Like many youth football coaches, I’ve sometimes had difficulty making the “right” substitutions during matches.
But eventually I discovered that simply writing a substitution plan down in advance made managing my players on match days so much easier.
For one thing, there’s such a lot going on during a match that it’s easy to make embarrassing mistakes such as replacing all your attackers with defenders (don’t laugh, I’ve done it… ). But a written plan avoids that.
Having a written plan is handy when a child tugs on your sleeve and asks, “where will I be playing when I go on?” and it also allows you to concentrate on the game instead of thinking about whose turn is it to go on or come off.
And, most importantly, you’ll have a record of who played and for how long in each match through the season. That’s very useful information to have if you’re confronted by a parent who thinks their son or daughter is not getting enough playing time.
What you say…
Make players earn their playing time
Coach Don: If you don’t think a kid will get significant playing time, don’t accept him/her on your team. I can’t stress this enough. It is better to have a roster of 15 kids you will play rather than 17 kids, when two of them will have to stand and watch.
As for apportioning actual playing time, my players are guaranteed 10 minutes less than half of the game playing time.
Players can get a full half game by showing up for practice, exhibiting good work ethic and having a positive attitude.
Players can earn even more playing time through ability and making progress. So a weaker player who is working hard and learning new skills can get as much playing time as the strongest player. This helps potential late bloomers break out and keeps everyone motivated.
But all bets are off if a player is injured, ill or if he/she has exhibited bad sportsmanship. There is no minimum at that point. But it’s critical to explain to the player and their parents why you’ve reduced their playing time.
Don’t start with your strongest players
Coach Dave: Many coaches have difficulty because they set up a winning line-up with their weakest players sitting the bench and then wonder where to put the substitutes without hurting the team.
I create a roster with a range of skills right from the start. I trade players with like-for-like skills so that I don’t create a weakness on the field when I make a substitution.
This allows me to put a weak player in a position where they can get good playing time and be a productive part of the team.
Parents have expressed their happiness that their child gets to play much more than they would on other teams, and have even told me that if it wasn’t for me, their child(ren) would have stopped playing seasons ago. Even the parents of the strong players have told me that they are very happy that I play everyone fairly and their kids have noticed and like it.
It’s not rocket science!
Coach Chris: I don’t think managing substitutes is difficult at all. The only way a player can develop is by playing, no matter what level you play at, and I believe until he or she gets to high school, every player should be offered equal playing time. And not just because it is the “right thing to do”.
First, we are in the business as youth coaches to develop players, not win games, and players do not develop by sitting on the bench or playing five minutes a half. It destroys their confidence, they donâ€™t have fun and they soon lose the desire to play.
Second, they pay the same fees as anyone else and you, as a coach, are doing them and the person paying their fees a disservice by having them “ride the pine”.
Third, What happens if you get to that semi-final or final game and the player you have played the entire year gets hurt or sick? Then you have to play the other player and their confidence will be so low that they very possibly could make a huge mistake that causes you to lose.
Coaches who only play the “star players” on the team are succumbing to the desires of the parents to win games and not doing what they should know in their heart is right: To develop every player to the best of their ability.
I also believe until age of 12 or 13, players should play every position including goalkeeper. It helps them understand those players’ roles and makes them a more complete player all around.
You have to play at the right level
Coach Tom: When I coach, I adopt the philosophy that “we win together as a team and we lose together as a team.”
I try to give plenty of playing time to everyone, but will sit my stars out and let the others carry the day whenever possible.
If I handle this properly, by the time I get to the elimination games that count, the stars are due playing time and it all works out.
Key to being able to balance the playing time is being in a league with opponents a similar level. It would be hard to do if we were getting pounded every game as all kids like winning.
However, even lesser players can enjoy the thrill of victory when it means their star pulls it out for them.
But when leaning on stars becomes a coaching habit, team chemistry falls apart. Therefore coaches have to recognise that there are more important things than winning and if we lose once in a while while giving players a fair share of playing time, then so be it.
Think about the opposition
Coach Dave: I have a squad of 17 players playing seven-a-side at U9 level.
I take 10 to matches, put the other seven players in the next game and keep a record of who plays and for how long.
On the day, all players picked for the team WILL get at least half a game but I only have one of my three key players off at any one time.
If we are playing a tough game, the top team will be playing. If we are playing a weak side, my less experienced players will start with perhaps three “better” players on the bench.
By picking my teams with the opposition in mind and getting parents to give their unavailable days a month in advance, all the players in the squad get a decent amount of match time and they all feel part of the team.
With careful planning and working several games ahead you can turn out a well-balanced side week after week and keep all your players involved.
Not all your parents will be happy and you may not win every week but neither do Man Utd!
I could do with fewer players!
Coach TP: My U10s boys play 6v6 and we have 12 players on the roster.
I am in the perverse situation of hoping that at least three of my players don’t show up at any given game as most of them want to play the whole game.
When all 12 are available I substitute them two at a time. This way all the boys get experience playing with each other. And even though my goal is development and not winning, I don’t want the boys to be demoralised so there are still certain players I won’t put in goal or in defence.
Happily, some of the players I couldn’t trust with defending at the beginning of the season have improved enough that now I can put them in the back.
I try to manage my substitutions so that the game is close and my players must fight hard just to draw.
I just wish we had fewer players, so everyone could get more playing time.
Don’t put weaker players in difficult positions
Coach Brian: I coach a pair of teams in New York – U11s and U12s girls.
What I’ve found over the years is that, as the girls became better, the talent evens out and playing time is not much of an issue.
But it was an issue in the early years when there were large disparities in ability. Back then I was careful not to place a weaker player in a position where she would fail so I looked for chances to make substitutions at times when I knew they could do well, enjoy themselves and learn in a low-pressure situation.
I always made sure that every girl played in both halves and tried to give them a minimum of 50% playing time. In games when this was not possible we made sure to let the girls know that playing time would balance out to 50% by the end of the year. This has worked well.
Don’t single players out
Coach Nick: It is very difficult to manage substitutes especially when you have a squad of 16 eager U13 s players but we need to be very careful to differentiate between what’s best for the players and easiest for the coaches.
I have also told my players and parents that as no one wants to defend, it will be the midfield and forwards that will rotate positions and be subbed.
So as not to make players feel they are being singled out, I tend to make “double substitutions” instead of removing players one at a time.
I also make mental substitutions before the match starts so I know what I’m going to do.
I tend to start with lesser ability players in less meaningful matches. It sometimes means we concede goals but coming back from being behind builds character and the kids leave the pitch after a hard-battled draw with a big smile.