When should you “Sub Six”?

I’ve written previously on the subject of the substitution decision. In this post I want to talk about a strategy I’ve seen employed at times in professional volleyball. I’ve also read about in My Profession – The Game. I don’t recall hearing talked about in any other context, though. It’s the idea of making subs not necessarily to try to elicit a better performance from your team in the present context, but with an eye toward the next set.

Let me lay out the scenario. It’s the third set of a match which is tied 1-1. Your team is struggling. The score is 17-8. You’ve called timeouts. You’d made the subs you thought might improve things, but it just hasn’t worked. What do you do?

A lot of coaches just simply don’t do anything. After all, what can they do? They have what should be their best team on the floor, but it’s just not getting the job done. It’s time to think about the next set. Maybe spin the rotation. Perhaps flip OHs.

What about simply taking all your starters out – or at least those remaining – and putting your bench on to play out the rest of the set? My guess is you’ve probably not really thought about doing that (though you may have fantasized about it). There are a couple of reasons for actually doing so, however:

Starter Reset

Putting your starters on the bench for an extended break gives them a chance to reset. They get to step back from whatever troubles they were having on the court and break any negative feedback loops that were going on. Time on the bench gives them a chance to watch the other team from outside for a bit. They also get to rest up a little ahead of the next set.

Opposition Psychology

When you have your second team out on the court, naturally the general level of play is likely to be lower. This has a couple of potential of potential positive outcomes for you. First, if the subs do play at that level then the opposition players may start to coast, which could pay dividends in the next set. Second, if your subs play above themselves and actually make things competitive, it could rattle the confidence of the other team. The opposing coach is going to be hesitant to make radical changes for fear of risking losing the set. That means in either case you could gain a psychological edge to start when you have your starters back in next set. And of course if your subs somehow managed to pull out the win you’d be in the driver’s seat!

Playing time

While perhaps not a great situation in terms of putting your players in with an opportunity to succeed, a runaway set like this does give you a chance to get your bench players some court time. The nice thing, though, is they’ve got nothing to lose. They can go out and play loose.

I should note here that this cannot be something the starters will interpret as being punitive. I’ve heard stories about coaches who subbed out the entire starting six basically out of disgust at how they were playing. That sort of thing isn’t going to accomplish much. It will probably be harmful, in fact. Instead, it must be clear to the players coming out that this is a strategic device and that they should see it as an opportunity to regroup to start the next set.

If you want to try this out some time you have to think about the timing of it in advance and have a plan because my guess is you won’t automatically think about it in the heat of battle. Our inclination as coaches tends to be to try to fix things now – or failing that, think about what we’re going to do next set. This substition ploy works in the gap between the two, so you simply might forget about it as an option. If you actually plan it out – maybe talk it over with the team – you might be more inclined to remember. Failing that, you could give someone else the task of reminding you.

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.

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