Balancing Act

By Fred Engh

The issue of equal playing time for kids is—at the least—perplexing.

Without question, kids involved in recreational sports at younger age levels should have equal opportunities to play, regardless of their skill level or experience with the sport.

And there are countless youth-sports studies that report that kids say they would rather play on a losing team than sit on the bench for a winning team.

But herein lays the fallacy of kids’ sports.

As soon as the scoreboards are turned on for all to see, equal playing time often goes out the door. The coaches—typically dads with their own child on the team—often lose track of being fully dedicated to making sure every child plays and experiences the ups and downs of competition, and can wind up playing only those players during the majority of the game who give the team the best chance to win.

Here’s how some Certified Youth Sports Administrators (CYSAs) ensure equal playing time in their programs, and address problems that arise when young athletes don’t receive it:

Jeff Shelton, Recreation Specialist of Child and Youth Programs for Naval Station Rota (Spain): “We guarantee 50-percent playing time to all players, with the exception of large rosters; then we monitor and spread the time out from game to game and rotate the minimum time of play to everyone. We try never to penalize a child for a parent’s not bringing the player to practice unless it’s continuously unexcused. We then explain to the parent that the effect of lack of practice hurts the entire team, and depending on the player’s age, could be a safety issue because of lack of knowledge. When it comes to baseball, a lack of practice could render a player to a single position on the field because the positions of danger—pitcher, catcher, first base, and third base—require reaction for protection.

Last basketball season, we discovered a player had only played one quarter halfway through the fourth quarter. I have high school kids keeping stats for volunteer hours, and they caught it. We deducted six points from that team’s score, and it lost the game. After the game, I explained to the team that the fault fell upon the coach, and he was truly upset that he forgot a player and didn’t catch it. I explained that these things happen when the tension is high, but that’s why we have these rules in place. Most of the kids didn’t care, as they were upset about the loss, but one girl explained that she was sad that the other player took some of her playing time.

I have included a rule in my by-laws that our staff needs to be notified if a coach plans to reduce a player’s playing time for any reason, and we need documentation for the reason. If I or my staff is not notified prior to the game and we see a violation of the minimum-playing-time requirement, that team will be penalized: six points will be taken away at the time of discovery, which is always at the end of the game, usually late in the third quarter or beginning of the fourth quarter. The punishment usually makes a difference in the outcome, and that is my intent for the violation. This rule was also made for soccer (a goal is forfeited) and football (six points are taken away).”

Kyle Bacon, Program Attendant—Sports, for the town of Cary (N.C.) Parks, Recreation & Cultural Resources: “Our youth-sports program includes every child in the community. Every boy and girl, ages 5 through 18—regardless of experience or skill level—has an opportunity to participate with their peers in a fun, encouraging, educational environment. Our youth-sports philosophy seeks to encourage four fundamental principles: fun, sportsmanship, skill development, and participation. One of the most important ways that we encourage these principles is through the playing-time rules. Every participant is guaranteed a minimum playing time of 50 percent of every game. We have tried to make the process of tracking playing time as simple as possible, for staff members who are doing the tracking; for coaches who are implementing the policies; and for parents, who must have confidence that their children are being treated fairly. Because the rules are fairly simple and straightforward, and because staff members are well-trained and experienced, we rarely have any problems or controversies with regard to implementing the rules, or tracking the playing time. Making sure that all of the kids receive the playing time they are due is a top priority, and is far more important than the final score. As such, the implementation of our playing-time rules is always in the front of everyone’s minds.”

Fred Engh is founder of the National Alliance for Youth Sports (NAYS) in West Palm Beach, Fla. He can be reached via email at To join more than 3,000 communities by starting a NAYS chapter, visit or contact Emmy Martinez at or (800) 729-2057.