I previously answered a reader question about offensive systems and subs for a young team. Here’s a question that’s also about a young team, but comes from a more basic direction.

I am coaching a 12 player team of 6th grade girls. Several have never played until this season. The others played for me last year but we have a very large range of skill level / interest. In our first game, I created two “equal” groups of six and let each group play a full game. I am not at all concerned about win/loss – my goal is to teach the sport and make it a fun/positive experience for each participant. But I wonder if the two equal group approach is correct. Some of the girls felt like they “didn’t play very much” even though they all played roughly the same amount – I think this is because six didn’t play in game #2 and then the match ended. We are striving for multiple hits this season, and this will be very difficult to accomplish with the mix of skills levels playing at once.

Let me take this on from two angles.

To make even teams or not to make even teams

One of the things long-time readers know by now is that I’m big on knowing your priorities. That’s the starting point of answering this question.

The coach says at the end that working on multiple hits is the thing they are going for this season. If that’s going to be the case, then my lead focus for making line-up decisions is ensuring both groups are able to have success in that regard. You don’t want to preach three contacts all the time in practice, then have one group simply incapable of doing that come match time. It creates a disconnect.

If the coach wants to keep the three contact focus for everyone, then balanced teams is likely the best option. Yes, it hampers the better players to a degree (though there are other benefits for them). It helps the weaker ones, though, and you can find ways to still push the stronger ones.

There is the option of having one focus for the more advanced players and one for the newer ones. This, however, doesn’t strike me as a good idea. Kids tend to notice when there’s differences in treatment.

Also, it’s been my experience that young players have a high degree of variability in their individual skills. By that I mean a kid can be well above average in one thing and shockingly bad in another. So it’s not always so straightforward to split them up by skill level.

Instead of game-by-game…

The second angle on this is the timing of line-up changes. If the kids are grumbling about unbalanced playing time – even if it’s just an illusory perception – then why not have everyone play every game? There’s a couple ways you might do this.

The simplest is one that is basically along the lines of changing the line-up between sets. You just do it during the set instead. At whatever you judge to be the halfway point, you substitute everyone.

Another alternative is to have players sub by rotation. So you have two players per position and they trade-off by rotation. If you basically start each new set with the line-up that finished the last one (in the same rotation) then playing time will be pretty even for everyone and they all play every game. And if it’s a really lopsided situation where there isn’t much rotating happening, you can do the sub-6 thing I mentioned above at some point to balance things out.

And keep in mind…

Remember that most of your work on whatever developmental priority you have (e.g. three contacts) is done in practice. Matches are really just the tests along the way to see how that work is progressing. So look to put together line-ups that allow you to evaluate that progress.

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John Forman
John Forman

John is currently the Talent Strategy Manager (oversees the national teams) and Indoor Performance Director for Volleyball England, as well as Global Director for Volleyball for Nation Academy. His volleyball coaching experience includes all three NCAA divisions, plus Junior College, in the US; university and club teams in the UK; professional coaching in Sweden; and both coaching and club management at the Juniors level. He's also been a visiting coach at national team, professional club, and juniors programs in several countries. Learn more on his bio page.

    2 replies to "Substitution Strategy for 12U Team"

    • Lee-Ann

      Hello there,
      I have a question? I like the idea of having ingtwo people in one position and having them rotate out, but I am getting complaints that not everyone is serving and all 12 of my players are great servers? How can I help the rotation so everyone can serve?

      • John Forman

        This should really only be an issue if you’ve got certain kids playing only front row and others only playing back row. That’s not something I’m a fan of, unless you’re alternating who is getting the front row time and who gets the back row. In a case like that, then you have a reasonable service alternation as well. The alternating rotations idea I mentioned above (meaning one player goes 6 rotations, then subs out) automatically balances out serving too.

Please share your own ideas and opinions.