Playing time is a huge, huge issue in American youth sports at pre-high school levels. Simply put, playing time is the number one reason children play sports, and by a wide margin. They sign up to play! They don't sign up to watch other kids play, they don't sign up to watch adults coach, and they don't sign up to watch referees ref.
As a result, the number one mission for every youth coach - whether it be basketball or any other team sport - is to make sure kids get meaningful playing time in every game. At my talks and clinics, I am constantly reminding coaches that if playing their less-developed players ends up costing them the game, and if that hurts them too much, they should get out of coaching youth athletes and do something else.
Believe me, I have lost many games over my years coaching kids because I played the weaker kids. And you know what? I didn't really care, because I won enough games in my life as a college and professional player, when my ego was being stroked some 30 years ago. My world then was a monied world, and winning at that level was important. That's what you were expected - and in the case of the pros, expected - to do.
But at the youth level, if you think winning the game is the most important thing you do, then, to be very frank, it's time for you to retire.
Many factors affect playing time
With that said, there are a number of factors that affect the amount of playing time an individual player gets during a game, including:
- the number of kids on the team
- the number of kids you bring to the game; and
- the total "player minutes" available in the game, with that total depending on whether games are played by "stopped" minutes by official rules (i.e. the clock stops for foul shots, etc.), or whether the game is simply "running" time, with the clock stopped only for half-time or quarter breaks.
Let's look at middle school games (e.g. 6th to 8th grade) first. The standard length of game at this level is anywhere from 24 to 32 stopped minutes, which means that, when the referee's whistle blows, the clock starts. In running time games, there might be 24 to 30 minutes of running time for a half, or 12 or 15 minutes for a quarter. To convert running time to stopped minutes, I always use a factor of 0.6. So, for example, for a 40-minute running time game, multiply that by 0.6 and that really means a 24-minute equivalent stopped time game.For purposes of convenience, let's just talk about stopped time. If you as a coach play running time games, you can convert using my 0.6 factor. So let's say you have a 32-minute middle school game, and your team is playing 5 on 5 basketball. By multiplying the number of players (5) times the number of minutes (32), you know you have 160 total player minutes available. For 24-minute games (some middle school games are shorter than 32), you would only have 120 total minutes to divide among the players on your team. (This doesn't allow for overtime in this example.)
Meaningful playing time
So what is "meaningful" playing time?
Let's look at the example of 160 total playing minutes. The key factor that affects playing time is the number of players on your team. I have seen middle school teams range anywhere from 10 kids per team all the way up to 20 players. Coaches often don't want to cut kids; they want to keep as many as possible for depth, flexibility and having subs. So if you have 12 kids on your team, and you have 160 playing minutes available, do the math: it means roughly 13 minutes per player if everybody is playing equal time.
Now, I do know this very well after studying it very closely for the last 20-plus years: a child at this level in a game needs a minimum of 12 minutes per game to really learn how to play - and I'd love it to be higher, say 15 to 20 minutes a game. If you think you're doing your players a favor, especially your weaker kids, by playing them just a few minutes in the game, and you're also patting yourself on the backing by saying "hey I finally got everyone in the game," you are actually doing those kids a great disservice. A few minutes is simply a cameo appearance that actually does almost nothing for the child to help him or her learn how to play basketball. And I'll be honest with you, if you ever watched this - and I've seen it way too many times - some kid that goes in for just a very few minutes, knowing that he or she is going to get yanked out soon by the coach, will make all sorts of mistakes, will be nervous, will run like a deer in the headlights, and then be back on the bench. And then the coach will be saying "See, I proved it, that kid can't do anything." Yes the coach put the kid in for just 2, 3, 4 or 5 minutes, and he/she knew you were going to put him/her in for just that little time, and got nervous, and messed up, and then the coach said "Hey, that's why I don't play this kid." That coach just created a self-fulfilling prophecy!