, family & friends supporting you. Everyone learns better when there is pressure.[testimonials_style_one]Game time is development time: learning time.
Benching a player because the coach feels that they have a better chance of winning WITHOUT that player on the field only ensures that that player will not improve.[/testimonials_style_one]
Youth soccer, and organized sports in general, are supposed to infuse our children with the confidence to function well under pressure, while instilling a life-long desire to learn and improve. Counter-productive to that is benching a player, who is left wondering, wishing & hoping that they will get the same playing opportunities as they’re teammates.
The other reason that players should play equal time is that playing a child noticeably less than the other kids on the team can destroy a currently weaker player’s self-confidence, leading to their quitting prematurely. There are tens of thousands of potentially good soccer players that never achieved their potential because of the selfishness of coach’s who were only interested in winning and collecting trophies. That means that American Soccer doesn’t have the best-of-the-best representing us at the highest levels. Instead, we have the best-of-what’s-left of those that were coddled, shown preference, or were politically connected.[testimonials_style_one]No amount of sitting on the bench and watching other players play soccer is going to teach a child how to play the game well under pressure. The only thing that could make it worse would be to put a player in the game and then take them out minutes later when they make a mistake or two. Mistakes are, after all, how people learn.[/testimonials_style_one]
At the competitive levels of any sport, there is NO PLAYER that wants to sit the bench the majority of a game. From a developmental standpoint, the only justifiable time to bench a player is because of injury or when their competitive nature clouds their ability to calculate risk and play aggressively without maiming themselves or someone else.
The Paradox of Choice
Get on the Internet and start shopping for a car and you’ll be overwhelmed in a few minutes with CHOICE. In the end, you’ll probably just end up buying the newer version of your current car, or a car that your friend or relative recommends, that is in your price range.
In the same realm of thought, go to any competitive youth soccer game and you’ll see too many players sitting on the bench for a soccer game. You’ll also see a man in front of the kids yelling ’til he’s red in the face. His major frustration isn’t what’s taking place on the field, however. It’s deciding how to use what he has to win the game AND make the parents and players happy. Like the car shopper, he’s got too many choices, making it difficult to move players in and out of the game. Every player has strengths, weaknesses, talents and limitations, so it’s hard to find the perfect combination to dominate the game the way the coach had planned. In the end, he just stands and yells at a few on the field, instead of constantly rotating players in and out.
Within the developmental trenches of youth soccer, there should be no more than 1 player on the bench for every 3 players on the field. That means that if your under-12’s are playing 8v8, the bench should have NO MORE than 3 players on the bench, but 2 is best. 2 players on the bench ensures that everyone plays a substantial amount, therefore learning and developing on game day.
As for goalkeeper, there should be one starting or dedicated keeper and one or more utility players that can fill in for the full-time keeper in case of injury or other reasons that necessitate a substitute. At younger ages, most of the players on the team should be utility players, capable of playing any position on the field, including goalie.
Most coaches will argue, “That’s not enough. You have to consider other factors like fitness, family events, injuries, etc.” These coaches obviously never sat the bench – either because they never played the game or were just so good that they just never sat the bench. Regardless, they don’t understand that if every player on the team KNOWS that their team needs them, they won’t miss games.[testimonials_style_one]The only reason players miss games for personal or family reasons is because the parents and players know that there are too many players on the roster (and, subsequently, the bench), so they’re participation isn’t NECESSARY.[/testimonials_style_one]
NO ATHLETE WANTS TO SIT THE BENCH, so if an activity or excuse comes along that sounds better than watching someone else have fun, they’ll take it.
How Did We Get Here?
So, how did we get to the point where the happiness of our children and the development of future generations of soccer athletes was sacrificed for…
Every youth soccer club has ample ways to spend their money, but only one revenue stream (parents). Each club has it’s own fields, equipment, personnel and uniform expenses, as well as affiliation fees that are paid to national, state, regional and local governing bodies of the sport. There are also referee fees, league fees and tournament fees. While an age group may have 36 to 40 players to divide into teams, it’s much more cost effective for the club to divide 39 or 40 kids into three 8v8 rosters, with 13 or 14 players on each roster, than is is to create four rosters of 10 – or turn away the 8 or 10 players that just shouldn’t be on one of the teams in the first place.
Instead, many clubs will take as many players as they can handle, to generate the most revenue possible. That puts the pressure squarely on the coach.
