Life is Not Fair, but Team Adult Must Be

life is not fair, but team Adult must be

In these days of significant divide in ideologies, there is at least one thing people can agree upon: life is not fair.

We know this. We witness this. The longer we live, the more we experience this.

So, why toil at all toward justice?

What if I told you I think we are designed to seek fairness. We can’t help it. It’s hard-wired into normally-functioning brain-mapping and etched someplace deep in our hearts. We want what is good, right, and just and when we give up working toward that we have given up the lifeblood that makes us the best sort of human.

What does all this babble have to do with youth and high school sports? I have been prompted to ruminate on this idea because there seems to be an unwritten agreement among the adults in youth sports suggesting it is okay if there is unfairness, because “Life is unfair and kids have to learn that eventually.”

The idea of fairness, and how Team Adult pursues it, is central to becoming better people for our sporting kids. Whether or not you have given up on achieving fairness in your own life, I guarantee you, the children and teens in your life have not, and you owe it to them to put up a good fight with them or at the very least stop setting up systems that promote unfairness in the name of achievement.

Start with Fair Playing Time

A blogpost I wrote years ago, Athletes Need Equal Playing Time Until Age 14, has garnered more hits, more comments, and more traffic than anything I have ever written. I think the reason why is because there is an unsettled debate about what people think is fair when it comes to playing time on youth and high school sports teams.

I heard from kids calling foul because my assertion meant it was not fair to the hard-workers who “earned” more playing time. Is it fair to ask better-skilled players to sit while lesser-skilled players lose games for them?

I heard from distraught families whose child’s expectations were disappointed because more time was spent sitting than playing and they didn’t think that was a fair arrangement for a 10-year-old.

So, what IS fair? (and note I have changed the word from “equal” to “fair”) My thinking on this topic has evolved since that post was originally published, and I do think there is a way to provide fair playing time to all the kids who want to play.

My philosophy and system is not perfect, but it is as close to fair as I can imagine. Now granted, pulling these ideas off with real people, on real teams, with real unique challenges is not easy, but nothing worthwhile ever is.

The first premise off of which we must operate is that teams have been formed correctly.  I’ll address this challenge in a future post, but for the purposes of this conversation, let’s assume there is not a ridiculous level-gap in talent among the athletes, they are all safe playing on this team, and as to be expected there are players who are better-skilled and those not quite as skilled.

In a case such as this,  playing time depends upon the team for whom I’m coaching. I have observed there are five types of youth teams. Determination of which sort of team comes together for a season MUST be decided and clearly communicated to families and athletes prior to the start.

You can call the team “elite” or “academy” or “AAA” or whatever else makes you feel good about the “premier” status of the team, but I am not talking about what you call the team, I am talking about how the team actually thinks about the programming it provides. Types of Youth Teams

Let me expand a bit on the description of what each team should set out to do.

Of the five teams, four of the teams should work toward equitable and fair playing time. Despite the fact that too many youth teams operate as such, there is only one type of  team where performance should dictate playing time.

Recreational Team

The first type of team is the recreational team. These teams exist for the sole purpose of recreation and fun. We do not have nearly enough of these teams available to our youth, but I’ll save that conversation for a future discussion. Recreational teams should be open to anyone and offer equitable opportunity to play for everyone.

Developmental Team

The second type of team is a developmental team. These teams are for athletes and families who want to develop a higher level of competency in a sport. Generally these kids are in the developmental stages as people and as athletes and ages can range from 5 or 6 through puberty. Because they are all learning at this stage, equitable playing time should be an expectation.

Adaptive Team

Another type of team is the adaptive team. I am so grateful more and more teams for differently-abled kids are available and these teams provide an awesome opportunity for exercise and to learn about teamwork. The expectation should certainly be equitable inclusion for this group too.

Showcase Team

The next team is the Showcase team. That team is a select, ability-based team that yes, still requires some development, but the team attends tournaments and showcases as a part of their programming. Kids and families are starting to think that the athlete might be playing past the youth level and exposure and experience are at a premium. I contend fair playing time at this level looks a whole lot like the other three teams I mentioned. Why? Well, if the point of the team is to showcase the players then the players need to be shown. Period.

Competitive Team

The last team is the competitive team. Yes, all youth teams are competing in games, but the competitive team is based on athlete-performance for all decisions. Performance at tryouts, practices and games determine playing time opportunities. These teams are high school varsity teams, college teams and pro teams. Most of the time, athletes on these team are over the age of 14…if they are younger than that and able to play at the varsity level, they better be good enough to play a lot, otherwise the development of that athlete is not being served.

Why is this so hard to do?

This has become difficult for Team Adult to implement because too often we look at the games kids play through adult lenses. Adults appreciate and crave performance-based teams. We pay admission to attend professional games, enjoy the high-level competition of college and varsity high school games, and we forget that youth sports should be a different beast. We have turned raising children into entertainment and competition unnecessarily. It is the most unfair arrangement we could provide for them.  

We MUST change our mindset

Playing time should be determined by behavior…not performance.

First, we have to change the prioritization of our thinking about youth sports. Right now, too many youth coaches (and parents, if I’m honest) place performance above behavior. Winning is performance, working hard is behavior. Scoring goals is performance, team awareness is behavior. Demonstrating a skill is performance, intentional work at a skill is behavior. The difference may seem subtle, but I think it is actually quite huge. 

Coaches, we are not running a puppet show hoping that our movements of the right strings will make the performance entertaining for those watching. We are educators and life-influencers making decisions that can help the children in our care make choices in their behavior that will help them grow into awesome people.

Now, can coaches and clubs dictate behavior that might affect playing time? Sure. If kids are not at practices regularly, not committed to the program, misbehaving on the sideline or at practices, playing time can be withheld, but if an athlete shows up, is respectful, behaves well, etc. playing time is a fair expectation, no matter how he or she performs.

What about those late-game decisions, (I’m talking like last five minutes) the ones that require the better players on the field because a win is necessary to move to the next round or the next game? Good coaches will have managed a game well enough this is already the situation, but if that is not a coaching skill the coach has, he/she should ask the team what they want to do in those situations? (probably for teams ten and older) You’d be amazed at the ability of kids to make decisions for a group, even sacrificing for the others, if the entire group benefits. Don’t be afraid to have these conversations with teams of kids. The teams are theirs after all. Bring up the topic at the end of a practice as a discussion item and then let the group guide the late-game decision policies. Make sure to share the team decision with the parents so there is no confusion from that side of the field.

All of this is actually really hard! Coaches, be challenged by the strategy necessary in putting combinations of players together on the field for games that grows each of them in some way and brings fairness to playing time. Parents, be advocates for your own children but also pay close attention to how well served the other children on the team are too. It is WAY harder to serve people than it is to stack the game for a win, or let unfair treatment go ignored.

Maybe more than anything, we need the highest caliber of adults, both coaches and parents, who are willing to put more effort into fighting for and encouraging programming befitting the needs of all the children we are raising.

Team Adult knows life is not fair, but we believe in the capacity to fight injustice and we follow our innate drive to do just that. 


Copyright Meagan Frank 2019                                               

Information presented in this post is copyrighted material, including all graphs and images. Reprint or use of the content, without adequate citation, requires expressed consent by the author. 



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