Playing Time

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This article was guest written by Greg Winkler, author of Coaching a Season of Significance and The Transformational Coach.


A topic that causes controversy and stress at the youth and high school level has exploded recently in the national media. Playing time is the most frustrating topic that confronts a coach. I remember a conversation I had with a college coach in the late 90’s about why they didn’t coach high school. He commented, “I don’t have to deal with parents and playing time.”

It was a short time after our conversation before it started to become a problem at the collegiate level. That coach began dealing with “helicopter” and “lawn-mower” parents in his college program, the one thing about coaching he was trying to stay away from. As my coaching career continued, I started to write and speak about changing the parent/coach paradigm and the importance of a chain of command. Do you have to coach professionally to avoid this playing time issue?

Recently, “playing time” has taken center stage in American soccer. While this new particular example comes from the soccer field, it is not just a soccer issue. It is a substantial youth sports issue. It is a significant reason why coaches get fired or choose to leave the profession. The story is about entitlement and perceived influence. The playing time issue, common to youth leagues, has become a national embarrassment for the United States National Soccer team.

The drama between the Berhalter and Reyna families has sent shockwaves through the soccer landscape, not only because of the level at which the issue of playing time has come up but because of how quickly it fractured some of the deepest bonds in American Soccer.

Gregg and Claudio were friends as children. They suited up together for their youth clubs and in high school. Their soccer pursuits led them to the national stage, and they traveled to two World Cups together. They were teammates. They were friends. Claudio was Gregg’s best man at his wedding.

Their ties go even deeper. Their wives were college roommates. Their sons had played for each other at some level. These were bonds as impenetrable as it gets between two families. But at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, those bonds were broken. Claudio’s son Gio wasn’t getting the playing time his parents thought he should be. Claudio and his wife objected to how their son was being treated within Berthalter’s locker room. Events led to the apparent quick unraveling of a friendship decades in the making, mainly because of the same issues that the aforementioned college coach above looked to a higher level to avoid. Parents, and playing time. Yet here, playing time came to a head on soccer’s highest stage.

As long as there are parents, playing time will be an issue with some of them. But every parent resolves those issues differently. Some talk to the coach. Some pull their kids from the team. Some do nothing and hope for the best. In this case, the Reynas took action.

“During the World Cup, an individual contacted U.S. Soccer, saying they had information about me that would ‘take me down’ – an apparent effort to leverage something very personal from long ago to bring about the end of my relationship with U.S. Soccer.” Gregg Berhalter recently stated on Twitter. The issue was an altercation between Gregg and his now-wife from 1991. The individual that contacted U.S. Soccer with that information was Danielle Reyna. Claudio’s wife. Gio’s mom. Gregg’s wife’s college roommate. Gregg’s friend.

Two families that had been through so much together, both on the field and especially off of it, were now at odds. There are more underlying issues, and perhaps there aren’t. But to most observers, the center of this saga was a kid not getting enough playing time. And the parents got mad.

This story is tragic. Yet this happens in every youth sport across the country daily. If you are a parent, you have probably been asked more than once to coach your child’s recreational sports team. It’s recreational, they tell you. You don’t need any experience; have fun with the kids, you are told. There is very little, if any, coaching training.

The kids are little, and you have a good time; the league convinces you to keep coaching. You read a few books and watch videos, and then the problem begins. You decide you need an assistant. You seek out another parent whose kid is good at six years old. You keep moving up age groups with the kids, and before you know it, the stakes get higher. There is a select or travel league, your assistant’s kid is not ready, there is a split, and that is the first lost friendship. The further you go, the more significant those “splits” become.

In my book, Coaching a Season of Significance, I discuss choosing your assistant coaches. Many young coaches need to prepare for parental issues. They may know the sport, be effective teachers, and be familiar with age-appropriate skill development. However, no one told them about the “Soccer Mom!”

It doesn’t matter how old the child is, 6 or 20; the protective “Mama Bear” is always watching. They are quick to turn on you if they believe their “cub” has been wronged. Your youth league and high school must have a chain of command and policies to deal with parent/coach misunderstandings.

The coach should set expectations and communicate with the parents as much information as possible. Leagues should educate parents from the moment their child enters an activity about playing time, and performance time, which is always a coach’s decision. If a player doesn’t like it, that opens up the opportunity to talk to the coach about how they can improve and demonstrate their ability to play more.

When a parent enrolls their child in a team sport, they should be taught to “release their child” to the game, to the coach. The joys of play belong to the child, and the setbacks also belong to the child. Participation in sports, music and drama activities allows our children to learn and grow. Participation and being a part of a team can provide many valuable growth opportunities. What are we teaching our kids when parents are allowed to or feel they have to fix all of the child’s disappointments?

Regardless of how careful you are and how often and effectively you communicate, people will always want to get close to you for future gain or favor. The best thing you can do is lay out your playing time guidelines and expectations and be consistent. As evidenced by the Berthalter/Reyna story, there is no level of sport where playing time is not an issue.


Coach Greg Winkler currently coaches high school boys’ soccer in Punta Gorda, Florida. Winkler has written two coaching books, Coaching a Season of Significance, and his newest book, The Transformational Coach. He directed a youth soccer club in Wisconsin for 20 years, was a high school athletic director for 15 years, and coached football, wrestling, and track.

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