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.
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 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!