Why Significant Playing Time Is Important

“I’m not sure what you need first – the players believing or others believing in them – but in the end, both have to think it.” Jurgen Klopp

Why Significant Playing Time Is Important

I experienced both sides of “everyone plays” equation when I was in high school. 

My football coach went to great lengths to include everyone.  He had only a couple of guys playing both ways, and he always found a spot on a specialty team for the younger players. 

My basketball coach, however, was more of a 6-7 person deep guy.  He thought nothing of putting a player in for the first time with 15 seconds left in the game just to give him “varsity” experience. 

I decided to adopt “everyone plays equal time” at all levels expect varsity.  At the varsity everyone plays significant time, although it might not be equal. 

What does significant time look like?

To help me answer that I am drawing on the example from Messiah College.

Messiah College is a Division 3 school in Pennsylvania.  From 2000-2010, its men’s and women’s soccer teams posted the best combined winning soccer record in the NCAA.  472 wins, 31 losses, and 20 ties. Few programs were even close. Seventeen Final Fours between them during this time. Eleven national titles. Unbeaten streaks measured not only in games, but in seasons. How do they do it? What’s their secret of success? 

Michael Zigarelli wrote a book called “The Messiah Method”.  It is a great, fun read with a lot of great insights.

Here are a few of the take-a-ways I had from the book.  I suggest you read this book.  I am sure you will have other insights along the way.

  • Ask alumni to write letters to the current team about what they miss most.
  • Captains and Seniors lead by example.  They are the ones that serve the team.  Get next year’s leaders to help. 
  • Upper Class trains and accepts the incoming players.  Strength through Encouragement.
  • Play deep into the bench.  30 minutes minimum per game if you are on the Varsity.  We have Starters and we have Game Changers.  We expect maximum effort when you are on the field.
  • Team over individuality.  It’s not about you.  “Miracle on Ice” example (the Disney movie – the “Again” scene).
  • Train in a way that genuinely makes a difference in the game.
  • Use specific training by position.  Explain the choices (or let them self discover the choices if you have the time) and then let the players work out the choices in specific training.  Enable players to succeed by linking the training to the game.

There is a lot to unpack here, and much more in the book.  Today I’d like to focus on one of the bullet points:

  • Play deep into the bench.  30 minutes minimum per game if you are on the Varsity.  We have Starters and we have Game Changers.  We expect maximum effort when you are on the field.

This goes right along with one of the tenants in my coaching philosophy, everyone on Varsity plays significant time.

To accomplish that I like to set as my roster goal 16 players (17 can work, 18 gets a bit more dicey).  That is 1 keeper and 15 out players.

I also keep in mind what classes these 16 players are in.  I like to have 2 or 3 at the most from the freshmen and sophomore classes combined.  Very rarely will a freshman make the Varsity (this may not apply so much when coaching girls, as they mature more rapidly than boys).  It is just too big of a jump physically for most freshmen, even if they are skilled.  The rest are juniors and seniors. 

Once you build your program with these numbers in mind you are never in a rebuilding mode, just reloading.  You always have a solid core of returning letter winners with significant varsity playing time.  So, in a typical year you might have 7 or 8 seniors playing Varsity, which leaves you with 8 or 9 returning players with lots of varsity experience plus those underclassmen who you called up for the Section and State Tournament run.  You just reload each year.

I do not place a lot of importance on who starts.  The players do, the parents do, but I do not.  Although we try very hard to get a goal early, the reality is that most goals are scored in the final 5 minutes of a half or of the game.  So, I want my best players on the field at the end of each half.

Now that means I need to incorporate some creative line up and substitution management.  The Captains always start, as does the keeper.  From then on, I like to rotate players a bit.  If you rotate the players into the starting positions, then they all “feel” like they are starters.  This is very important to them, so it is a good way to encourage and build them up.  It also prepares us for the inevitable – players going down due to illness, injury or sanctions.

When to do I substitute?  I never substitute a player after they make a mistake.  It is the mistake that they cling to until they get a chance to do something positive.  Instead, if it is their turn in the sub rotation to come out and they just made a mistake I will wait a minute or two until they had worked through it and done something positive, then sub.

I also like to substitute by the clock rather than by my instincts – on most occasions anyway.  I got this idea watching former U of M basketball coach Clem Haskins.  He would sub right at the 4-minute mark of the game and would go 9 or 10 players consistently into his bench.  So, I will begin subbing at the 10- or 15-minute mark, depending on the line up, and let the players who come off the field rest from 5 to 10 minutes before they rotate in.  That way everyone on the team gets a minimum of 15 minutes per half, with most everyone getting 20 per half or more.  This is a great way to build team unity, make everyone feel like starters, and alleviate any disgruntled parents 🙂

I like to have 3 players for every 2 positions.

Think about the most basic soccer system: 1-4-4-2

1 – Keeper

3 – outside fullbacks for 2 positions

3 – center fullbacks for 2 positions

3 – outside midfielders for 2 positions

3 – center midfielders for 2 positions

3 – forwards for 2 positions

The center of the field is where you need the players who can play under pressure.  These are typically your best players.  I like to have two very solid, experienced players and then the third can be a younger player that we are bringing along during the season who we have identified as someone who can handle the pressure and become a core person next year.

The outside players can be a bit more raw in their soccer abilities, but with a high upside.  By their senior year they may be ready to move to the center of the field because of the experience and confidence they gained playing on the outside with less pressure. 

This same type of substitution pattern can be applied to whatever formation you are playing fairly easily.

If I keep 17, then it might be that I have 4 outside backs, or 4 outside midfielders, or a second set of 2 forwards.  I can still give everyone at least 15 minutes per half.

This also helps us get through the regular season with less injury, more energy, and great team unity.

I encourage you to try it.  Happy players.  Happy parents.  Happy administration!  And with each player always doing their best and feeling good about their teammates, the scoreboard will show it.

By Brad Carlson

Brad has coached a variety of sports in the community, middle school, and high school for 40 years (coached the MN 2021 Class A State High School winning team.  He has coached soccer from U6 at the recreational level to U19 at the club level and all age groups at the high school level, including 11 years as a head coach.  He holds a USSF "B" coaching license and USC diplomas.