The Serious Game of Playing Time

A recent incident in the Ontario Hockey League, considered the best major-junior (16-20 yr. olds) league in the world, has highlighted the often tense relationship between coaches, players, fans, owners and parents over the issue of playing time.

ESPN and Yahoo Sports report that after a come-from-behind victory over the Oshawa Generals, Flint Firebird owner Rolf Nilsen fired the coaching staff because he felt they weren’t playing his son enough.  The team, including the son, then marched up to Nilsen’s office, tossed their jerseys on the floor and went home, vowing to stay there until the coaches were rehired.

The Detroit News reports that just after 5 p.m. on Monday the coaches were, in fact, rehired, given new 3-year contracts and an apology by Nilsin.

Reactions in the hockey world have been decidedly in support of the players standing up for their coach though some dissenters, notably Scott Lochlan of Sirus/XM’s Hockey Talk have wondered if such actions will lead to a pattern of quitting every time a player doesn’t get along with a coach or management.  Lochlan’s co-anchor, Jim “Boomer” Gordon, pointed out the unique circumstances under which the action occurred and gave other examples of players standing up for coaches including Jimmy Chitwood from “Hoosiers”.  We’ve seen a similar solidarity scene, though this time directed at a coach, in “Rudy” in which the entire Notre Dame football team tosses their jerseys on the coaches desk (which may or may not have actually happened but sure was effective on film) eventually leading to Rudy getting to dress against Georgia Tech and a final scene that makes me cry tears of joy every time I see it.

Waiting for his ice time.

Waiting for his ice time.

Much closer to home, former Orono High School Girls Basketball Coach Jessica Witham resigned last April after nine seasons that included a  State Title reportedly over the issue of playing time and how the concerns were brought to her attention.

The Bangor Daily News learned from sources who asked not to be named that a small group of parents were unhappy with their daughters’ playing time and Witham’s coaching style.” 

While the knee jerk reaction would be to side with the coach in this instance, we can’t know the actual circumstances of the parent’s concern.

In other cases, with other coaches of other teams, playing time was allotted or withheld not necessarily based on skill and tactics but on control, favoritism, punishment or simply inexperience.  Recent articles in Sports Illustrated and other publications have described instances in which coaches used playing time as both a carrot and a stick.

At the youth sports (pre-high school) level playing time is, in most sports, distributed evenly.  This is done, in part, because the players and their families are paying to play and not playing is not part of the payment plan.  It also affords skill development for all the whole team.  It’s hard to apply skills that have been introduced in practice to a game situation sitting on the bench and while this approach may lead to some losses early on, as with my son’s Tier IV Squirt team last year, it paid big dividends at the end of the season as we tied the regional champs and made it to the semi-finals of our end of the season tournament with players who might have been left on the bench on other teams with differing philosophies making key contributions.

There is also the danger of burning out your best players.  One of the teams in that regional tournament was extremely dependent on a single player and left him on the ice for exceptionally long stretches.  In the short term, the kid was beating teams pretty much on his own but with four games in three days when it came to the final, he simply ran out of gas and the team that played their lines evenly advanced.

Admittedly, in the final minutes of a close game, even in an organization that emphasizes fun and skill development over winning, you’ll usually find the best players on the ice or on the floor or in the field.  This isn’t necessarily by the book but most parents and players agree that going for the win trumps a few extra seconds of playing time for the lesser skilled as long as the playing time up to those final minutes has been pretty even.  As a coach, I’ve been guilty of this myself.  Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t and sometimes I regret I didn’t just keep rolling lines the way we had all game.

Sometimes playing time just gets away from a coach.  They don’t mean to have a player sitting there for five minutes they just get swept up in the action of the game and forget.  This is when an alert assistant comes in handy, letting the coach know before the steaming parent pops up behind the bench and starts yelling.

Sometimes players sit themselves. They’re tired or hurt or have lost confidence and don’t want the responsibility.  Here’s it’s the coaches job (except in the case of injury) to get the kid back out there if for no other reason than to not let them quit and thus avoid one more instance of America becoming a nation of wimps (or whatever term best suits your discourse community).

Most of the time, the coach is doing his or her best to make sure everyone gets in the game for as close to an even amount of time as possible.  Most of the time.

As I wrote about in my very first blog, Snowcones, I was at the center of a playing time controversy in a Little League championship game.  As a nine-year old in a machine-pitch league I had played first base and led off all season.  I led the league in batting average (1.000), stolen bases and runs.  I was also very good at snagging errant throws and getting my foot on the bag.  Our final practice was a Thursday evening, but I had an after-school typing lesson my mom insisted I attend so I missed the first half of practice.  It was the coach’s policy that if you missed practice you only played a half-game.  But since, I only missed the first half the coach only busted me down to 9th in the batting order and put me out in left field.

In my opinion, that coach made three big mistakes.  First, he wasn’t punishing me – I rather enjoyed the wide open spaces and feel of grass under my cleats – he was trying to punish my mom for placing typing before baseball.  Not that she cared.  (Silly Mom with her wanting to improve more than my throw to home.) Second, he was punishing my team by not giving them the best chance to win the game.  And finally, he punished his own son by putting that kid on first base and making him the lead-off hitter, positions he’d never even practiced and with every ball that got away from the kid and every time he failed to get on base he had to walk back to the dugout feeling like crap.  Way to go coach!

Not to be outdone however, my father came storming into the dugout right after we’d lost and shaken hands and just had to sit through the “good season, boys.  Lots of highlights,” speech before we could go get our snowcones, and dragged me out, cursing the coach and threatening to take me home before we even got to the snowcone part.  Way to go dad!


I will most certainly be roasted over hot coals for the following advice but, let’s keep in mind that this advice is aimed at youth sports, not high-school, juniors, college, pro, etc. where money, contracts, scholarships, and careers complicate matters a great deal.


For Coaches: Do your best to keep playing time as even as possible and don’t put your own kid in a position to feel like crap. (Kudos to the Nilsin kid for sticking with his team – could there possibly be anyone more embarrassed by the situation than this kid?)  Also, communicate your decisions as clearly as possible.  Make a statement at the first practice so players and parents know what to expect.

For Parents: Don’t sit in the stands with a stopwatch and haggle over a few seconds here or there.  If there is a serious problem talk to the coach.  Express your concerns in a calm, productive manner and give the coach a chance to clarify the strategy.  If the problem continues or you feel you weren’t given a sufficient answer then move higher up your organization’s chain of command.   You are paying for your kid to play and are entitled to a voice.  Just make sure it’s one founded in rational thought and not a misguided sense of justice, freedom and the American Way.

For Players: Work harder at practice and when you’re on the bench-cheer loudly!



Travis Baker

About Travis Baker

Travis Baker grew up playing baseball, basketball, football and soccer. There was a brief stint with karate and a briefer one with fencing but he would not return to the glory days of youth sport until he moved to Maine and had a couple of boys, Zane (11) and August (7), of his own. Inspired by his lads, he learned to play hockey at the age of 35 and now plays every Monday night in Brewer. Thanks to a number of former students, he’s learned a wee bit about lacrosse, field hockey and track and field. When not helping out in his kid’s activities, is the award-winning playwright of One Blue Tarp and Hair Frenzy, both of which premiered at the Penobscot Theatre Company in Bangor. Travis is the author of Night and the Texas Sky, and numerous short stories and essays. He is married to the founder of Maine Yoga Adventures, Holly Twining. Currently, he coaches hockey, baseball and serves on the board of the Maine Junior Black Bears as the PR Director.