There can be nothing more frustrating thing for a player than sitting on the sideline waiting for his or her turn on the field, a turn that all too often never comes. At the youth recreation level is it unforgivable for a player not to get meaningful time on the field, and no team should ever have too large a roster to accommodate that desire.
At the high school level, where differences in ability justifiably translate into differences in playing time, the desire for playing time is no less real. Players at that age and at that level are usually cognizant of those differences in ability, and in a close, competitive game, a coach that substitutes out the better players at a critical juncture late in a game, just to satisfy the idea that all players must step on the field, is doing a disservice to entire team, including that player who has been pacing the sideline all game.
I used to face this situation often, justifying the situation by promising the player significant playing time in an upcoming game against an inferior opponent. That is all well and good, but no doubt makes such players feel that they are only capable of playing in predictably lopsided games. Then one day I was confronted by a player who had enough of this routine. He attended every practice, participated in the drills and learned our philosophy, and demanded the respect he felt he deserved with the reward of playing in all the games. I promised I would think about it. Then, as fate would have it, we were shorthanded in our next game- a tense and competitive game- and when one of our starters was injured, I was "forced" to put in that player.
I would be lying to say I wasn't praying for the next 3 minutes, hoping that the move would not backfire. What I soon realized is that I never gave enough credit to players like him, not because he came in and became a phenom on the field, but because he was smart enough to understand the situation, understand his role, and used his skills to do the things he was capable of doing.
Another benefit coaches need to consider is that by giving your starters more time on the sidelines, they have time to study the player they are matched up against. This learning may prove invaluable when the starter returns to the field, as they now have time to learn his/her opponent tendencies: do they cross their legs, do they drop their stick head, do they overrun on defense, do they throw checks every "x" seconds. The sideline is a classroom, and it is up to you as the coach to see that your players view it that way.
Frankly, at that moment I felt like a complete ass, but an ass that was capable of learning and capable of changing. It was at that moment that I changed my whole attitude towards winning and towards my players. My coaching philosophy is deeply steeped in the idea of player empowerment, and I take great pride in the fact that once the game starts it is the players that are "in charge," making important decisions on the field themselves. I'll speak more about this in future posts, but the point here is that even my bench players had the confidence to elevate their game to fit right in.
As far as playing time, the main point of this post, it was here that I made an important decision, one that I believe all coaches in sports like lacrosse, soccer, and hockey should adopt: make sure that every player on your team step on the field in the first half of the game.
By doing this, you will never be faced with the situation of denying your players their opportunity, and right, to be part of the game. You will never be forced to look a player in the eye and tell him: "I'm sorry I couldn't get you in, but the game was just too close and I could not risk taking out my starters at that critical moment." Can you imagine how that must feel for a player to hear that? Please don't tell me that you would understand, that you would accept staying benched "for the good of the team and so that we would have a better chance to win."
That is such an unnecessary conversation, and in fact it creates a situation that could have damaging repercussions in the locker room. I had my serendipitous moment, and this change in my approach has had a positive impact on every team I've coached. I implore every coach to adopt this policy; it is a proactive step that will diffuse problems with players and parents before they even start. I am a better coach for it, my players are better for it, and their teams are better for it.