As coaches, we often struggle with having a fairly large gap between our top athletes and our bottom athletes. This is more of a problem in a team sports were sometimes we feel we have to coach to a different level for certain groups of players on a team. For instance, your top group of players might be able to run a power play that uses an umbrella because your top defencemen have terrific shots but, your bottom players don’t have the same skill set so can’t be successful with the same set up. Or, there might be a passing and skating drill that your top players are appropriately challenged by but your bottom players just can’t even come close to doing properly. This can really be a difficult situation because you will want to make sure all your players are getting better as the season goes on and you aren’t just coaching to the middle or the bottom of the team.
During practice, my approach has always to be to coach to the top skilled players on the team. It’s important to keep them engaged and improving and taking this approach means that the bottom end players are sucked along and are challenged much more. At the end of the day, practice should be a place where things are hard. I often use the metaphor of the trick skateboarder. She will not improve her skill level unless she is falling off her skateboard regularly. It’s the same in other sports. Players need to be challenged, fall down occasionally, then have success, to truly be improving. Challenging your athletes every day will inevitably make them better.
All athletes have different skill sets - both physically and mentally. In games, building an athlete’s confidence takes you as a coach to have the understanding and knowledge of both your team and your opponent. And don’t forget, it’s not just about physical skills. Athletes have different triggers and will undoubtedly have different responsibilities during games.
But, you have to be able to provide playing time for all of your athletes. This is crucial not only for their development but for the contentment quotient of the team. And, all sports are different in this regard. For instance, baseball tends to be a sport where it is the norm to have players on the team that will not get into a given game. Often there are seven pitchers that will sit in the bullpen for an entire game. Basketball tends to have a hierarchy of who plays more and who doesn’t. In football there are starters and then there are second string players who will only get to play in certain situations. Soccer has a number of players on the bench who won’t get into the game at a high level as well. Know, though, that depending on the level and age of your athletes, there should be appropriate playing time for everyone - doesn’t have to be equal necessarily but it needs to be fair.
The expectations of how much players will see action needs to be communicated on an individual basis - preferably before the game. That could be a conversation like “Sam, we are playing a very good team today and I don’t want you to be disappointed if I can’t get you in. But, stay ready because you never know what might happen.”
I have also been involved in games where there are one or two players who have not seen any or much action at all and it is not the norm for them. In hockey that often that happens when there are a lot of penalties and sometimes some players are not on the power play or penalty kill. I always make it a point, either on the bench toward the end of the game quietly, or after the game to just acknowledge that I know they didn’t get much playing time and that “it was an odd game that way.” I know players feel better about what transpired if you at least acknowledge that it wasn’t that they were playing poorly but just situational.
Sometimes though, you have to put athletes in tough situations and “hold your breath” for some great gain. Occasionally, and I will use the penalty example again, your top players might be tired and they need a break. Sometimes, you just have to send in someone who might not be able to handle the job. But…if they do a good job, there is huge gain to be made with regards to confidence. If they can’t handle the assignment, then the expectation of success wasn’t very high and you can chalk it up to “you gave it your best shot”.
I will purposely put weaker or less experienced players out in tough situations with the express purpose of making them step up their game and play at their best. It is a great learning experience and it has a few great outcomes. First, it lets a player know that you do have enough confidence in them to put them out there. Second, it allows them to come to understand where they need to be in order to be a “starter” or “first stringer”. Third, for the player who thinks they should be playing more, often it is a terrific wake up call for them to understand how much work they will need to do in order to play at that level.
I have particularly used this strategy with regards to pitchers and goalies. If there are certain athletes who are disgruntled about playing time at these positions, it is simple just to put them out there against top opposition. If they are successful? Awesome! But if there are not, they quickly realize how difficult it really is to play at the level that the team needs to in that situation.
Don’t coach to the bottom of your team. Make sure everyone is challenged and everyone is improving. Having your bottom players have to stretch to keep up is not a bad thing if you can make sure they keep it in perspective and see that they are improving. Challenging your top players will only make them better and they will invariably pull the rest of the team along with them.