Substitution strategy when winning big

During their 2016 Olympic semifinal, the USA men got out to a huge lead over Italy in the third set. I wrote about the idea of coaches on the losing end of blowouts like that subbing out players to give them a break. Italy did exactly that. The likes of Zaytsev and Jauntorena were pulled out midway through the set.

This sort of strategy is something you see in high level professional volleyball. You also see it at the international level.

Interestingly, though, you don’t see it very much (if at all) in American volleyball. I’m talking about college volleyball and about the national teams.

Maybe that reflects an American mentality to always keep fighting. Maybe it’s just a certain lack of sophistication.

I’ve already written about the reasons for following this kind of substitution pattern. Here I want to focus on the other side. By that I mean the dominating team. I’m not talking about when you are clearly the much better team. I’m talking about when you’re in a match with a roughly equal competitor.

Countering the substitutions

If you watched the Italy – USA match, you saw Zaytsev rip off a string of service points at the end of Set 4. Did sitting out the latter part of Set 3 contribute to that? Perhaps. We’ll never know for sure.

The question I have is whether it would have been good for the Americans to sub out players like Anderson. You’re up 10+ points and cruising. Is it a good idea to give your top players a breather? You know your opponent is probably going to play better in the next set. Would sitting someone a few minutes improve their level of play in the future, or will it slow them down?

I don’t know the answer to that question.

My feeling is that coaches leaving players in in that sort of situation are making the conservative call. They don’t want to risk losing the set or allowing the other team to develop momentum for the next one. Clearly, the amount of drop-off there is between starter and sub is a factor.

Still, often the conservative call isn’t the right one.

I’d love to hear some thoughts on the subject.

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John Forman
About the Author: John Forman
John most recently coached for an NCAA Division II women's team. That followed 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.

Please share your own ideas and opinions.

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