"Coach, can I talk to you about my playing time?"

“Coach, can I talk to you about my playing time?” It’s the dreaded question for coaches everywhere. Several coaches have recently asked me how to talk with players who want to talk about their playing time. Now, let’s be honest, when a player asks to meet about playing time she probably doesn’t want to talk about the fact that she feels like she is playing too much. Most of the time, it’s a player who didn’t make the travel roster but she feels like she should be starting every game. Here are some different approaches that I have used with players in the past. Ultimately, you will need to pick the approach that you think will work best with your players.

1. “Facts, Figures, and Film” – I have found this to be a good starting point for players who may be feeling emotionally charged. Using tools like stats or film to show a comparison between how she is performing and how the players in front of her are performing is a good first step. You can also create an assessment where you ask her to rank herself in a variety of categories. Then share with her how the coaching staff ranked her in those same categories.

I used this approach with a player who was coming off the bench as a forward. We compared her stats to the starter in that position. The conversation went something like this; “So in the last game Kara took 6 shots and put 3 on frame. But in the last 4 games combined, which equals the same amount of time that Kara played in the last game, you took 1 shot and it wasn’t on frame. We need our forwards taking shots and putting them on frame.”

This approach attempts to take the emotion out of the conversation and make it feel less personal. It is critical that you give your players clear steps on how to improve in their areas of deficiency. For the player I mentioned it wasn’t just, “shoot more” it was; work on beating players 1v1 so you can shoot more, work on your first touch so you don’t turn over the ball and then you can shoot more, or develop your left foot so you can shoot more. It was important that we gave her specific skills that led to her being able to “shoot more”  and we could demonstrate these moments on film as well.

2. “Start Doing, Stop Doing & Keep Doing” – This approach is great for a player who has the potential to get better but she needs to make some changes to get there. Often times the improvements players need to make can feel overwhelming. By looking at those adjustments in three categories we can make them much more manageable. The three questions I like to ask are:

  • What do you need to start doing to become better than the player who is playing ahead of you?
  • What do you need to stop doing to become better than the player who is playing ahead of you?
  • And what do you need to keep doing?

After listening to the player’s answers it is important that the coaches also share their thoughts to make sure everyone is on the same page. I took this approach with a player who came into our meeting thinking I was going to say that she needed to completely overhaul her life. By thinking of the changes in these three ways it became much more manageable for her and we saw good growth in the off-season.

3. “What are you willing to sacrifice?”– I have found that this is a great option when you have an unhappy player who has not yet realized that she needs to quit. Unfortunately, many coaches are working in environments where they are told to try and talk players out of quitting. I’ve been there, but I hit a point where my own integrity mattered more than the unwritten department policy.

The first time I used this approach with a player I was amazed at the result. This player had no business being on a college team but I was told I couldn’t cut her or encourage her to quit. After the season she came in to talk about playing time and we began to talk about what she was willing to sacrifice in order to become better than the players who were in front of her on our depth chart. I asked her some of the following questions:

  • What have you done today to make yourself a better player? (She said her day had been very busy so she hadn’t been able to do anything.)
  • What are you willing to give up in order to get better?  (She didn’t have an answer.)
  • What do you get out of being on this team? (She said friendships.)
  • I told her that she needed extra ball work in the spring. I asked if she was willing to give up her part-time job to fit in extra ball work. (Her answer was no.)
  • I expressed that she needed to drop her fitness test time by a specific number of minutes so she would have the endurance to stay on the field. I asked if she was willing to stay on campus over the summer to achieve this goal. (Her answer was no.)
  • This player was very involved on campus and I asked her if she was willing to give up some of her clubs and organizations to focus on her develop as a soccer player. (Her answer was no.)
  • And I ended with this question; if you knew we would win every game next season but you wouldn’t play would you still want to be a part of this team? (Her answer was no.)

I knew it wasn’t my place at that time to lecture her on her answers, but I did request that she give some more thought the questions I had asked. It was just a matter of days before she came back and said she realized there were other things in her life that were more important to her than soccer; her part-time job, a summer internship, life off the field, and that she finally realized she was playing soccer for the wrong reasons. She decided to leave the team and she did it on her terms. And for the record, I did hear about it from my AD but being honest with this player and helping her make this decision on her own was more important to me than departmental numbers and a lecture on retention.

4. “What’s the real problem?” – I believe of all your options this one is needed the most often, but it is also the most difficult to facilitate. This approach requires a unified coaching staff and a coach who can lead a heartfelt conversation.

I strongly believe that most athletes want to talk about playing time because they don’t know how to talk about the real issue. We need to help them figure out the problem behind the problem so we can solve the correct issue. Here’s an example; I had a player who was coming off the bench for us and she was getting about 30 minutes a game. The starter in her position was simply a better player and she was getting about 60 minutes a game. This player came in and asked, “What do I have to do to be a starter, I really want to be a starter.” There were some hints in that statement since she didn’t ask what she could do to get better or how she could help the team. Instead, she placed a lot of value on being a starter. I had a healthy relationship with this player and I knew I would be able to push the conversation to a deeper level.

It wasn’t too long before we pulled back some layers and got to the real issue; she didn’t feel that her parents saw the value in playing college soccer if she wasn’t a starter. She believed they had invested greatly in her soccer career and she worried that by not starting they resented that investment. And lastly, through her tears, she said, “it’s just really important to my dad that I am a starter and I want to make him proud.” We finally got to the real issue. We talked about it from a rational standpoint and I asked some of the following questions:

  • I know your parents put in a lot of time when you were in high school, but who is putting in the time and effort now? (She said that she was putting in the time and that she needed to see this as her experience.)
  • Do you think your dad would be happy if you were a starter but played less minutes? (Her answer was no.)
  • So does being a starter really solve the problem here? (Her answer was no.)
  • Is it fair for your parents to love you more or less based on playing time? (Her reply, no, but that is how it is with them.)

We then talked about the value that I saw in what she brought to our team. I certainly couldn’t make her dad express that he was proud of her but I was committed to being more consistent about letting her know that I valued what she brought to our team on and off the field regardless of her playing time.

Each of these options can be useful and you may have to try several options with the same player. The reality is your players are coming to you for clarity and we have a moral responsibility to help them with this process.

My advice; be honest, specific, compassionate, and listen to your inner voice of integrity. If you focus on those things you can’t go wrong.