In the grand scheme of things, every youth soccer club in the United States is on the same team: Team USA. Every youth club should be working to develop players with the idea that every player in their club is being groomed to play for the U.S. National Team. However, fewer and fewer clubs are seeing the big picture and are instead being blinded by dollars. They’ve stopped acting like community service organizations and started acting like government welfare programs (you’ll understand the reference here: Paid vs Volunteer Coaches).[testimonials_style_one]More players on the rosters equals more fees. More player fees equal more jobs and higher salaries to attract “better talent” (certified coaches). But what is the value of having talented coaches for our “competitive” teams if they have too many kids of varying skill levels to train.
On top of that, clubs have so many registered players in every age group that practices have to be limited to just 3 hours a week in order to accommodate all of the teams . The end result for our youth soccer nation’s “competitive” teams is too little practice, too many players and bloated rosters that result in too little playing time.[/testimonials_style_one]
Try-outs for “competitive” teams are a formality today, as EVERYONE makes one of the 3, 4, or 5 “ability grouped” teams in any age group. The highly-qualified coaches who the club was able to employ because of the revenue brought in from accepting EVERY player that registered are frustrated, because they’re coaching too many kids for too little time to make any kind of gains in performance or ability (player to coach ratio should be no more than 5-1).
There is no excuse for benching a player on a recreational or “competitive” recreational team, but it happens often. Here are some excuses you might hear, and the reasons why every child should play equal time.
Why Your Child Was Benched
Some kids work harder than others, and therefore deserve more playing time.
Refer to the first paragraph that says “the parents PAID for their children to PLAY soccer.” If the child was good enough to make the team, they’re good enough to play. The reason many “competitive” recreational club teams struggle to find players for their older teams is because some coaches would rather win a trophy today, than develop players for tomorrow. Ultimately, we’re all coaching for Team USA. We will have succeeded as coaches ONLY when America wins a World Cup. Until that happens, we all need to be developing players for the next level.[/success]
When we see improvement at practice, s/he will start getting more playing time.
The failure in our public school system manifests itself in that statement. That’s the equivalent of not feeding a hungry person because they’re grumpy. A player whose confidence has been destroyed isn’t all of a sudden going to start playing with confidence WITHOUT some nurturing.
Soccer “practice” in most clubs is a series of drills and exercises that may simulate certain elements of a game, or focus on circumstances that may occur, but that makes it THEORY. Just like in school, when you sat in the classroom wondering “Why do I need this?“, you see our children doing the same thing during practice, as they make little effort and just go through the motions.
There is no replacement or substitute for real games and competitive scrimmages. The only way to develop game-time confidence is to play in real games. Therefore, every child deserves and should expect equal playing time to any other player on the team, if your club is truly developing players.[/success]
We’re here to win this tournament.
If game time is development time, then tournaments are the best places to learn, as they are concentrated, high-adrenaline playing environments. On top of that, parents have paid additional fees on top of their already outrageous league fees to see their child PLAY.
Not playing players because the coach wants to win undermines EVERYTHING that organized youth soccer is here for.[/success]
We’re playing a very tough team. I’ll make it up (playing time) the next game.
Playing better teams means better learning opportunities. If you want a team or a player to play better and faster, play better teams. The U.S. Women’s National team regularly scrimmages stronger and faster men’s teams to increase their reaction speed and heighten their awareness.
Until our players are playing professionally or representing their national team, they should receive equal playing time in EVERY game – especially the most important and competitive games.[/success]
Life’s not fair. The sooner they learn that, the better.
OMG! Life ISN’T fair, but isn’t it reasonable to expect to get what you paid for? If a parent pays for their child to play soccer, shouldn’t the child play?
If a player is good enough to make the team, they’re good enough to play as much as anyone else who was good enough to make the team. Coaches should first consider the developmental needs of any player they may accept fees from, then decide whether or not THEY (the coaching staff) have the desire and abilities to develop that player into a contributing member of the team. If not, then don’t accept their money, and let that player find a coach who is able and willing.[/success]
Nothing hurts a child’s self-esteem more than to be isolated from the group or excluded from an activity. When you bench a player, you’re excluding them from the activity (the game) and you’re silently stating that they are different from the rest of the team (isolation). Any coach who benches a youth player is interested in his own gain… not the player’s.
Ultimately, we’re all on Team USA. It’s our responsibility as youth soccer coaches to develop and teach EVERY child who is interested in playing. Not every child has the potential to represent the US on the International stage, but if a player has paid money to join a local youth soccer club, it’s our responsibility as coaches and directors to train them to the best of our abilities, and give them all the opportunities that we have given every other member who has paid.
Mike Slatton is a USSF & NSCAA nationally licensed youth soccer coach, player developer and father of two young soccer players.