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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.

Assigning Players to Teams After Tryouts

“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

The first week of tryouts for any High School program is fun, exhausting, and memorable in many ways.

As the Head Coach, you spent hundreds of hours preparing for this first week of the season, and now you have come to the point of placing players on the teams in your program.

In the High Schools (2) I have coached soccer, I have never cut players. Neither have the three head coaches I have been an assistant for. Nor have friends of mine who coach at the largest schools in our State, having upwards of 150 players try out.

The reasons are simple.

  • We remember why all these players chose to play soccer at our school – because it is fun, and they want to hang out with their friends. So, we want to give them that opportunity.
  • We also understand the growth and maturing process of our athletes. The “off the radar” freshman might become an excellent player by their junior or senior year.

I personally like to keep the freshmen together as the “C” team if at all possible. There is really no advantage for a freshman to play with an older group of players (unless he/she is on the Varsity because of their skill). There are many social advantages to keeping the freshmen together on one team. Those advantages far outweigh, in my opinion, playing at a bit higher level. There is always an opportunity for the better freshmen to play at a higher level during the season.

I also like to keep the sophomore players together forming the “B” team. At his age you might start to see some players who are ready to play at the Varsity Reserve (VR as I call it, as opposed to JV – I just never liked the term JV) or the Varsity level. A “new to the game” junior might be placed on this team also, but not if I can help it. I like to keep them with their friends and classmates.

The Varsity Reserve is made up of junior and senior players who are not on the Varsity, with the occasional sophomore player depending on numbers.

I would never place an upperclassman on the “C” team, even if his skills would place him there. That is too much of a slam, and they might be too big and physical to play against freshmen competition.

If our numbers dictate adding a second “C,” “B” or “VR” team, then that is what we do. We do not cut players, and we want all players to play equal time at these levels. That might mean a scramble in the pre-season to find more games and perhaps another coach, but for our program it is well worth it.

At the Varsity level, I like my teams to consist of 16 players.  At a larger school I went up as high as 18, but that is stretching it. The reason I like 16 is because I can give all players “significant” playing time in each game. One Keeper and 15 field players is my goal roster to begin the season.

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. 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.

How do I communicate which players are on each team?

As mentioned above, I have set the president for freshmen and sophomore players concerning which teams they will play on. It now comes down to those VR and Varsity players (plus the freshmen/sophomore players you will keep on Varsity).

After a week of training together, sorting them out in Champions League games, and playing in a scrimmage at the end of the week where you have separated most of the VR from the Varsity, it is really about choosing between 10 or so players for 5 or so spots. The hardest part is communicating with those “bubble” players between Varsity and VR.

I have tried several ways over the years.

  • Posting the list in the locker room on Monday before practice.
  • Posting the list online through our website, or email, or team management system the Sunday following the scrimmage on Saturday.
  • On the bus ride home from the scrimmage, talk to each player individually on the VR and Varsity teams and let them know which team they are on to begin the season.
  • Have the players on both teams run an eight station “circuit run” around the soccer field on Monday. During the circuit run I pull out players and tell them which team they will be on.
  • Gathering all the players together on Monday at practice, just like a tryout practice, and letting them know as a group which team they will be on. Then break out the teams with their respective coaches.

There is no “easy” way. No matter what method you use, it always leads to half a dozen players joyful and another half a dozen players really hurting. That is a major reason I like to have my VR coach sensitive to the emotions during this Monday practice. I also make myself available to meet with the players who are hurting during or after practice. Sometimes it takes a while for them to process their emotions.

Next time we will talk about finding a good substitution pattern for your games which gives all your Varsity players significant playing time. If you want to get a head start, check out some great advice in the book “The Messiah Method” by Michael Zigarelli. There are some terrific tips on team building, substitution, game day management, etc. from the winningest College Division 3 programs (Men’s and Women’s) in the early 21st Century.

Champions League or The Dutch Ladder

“Competition is key to developing players. The only practice environment in which you truly develop a player is a competitive arena. . . Competitive drive is not governed by innate ability, but by self-discipline and desire.” – Anson Dorrance

As a High School Soccer Coach, the one event every soccer player looks forward to each week is our Champions League competition.  Why?  It is fun.  It is competitive.  It’s rewarding for everyone.

Here is how the game works.

Players are divided into 5 teams (or 3 teams depending on the numbers).  Teams may consist of anywhere from 4 to 8 players and play on fields sized appropriately.

