At what age do you move your squad from a policy of everyone plays the same time, to pick the players to win?


At some point in a player’s life they will have to face the harsh reality that the better players will play more football. The question is when?

I coach at under 7’s level, and rotation is definitely the ethos that I believe in for this age group. The benefits of this policy are many. Firstly, it promotes harmony and reduces conflict throughout the squad and feels fair to all concerned. It shows that the team is set up for the good of all, and not for the individual. You are unlikely to get negative hassle from parents complaining that their child isn’t getting enough game time, and most importantly, you are giving every player the same opportunity to develop.  If your primary motivation as a coach is to develop players for the long term, then I believe that this is the policy that best displays motivation.

The advantages of picking players to win the game are perhaps obvious. If you have a lethal finisher, or a beast of a tackler, it is understandable that in a tight situation you would want them on the field.  However, if they spend the entire match on the field it is in the place of another player and players develop through playing & training, not sitting on the bench. The gap between the players who are better and weaker is likely to grow, if the better players play more and the weaker players play less.

So if you agree with this so far, the question is at what age do you change the priority from development to winning?

The golden opportunity for development is up until the age of 11 in boys, as 95% of their neural pathways are set by that age. So does that mean that from 12 onwards the coach should focus on building winning teams, and concentrating on the better players? Is 12 the age that players should be moved into teams that match their ability level?

Personally, I think 12 still feels too young but I would love to hear the thoughts of other coaches on this subject! Players move to 11v11 football at U14 age, so maybe that is the right time?

Please write your thoughts in the comments.



10 Replies to “At what age do you move your squad from a policy of everyone plays the same time, to pick the players to win?”

  1. Coaching U12s at present and have done rotation all season. If you coach well and all get a chance every week the results are still achieved. This season top of the league and in the cup final, so rotation has not dented the players ambitions to achieve good results. Will continue this policy through next season as well and see what happens..

  2. If you have a strong squad to start at U7s you dont have this problem, the only problem is that you have to pick the best players for your squad this way rotation is not a problem.
    So my advice is cherry pick.

    1. Hi Dave, thanks for your comment.

      If you have a strong squad at u7 it of course makes your job easier, but lets assume that many coaches don’t have the luxury at u7 level.

      At that point, I think you have to ask yourself what is more important to you; winning games or long term development of players?

      If it is the former, then cherry picking and playing your best players more often might make sense to you, whereas if the latter is your goal then giving every player the same playing time and opportunity to develop is surely the answer.

      What do you think?

      1. Hi mike we are blessed with attracting the good players lads who want to get involved with the session’s and want to learn the game, these are the players we develop. I have the lads that dont listen disrupt your session and generally spoil it for the lads that want to develop. Say good bye to these player’s. Develop the players who want to learn.

  3. I coach at U9 Level and rotation is also my policy. The FA stipulates you can play only two competitive competitions a year and I have used these opportunities to play my strongest team as it is just as important that the boys win matches as well. I do though give the other players a fair chance to be in that team.

    It is so important to get all the children in your squad involved in games as all children have different personalities and strengths. This has been the first season playing games for the majority of my squad. I have seen my whole squad improve, some making big improvements and others small, but the biggest change I have seen is in their confidence and this has come through playing football which is very pleasing.

    I do have concerns in coaches trying to play their best team week in week out and I have seen this first hand in my eldest sons team at U14 level and it does not work i my opinion.

    The coach plays his best eleven week in week out giving his subs only 15 minutes each game. I have seen him play this same one dimensional football. The team has played against teams with no substitutes and their team has four subs but still implements the same tactic of playing his subs for 15 minutes. There have also been occasions in games where he has been forced into changes through injury and his sub has been subbed off for the last 15 minutes to give another substitute an opportunity.

    This only ruins the confidence of the player, they also lose interest. This also does not bring a competitive edge to his squad. The team has suffered as a result of these tactics as five players have left during the course of the season.

    I am not quite sure on the answer but I do believe some form of squad rotation is a must at every level.

    1. Hi Dan,

      I couldn’t agree more with you on the issues you describe at your eldest son’s club.

      If a player gets used to the idea that they are a sub, and that means they will only get 15 minutes, then they are likely to become demotivated and start to feel that they are not an important part of the squad. The old ‘give them a run out’ mentality tends to be led by the thought that you need the subs as back up, but only want the best 11.

      At some point though, a player will have to accept that the better players will play more football. In adult football, you rarely see a true rotation policy. The better players will player more often, with the weaker players supporting. Your eldest son, at under 14 level, might be at that age? Or maybe it should be under 16?

      I think the change from everyone plays the same, to the best players get picked more often should happen at the age that development has slowed to the point that season on season, improvements are not seen. So the need for development has passed. The players should at that point try and find regular first team football, at whatever level they have reached.

      What I don’t know is at what age the development stops. The FA Level 1 course, and FA Youth Module Course, both said that by aged 11 players have set 95% of their neural pathways, which would suggest that learning slows after that time. It still feels very young to me though!

  4. Thanks, Andrew. Your team is at that interesting age where neural pathways are largely set, and so one would think that the rate of improvement they demonstrate should slow.

    Would be interested to hear if you observe that.

  5. Does equal game time hold back more developed players at say U13 and above. For instance if a player is only getting a full game every 3 matches and the other 2 he gets a half? A position my son is in at the minute and i am keen to hear coaches views on it.

    1. Hi Paul,

      There are so many factors to consider, but I would say that all else being equal that more game time would lead to better development. As with everything in life, the more deliberate practice we do, the better we get. However, football development matters are rarely that simple in my opinion; there are so many other factors to consider.

      Fun is probably the most important thing to consider at that age. Is your son really enjoying his time with his teammates and coach? If he is then that is a massive positive, and it sounds like a good environment. In which to learn the game. Too many kids drop out of football because the adults in the game (parents, coaches) start taking it far too seriously, and that takes the fun away. Don’t underestimate how important fun is to your son’s development.

      There are so many other factors to consider. For example is the game-time he is getting fair when compared when you consider the number players the team has, and the number of minutes available? Every player cant play for every minute of course, so if the coach is trying to rotate many players to give everyone a chance then that a far better situation for you son than if a coach has his first team earmarked every week and only uses the subs because he has to.

      If your son loves football, and is keen, you could always ask the coach for some training exercises that he could do at home, or even look at enrolling in a Coever coaching course. Remember, the more time he spends practicing skills, the better he will become at them.

      I hope this helped in some way.

  6. Just thought time for an update, Now well into U13s season. Still doing rotation, no player (except keeper) gets a full game but all get more than a half. As for development, well they are learning more and more and adapting to 11 a side. When a player is off for 10 minutes it gives me time to talk to him and advise, rather than doing and “coaching” by shouting from the side lines, all I do while play is taking place is give encouragement and praise. How are we doing? well we got promotion and are top of the new league and progressing in the cups. Today we won 8-0! Loads of players playing in “uncomfortable” position but all keen to try them and learn and develop. Seven different goalscorers goes to show how adaptable they all are. The most important thing is ALL the players are really happy with this and are all working so hard to improve.

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