Why Your Kid Is Missing Out on Playing Time

The good news: Being on the bench could jump-start some major progress.

Waiting for playing time at a basketball game
Rob Friedman / Getty Images

In youth sports, playing time—or the lack of it—can be a powerful motivator and life-lesson-teacher. If your child is sitting on the bench, consider why that is, and what she can learn from it. It turns out that there are actually some benefits to not playing.

Why Coaches Limit Playing Time

Especially when your child is young, he should be getting about as much playing time as everyone else on the team.

Many leagues have explicit rules about this to keep things fair. When kids are just learning a sport, participating shouldn't be a meritocracy. But as athletes grow in skill and experience, coaches get more leeway to award varying amounts of time on the court and on the bench.

Your child might find himself benched if she is:

  • Often late, or absent, for games or practices. This may be a team or league policy, or be up to the discretion of the coach. Regardless, frequent tardiness or absences show a lack of commitment to the team.
  • Injured. For her safety, she may not be able to participate. But to be a team player, she should still attend practices and games and observe from the bench.
  • Struggling in school. School-sponsored teams often have grade-point requirements for sports participation. And even private leagues and clubs may have policies designed to encourage kids to keep up with their academic work or risk missing out on playing time.
  • New to the sport. Unless she's blessed with a ton of natural talent, a beginner probably doesn't have the skills to keep up with the rest of the team at first. She should be prepared to spend some time on the bench until she catches up.
  • New to the team. Even if she's an experienced player, she may need to prove herself to her new coaches before she gets more playing time.
  • Not being a good sport. Being disrespectful to teammates, opponents, officials, and/or coaches is a big no-no. If your child is showing a poor attitude, most coaches won't hesitate to bench her.
  • Not keeping up her skills. This is the hardest one to diagnose and deal with. It can be hard for your athlete, and you, to realize that she's not the star player she once was. Sometimes it means she's not practicing hard enough. Sometimes it means other players have passed her by. It can be a combination of these and other factors.

Those are just some of the legitimate reasons your kid might sit out a game or part of one. Of course, there's always the chance that the coach really is discriminating against her, or is deliberately being punitive. But usually, coaches have a good reason for limiting an athlete's playing time.

Make the Most of Time on the Bench

Your child probably won't like missing out on the action. You can turn that to your advantage and use it as a motivator. Take it step by step:

First, try to determine why your child is sitting on the bench. You might be able to easily chalk it up to one of the reasons above. If you can't, talk to the coach. Ideally, your child should approach the coach himself.

He should ask, politely and calmly, for suggestions on skills he needs to improve in order to earn more playing time. This can be hard for even the most outgoing kid, but it's a great way to build confidence and communication skills. If your child doesn't get anywhere with this approach, then it's okay for you to step in. Just keep things respectful.

Second, address the problem. Most of the time, your child will need to put in more practice time in order to win more playing time. He should focus on the skills his coach has identified for him. If he's really struggling, a private coach might help.

Third, make sure your child is learning from the situation. Is he understanding the game better? Is he seeing that hard work is rewarding? That he can speak up for himself? Or that mistakes (like lateness or trash-talking) have consequences? Sometimes you have to connect these dots for him.

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