On the first day of play, players are divided into teams by the coach.  Try and make the teams as competitively even as possible.

Each team will play in 4 games (for 5 teams), playing each team once.  The length of the games is determined by the length of the class.  5 minutes is a good length of time.  Or you could play King of the field.  Field one is designated as the First field, field two is designated as the Second field.  The first round is played.  The winning teams then play on the “First” field, the losing team on the “First” field moves to play on the “Second” field.  The losing team from the “Second” field sits out.  The team on the sidelined comes in to play on the “Second” field.  You see the rotation that takes place.

Points are accumulated by the team according to how they do in each game.  I like to use the 7-point max system:  3 points for a win, 1 point for a tie, 1 point for every goal up to 3, and 1 point for a shutout.  If your team wins 8-0, your team would get 7 points for that game (3 for the win, 3 for goals scored and 1 for the shutout) and the other team would get 0.  If your team wins 4-2, your team would get 6 points (3 for the win and 3 for goals scored) and the team you beat would get 2 points (2 for goals scored).  If your team ties 2-2, each team would get 3 points.

After all the games have been played, each team adds up its total points for the day.  Those points become the points for each individual player on the team.

Here is where it takes a little work for the coach.  You will need to record the points for each player.  I start a little spreadsheet with the names of each student.  I organize them according to the team they played on.  Then I record their individual total points for the day.

The next day we play the Champions League, I sort the list of students by the total number of points they have.  I then go down the list and assign new teams to them according to their total points.  In that way the 5 highest point totals are all on different teams, then the next 5, etc.  It is a good way to mix up teams.

I do look at the makeup of the new teams.  I want the teams to be competitive, so I may adjust a player or two around.  I also make sure each team has a keeper.

Everyone plays a lot, everyone plays with other players in the tea, and the competition is amazing.  I like to call out the time when we get down to the last minute and then again as we get closer to the end of time.  It’s amazing how the kids will push to get that last goal 🙂

Here is what I find amazing.  Seldom if ever is the best player on the team the Champion of Champion’s League.  It is usually that very unassuming player who plays well with teammates, has enough skill and touch to be effective, and defends well.

I LOVE THIS GAME!  So do the kids.  It’s the best 30 minutes of the day.

Read another article about coaching – How simple can a practice be? How effective?

A Different Approach To High School Tryouts

“Competition is key to developing players. The only practice environment in which you truly develop a player is a competitive arena. . . Competitive drive is not governed by innate ability, but by self-discipline and desire.” Anson Dorrance

It’s been a great off season.  Here is where you should be at BEFORE your first practice.

  • You have met with your Captain’s Parents and have given them a laundry list of things for them  to do before and during the season.  Let them take as much off your plate as possible.  Delegation is hard for many of us.  The key is to follow up.  People will do what you inspect, not what you expect – even good people like your Captain’s Parents.
  • You have provided times (twice a week for me) during the 2 months leading up to the beginning of the season where the players who want  to can do such things as weight lifting, speed and acceleration training, and ball skills training.
  • You have provided your players with list of skills you want your players to practice during the summer so that when they come to training their first touch is solid.  I use the MOTI App, of course 🙂
  • You have met frequently with your Captains.  You have prepared them for their Captain’s Practices and have very loosely monitored (through parents perhaps) to make sure everyone is safe and having fun while preparing for the season.

I love training week, the first week of coaches training for the regular season. It is a blast, the kids love it, the parents love it, and the coaches love it! Why? Because we make this training week about competitions. We play games. We have contests. We work hard, play hard and rest hard. We have fun. And by the end of the first week, we will know which team each player will be placed on.

I look at training week as a part of try-outs, but try-outs are much more than just one week. I tell the players that try-outs are not just about your soccer skills. It is about how you treat your parents, your friends, your teachers. It’s about how you serve your community, how you apply yourself in your classes at school, and how you spend your free time.

For the Varsity, the whole regular season is a part of the try-out process. During the regular season we get to evaluate each player at practice and during games. To do that I play each player significant time each game (15-20 minutes per half).  Once we get to Sections and State, I tell them that playing time may change depending on the situation. The substitution rotation may also change from the regular season.

We have come up with 9 training sessions for the first week. The first session is called the SWC Pentathlon – 5 events testing their fitness and soccer skills. The players keep track of their own score card, earning up to 10 points per event. The top 8-point getters are the Pentathlon Great 8.

