Tag Archive for substitutions

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.

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 substitution 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.

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!

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