How Coaches Make “Playing Time” Harder than It Should Be


We don’t want to be “that parent”—you know, the crazy sports parent who yells at referees, lectures their kid on the car ride home, and sends texts to the coach complaining about their child’s lack of playing time. We’re not living vicariously through our children. Our self-worth doesn’t hang in the balance of our kids’ sporting careers. We’re not those parents.

We get that it’s a team sport. We get that it’s about something more than their individual achievements. We understand if you asked every parent how many minutes they expect their kid to play and added them up, the total number of minutes would likely be three to five times the possible minutes in a game. We get it; not everyone can or will play as many minutes as they want or think they should play.

We respect how hard you’ve worked to coach this team. You’ve given up time from your family, and other pursuits in life. We appreciate you, and your sacrifice. Your job isn’t easy, and there will always be critics, but the last thing we want to do is be another critic, so we’ll continue to bite our tongue.

But to be honest, it’s hard to see them not be on the court or the field after they and our family have sacrificed so much: countless hours of practices, and individual training over the years; long car trips to tournaments on the weekends; thousands of dollars on fees, camps, and equipment. They’ve given up opportunities to work summer jobs, go on family vacations, or pursue other interests. It doesn’t help that this is a new level; before this stage, they were one of the best players on the team, and now they’re just a little fish in a big pond.

But I know most of us could live with all that because we know it’s how the world works. Just because you work hard and sacrifice for a job, opportunity, or promotion doesn’t mean you will get it or are entitled to it.

The Four Most Common Playing-Time Frustrations

What’s probably most difficult for us is to see our own children struggle as they lose their joy for a sport they once loved. Time and time again, we experience the same frustrations:

1. Perceived Misalignment of Values: My child says you are constantly preaching about the importance of hard work. At the parent meeting, you told us that what was really important to you was hard work and being a good teammate. But time and time again, you play the players who don’t play hard or work hard and are bad teammates. They talk back to you and yell at their teammates. I get it; they are better players than my child, but you led the players and parents to believe that you didn’t care only about talent.

2. Fear of the Unknown: As a coach, you just assume that they should know their role, but the truth is they don’t know. They go into every game totally unsure whether they will play or not. Psychologists say that the fear of the unknown is far greater than that the fear of the known. I think if the players could just know—or at least, have an idea of their role before the game—then it could help remove so much of their stress.

3. We Don’t Understand How Decisions Are Made: It sometimes seems like you just pick your favorites and don’t trust others. I’m sure this isn’t the case most of the time, but we don’t understand how you make decisions, so it’s easy for us to make up our own stories to fill in the missing information. Do you base your playing-time decisions on off-season commitments, practice performance, or game performance? Does seniority matter? How does someone move up or down the line-up? Does academic performance matter? Is it based on the best players, or the best group? We don’t know a lot about the sport, but if we just understood how decisions were made, then it would help us accept those decisions—regardless of whether we agree or not. At least, then our child would know what they need to do to improve their role—or even if they had a real chance of doing so.

4. Unmet Expectations: You met with all your athletes at the start of the year, and you told them where they currently were, and what they needed to work on to get more minutes. However, they have worked on those things and done everything you asked, but they still haven’t gotten more playing time. Maybe that’s because the players in front of them also improved and are simply better than them—and that’s okay, but it wasn’t the message that we heard.

Please don’t let those few “crazy sports parents” turn you off. The sane sports parents of the world don’t honestly expect you to play our child more just because they work hard and love the sport or because we help out the team. We just think that if you addressed some of these four common frustrations, then it could help our children buy into their roles and stay motivated. It could also help create a positive experience for everyone on the team—and you, as the coach.

—J.P. Nerbun

Founder, Thrive On Challenge

Helping Coaches Build Transformational Culture

Note: The following article was written by me (a sports parent to a five-year-old, three-year-old, and one-month-old), but it comes from the perspective of athletes and parents all over the world at the youth, high school, and collegiate level. I’ve done surveys with hundreds of teams and identified these as the four common frustrations that athletes and their parents experience.

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