Each day we have a skill focus and another competition. The skills begin with a competition within each class. This forms the “Great 8” for that event. Then these 8 compete against each other for the championship. The events are:

  • The “Golden Boot” for the best 1v1 player
  • The “Freaky Fast” for the fastest player
  • 4v4 tournament, playing with your training partner
  • PK Shootout
  • The Bronze Gloves for the best goalkeeper

And then, each day we play a little competition called “Champions League.” We form teams of 6-8 players depending on the numbers and play a series of 5-minute round robin games. The players accumulate individual points according to how their team does in each game. Then the next day the players are placed on different teams with different players and play again, accumulating points for that day. By Friday everyone will have played a series of short, small sided games with a variety of players and will have accumulated their own personal scores. The top 8-point getters are identified, and the top point getter wins the event.

What is particularly great about Champions League is that over the course of the week we can rotate players into playing against better competition and see how they do. In the end, the best players typically are at the top of the point totals – but not always! That is where the fun begins. This does, however, give the coaching staff a great opportunity to watch every player in the program compete and show us what he has on the field. It is hard to hide in Champions League.

We also cover attacking and defending corner kicks.  Set pieces win soccer games.  All three of our goals in last season’s State Championship final came off of set pieces.

Two – a – day practices for the first four days.  90 minutes in length with a break in between for refreshments and recovery.  Then a single practice on Friday, a scrimmage against another school or schools on Saturday, rest and recover on Sunday, and team selections on Monday (first game is Thursday generally).  This gives me a chance to personally watch every player multiple times.

Practices are with the full program of players (70-100 depending), with the seniors / upper classmen partnering up with the freshmen / new students for skills and stretching.  This is key for developing a program that the younger and new players feel a part of.  They learn how to become a part of a team that cares for each other and is willing to help each other succeed.

Key Points On Parents

Parents have been watching their kids play all their lives. Hopefully they love to watch them play. I encourage the parents to come and watch everything from tryouts to practices to games. However, I do ask that they first watch a video on YouTube by John O’Sullivan called “Changing the game in youth sports.” To show me that they have watched the video I have them text me these 5 little words from the video, “I love watching you play.” Then, they are welcome !

I have nothing to hide during tryouts. As a matter of fact, I love it when I see parents openly engaged in watching that first week in particular. I like to watch for them, walk over, and talk with them. Again, it is all about communicating with them, being open, and letting them see how much fun their child is having playing with his friends.

I make myself accessible in a variety of ways. My cell is published, as is my email address. I answer phone calls, texts and emails as soon as possible. I even spend one half of a game on the parent’s side of the field with the parents just to let them ask me questions and listen to me as I do some game analysis.

If you want further information on my first week of training, please feel free to email me at:

What until you see what I have for you next month – choosing teams and a “no cut” policy!

Read another article about coaching – Training Captains – Captains Practices

Emotional Management

Character Development: Emotional Management

Part of the character development series for players, coaches and organizations. Become a better person and become better at soccer.

Watch the previous episode in the series here.

Training Captains – Captains Practices

Captain’s Practices

I have met twice with my Captains now as a group, once during the late spring/early summer and a second time in midsummer.  We are now a week away from Captain’s Practices.  This is a two-week period before the actual High School season begins when, in my State, the coaching staff is not allowed to interact with the players.  But the players are pumped and want to get some touches in, so the Captains run the practices.

Leadership Qualities

In this final meeting, I like to recap our last meeting, remind them again of the leadership qualities of a Level 5 Leader from the book “Good to Great” by author Jim Collins and how to work out those qualities on the playing field during the next couple of weeks with their teammates.

  • Embody a mix of personal humility and professional will. 
  • Display workmanlike diligence – more plow horse than show horse.
  • Display modesty, are unassuming and understated.
  • Fanatically driven with an incurable need to produce sustained results.
  • Attribute success factors to others than themselves, but if things go poorly they take full responsibility.
  • Set up their successors for even greater success in the next generation.

Now we will talk about soccer!  Some topics for discussion are:

  • What are you deeply passionate about?
  • What can we be the best in the State at?
  • What style of soccer produces sustained positive results?

When these topics are fleshed out by them, they take ownership in them and it makes for us all to come together for the same purposes.  We will revisit these during the course of the season and fashion or practice sessions around them.

Notice that we don’t talk about systems of play, or players put in specific positions.  That will come later as we see who we have on the Varsity.  The key for them is to put together a vision for how they want their team and this season to come together.  Then we talk about how we start the process, which begins with their Captain’s practices.

