To sub or not to sub, that is the question

Once when I coached at Exeter the captain of the university women’s team emailed on a couple of team issues. She brought up the subject of substitutes. Her comment on the subject, “Apart from Jo and I, nobody knows that you are not a fan of subs…” Jo was the only other returning player involved in the discussion which triggered the email. Now, that comment taken out of context suggests concerns about playing time being voiced. It really wasn’t the case, though. It wasn’t intended as a critical comment at all, in fact. That said, it got me thinking about two things.

Better Communication

I sometimes need to communicate better with my teams and players. It’s a long-term developmental need of mine that I always work to improve. While it was not a specific issue with that team at the time, I should still have informed them of my philosophy toward substitutes. I should have been part of the general expectations development conversation.

My substitution philosophy

Contrary to what the captain suggested, I don’t actually have an inherent bias against substitutions. If I think someone on the bench can perform better in a given situation than a player on the court, then I’ll make a sub. In making that decision, though, I’m thinking multi-dimensionally. I’m not just rolling the dice and hoping something good happens. This article actually challenges the effectiveness of making subs (hat tip to At Home on the Court).

Say Suzy is having a rough match hitting and I have Debbie on the bench who could probably go in and do a better job. Whether I make that sub depends on whether I think I lose more overall by taking Suzy out than I gain by putting Debbie in. For example, say Suzy is a much better passer/defender than Debbie while Debbie would likely only be a moderately better hitter. In some circumstances you may want to make the switch. But generally speaking, though, that’s a trade-off you probably don’t want.

There can also be a non-competitive reason for leaving a struggling player on. Sometimes you just need to give someone a chance to work through it and learn to overcome the adversity. Of course, this is easier done when you operate in a developmental scenario and not fighting for a league championship! Similarly, though, you’re also more likely to share around playing time in a non-competitive context.

Sometimes you just don’t have the horses

Circling back to the original captain comment … there’s a reason she didn’t see me make many subs in the three seasons she’s played for me. Generally, the level of the bench was markedly lower than for the starters. There were maybe one or two exceptions, but that was it. We also had numbers constraints based on having to field squads for multiple competitions, some of which created “cup tie” situations. Hard to make subs when you only have 6 or 7 players!

John Forman
About the Author: John Forman
John currently coaches for an NCAA Division II women's team. This follows a stint as head coach for a women's professional team in Sweden. Prior to that he was the head coach for the University of Exeter Volleyball Club BUCS teams (roughly the UK version of the NCAA) while working toward a PhD. He previously coached in Division I of NCAA Women's Volleyball in the US, with additional experience at the Juniors club level, both coaching and managing, among numerous other volleyball adventures. Learn more on his bio page.


  1. markleb says:

    My personal take on this is that you put your best players on the court, determined by training form and previous performance. By definition, the players on the bench are worse or are in worse form than the players on the court.
    In principle, how can you expect a bench player to perform better than a starter?
    Against that is the individual urge and outside pressure to do something or anything. Making a change/s allows the coach to say they did everything in their power and was therefore not their fault.

    • John Forman John Forman says:

      Agreed Mark. I’ve said in the past you earn match playing time through consistent performance in training and you earn/keep a starting spot through consistent performance in matches.

      • markleb says:

        I heard a great quote from Russ Rose once. Someone asked why his bench players never get a chance to prove themselves. His reply was they get a chance to prove themselves every day in practice. If they don’t prove themselves in practice why should get a chance to play?

      • Kelly Daniels says:

        Maybe I’m reading too much into your response. If a starter does not have consistent performance in matches, not subbing out is a contradiction of your statement. I’m not saying you are wrong, just there isn’t consistency in the statement where you keep in a struggling athlete when the performance isn’t consistent. I guess I don’t see consistency when I see struggling.
        My overall take on this issue coinside with your initial post. The only different is that struggling athlete may need a ‘time out’ if we are losing points with a starter. What different is it with a non-starter? Giving the struggling athlete a ‘time out’ and have me or my assistant address what we would like to occur might help the athlete to regain confidence. I’ve use this technique many times and on the most part it works. I usually give the struggling athlete time on the bench a few rallies before I or my assistant address the athlete. Normally the teammates are talking and trying to help her. Then I or my assistant calls her to sit next to one of us. We discuss actions to take and tell her, “When you are ready to go back in, let us know.” I have to admit once this backfired. The athlete never let us know that she was ready to go back in. So we didn’t put her back in. She told us she thought we ‘meant’ we’ll tell her when she could go back in. I asked her, did she remember exactly what I told her. She repeated exactly what I told her. Then the ‘light bulb’ came on. Sad to say we lost that match. Yet, we won the tournament!
        Keep up the good work!!!

        • John Forman John Forman says:

          Kelly – I’m not seeing the contradiction you say you’re seeing. I said you earn/keep a starting spot by being a consistent performer. Inherently that suggests if you’re not being consistent you’re subject to being subbed and/or not started. Of course how you measure consistency is quite variable.

          To your point about giving a player a “time out”, I would put that in a different category than the main idea of the post. A couple plays out isn’t the same as looking for someone who’s going to play better than the player currently on the court. Of course that kind of short-term sub is a way to maybe keep from having to make the other decision. It’s also something much easier to do when you have loads of subs. Riskier to do under FIVB rules.

Please share your own ideas and opinions.