These Captains are being placed in a position where they are in charge of 20-80 players with no adult supervision.  WOW!  CRAZY!  SCARRY!


  • Have all players come together as one group – our soccer program.
  • Encourage the new players to our program and make them feel welcome.
  • Let everyone have a safe and fun experience, while still working hard in a controlled environment.
  • Come into the first week of training for the High School season with a high enough level of conditioning so that time can be spent on skill development with the High School coaches rather than physical condition.  We test the first day of High School training to assess the relative physical conditioning and skill level of every athlete.  This helps us get off to a good start during the first part of the season.


  • Practice is outside during the heat of the summer. Make sure everyone brings their own water – no sharing of water bottles.  We want a healthy group coming into the season.  In addition, the Captains will bring a large container of water to refill water bottles.  The school is also open for water and bathrooms.
  • These practices are in the cool of the morning and are 90 minutes long.  Players are free to take water breaks as they need them.
  • The Captains learn about heat exhaustion and heat stroke, what signs to look for, and the precautionary measures to take.  Heat Stroke – call 911 immediately.  The safety of the players is always the primary concern.
  • The Captains have a medical kit. 
  • Ice is available in the school, or sometimes they will have a cooler with ice.
  • No hazing of any type is tolerated.
  • I work out a schedule with the parents of the seniors to make sure that at least one parent is on-site during these Captain’s Practices.


  • Soccer Players Love To Run!
  • The Captains learn about aerobic vs. anaerobic conditioning, what kind of running is best for building each type of conditioning, and what the work to rest ratio should be.
  • We talk about the difference in physical abilities between a 12/13-year-old and an 18/19-year-old, and how they will have to adjust some of their long-distance runs to accommodate the players who are not physically able to keep up with some of the other players.  One way is to split the group into two parts, the new-to-the-program players and the returning players.  Have a Captain lead each group in their distance runs and adjust the pace to the group.
  • Some of the running can be done with a soccer ball at their feet, which is more fun than just running.  However, I encourage a mixture of running with and without a soccer ball.
  • The Captains have many options for running with and without a soccer ball.  Some of the most used runs are “Peal” or the “Australian” two-line run, “Snake” two-line run, and an Army cadence run (if your Captains are creative enough to come up with an appropriate cadence 🙂 and Man U sprints.  They can also play 1v1 to a cone for 30 seconds, then rest for 90 seconds.  If they go all out, it is exhausting!

Skill Work

  • The players are all given access to the MOTI soccer app at the beginning of the summer, which contains 24 soccer skills.  We ask the players to all work on perfecting these ball manipulation skills before the High School season begins.
  • The Captains review these skills daily with the players during Captain’s Practices.  I give them a number of simple activities they can do as a group to help them practice these ball control skills.  They also have a number of activities from their club soccer coaches which they are free to use.
  • The returning players know that when the High School practices begin, we work on these ball control skills daily as they are the prerequisite for a good first touch.  If you want to play at the varsity level, your first touch has to be outstanding.

Activities and Games

  • I encourage them to play small-sided games rather than 11v11 full field.  We want the players to have more touches on the ball and opportunities to score.  Half field 6v6 up to 8v8 works well.  They can even tighten up the field by playing the width of the box, which provides more pressure.
  • Depending on the numbers, a fun game to play is “King of the Field” where three teams are involved.  Two teams play, the third team rests until a winner is determined, then the resting team replaces the team that lost.  If numbers support it, you can have two-half field games going on with a “winners” field and a “losers” field.  Play for 5 minutes, then move according to the score.  Add the 5th team to rest if numbers are up, or even a third field.  The key is small-sided, competitive, with lots of touches and action.
  • Perhaps the most important part of playing games is dividing up into teams.  I encourage them to stay away from the Captains manually choosing players to play for their team.  Remember how much it hurt when you were one of the last ones are chosen!  I give them some other creative ways to divide into teams and to make each team competitive.

That is a lot for these new Captains to process and put into practice.  Fortunately, they have been in your program for up to four years or more, have had great Captains and leaders come before them to show them the way, and have us counsel them.

The First Week of Training!

Now let’s have a great first week of Coach’s Training, tryouts, and enter into our first games of the season prepared.  We will talk about that next when I share with you some ideas for your first week of the High School season.

Learn more here – Coach’s Corner: Developing Leaders

Character Development Series – Relationship Building

MOTI Sports – Character Development Series: Relationship Building

Watch Development Series: Responsibility

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