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Prepare Your Team For The Hard Decisions

by Mike Mullen

It is a big point midway through a big game at the most important high school elite open tourney of the year. The opposing team has taken a timeout between points. You look at the team you coach to figure out what line you want in the game. You know that a number of your kids haven't been in the game yet and that they paid a lot of money to make the plane trip. Oh, and there are those same kids' parents who also came along and have been making runs to the store all weekend to make sure the team has everything that they need. You've been coaching some of those kids since middle school and you've known the parents for years because you coached their other child. Some of those great kids who haven't played yet are seniors who played on JV for three years and have been waiting for the chance to make the difference in helping the varsity win a championship. Because you work with your feeder programs as well, you notice that some of those other kids who haven't played are a couple of the freshmen who were the stronger players on the 8th grade team last year. Those freshmen love to compete and are going to be a big part of the team somewhere down the road. They are dying to get into the game to show they can make plays at important times in high school games. Everybody is looking at you with hopeful eyes of helping the team succeed. What do you do? 

There are a lot of pressures on coaches. Calling subs is one of those pressures. It is true in every team sport. Determining who actually gets to play can be very distasteful. It probably ranks third in the down sides of coaching behind a player getting seriously injured and having to cut people from the team. The question is: "How do you deal with subbing to help the team succeed?" Subbing is not a decision that is made in a vacuum of just this particular point. There is always the bigger picture of keeping morale high, keeping people invested in the program, keeping parents happy, and keeping the administrators off your back. And the truly odd thing is that winning does not cure all ills in a program. You can win championships and still be hammered on your evaluations because winning isn't everything even when losing is unacceptable. 

Back to the game. What do you do? Simple. You tell your power line and power rotation that they are in the game and that they are not coming out until the game is over or the other team obviously gives up. Are the players who haven't gone in yet mad because they may not get to play in this game? How mad are the parents who came to watch their kid play and their kid probably won't go in the game? The answer is that people might be a little disappointed which is natural and even desirable (you certainly don't want too many kids on the team who want to sit out the big points), but the bottom line is that every player on the team knows his role, as do the parents, because you have properly prepared them for this moment. 

At the beginning of the season the coach needs to communicate with everyone about the expectations of being on the varsity team and what it means. Experienced coaches know the importance of putting it in writing, announcing it at the team parent meeting, and repeating it often at practices and games. Also, before and after every game you start your speech by pointing out how important the players who are not getting or did not get in the game are to the success of the team. You don't say this to be nice, you say it because it is true. It is both a cliché and very overlooked that being a team player is of huge value. Your chances of succeeding are vastly increased if the players who don't get much, if any, playing time, are as excited or more excited than the players on the field when the team has success. Those role players have very important roles in practices and games that are often overlooked by those people only watching the games. One of the great things about ultimate is that players on the sidelines can actually help the team succeed by communicating important info to the players on the field. 

Back to the game. Is the power line ready to go in? Do the players in the power rotation who are not in know that they are in the tighter rotation of people playing these next all important points? Of course they do. You have practiced and played with this rotation already in both practices and games. Plus you have it written down on your subbing rotation sheet. 

So why rotations and not calling lines? There is the issue of players knowing what to expect in situations so they can be prepared mentally. There is the issue of a coach trying to call lines and make strategy adjustments at the same time that just leads to the wrong players on the field and not so great adjustments. And yes, coaches want to control the subs and the adjustments. (There are two kinds of coaches when it comes to control. Those who are obviously control freaks and those who are good at hiding that they are control freaks). So, how do you get the right players on the field at the right time while still being able to make strategy adjustments on the fly? Well it obviously helps to have good assistant coaches who know what the plan is, can take charge AND do not get flustered when the head coach overrules them with an adjustment. But more importantly you have set up your rotations beforehand. 

It can be as simple as ranking your players as ones, twos, or threes, with ones being your strongest players. Usually you will have equal numbers of ones and twos with only a couple of threes. You add an "H" for the handlers. You then sort by rank. (I prefer a spreadsheet.) You communicate with everyone about their rank and you practice with different rotations. The rank includes both offensive and defensive talent. In HS elite ultimate you can generally figure out how to make sure your least able defensive player on the field doesn't mark up against the other teams' strongest offensive players. And every kid on the team knows how to throw resets and easy scores (and to know the difference between an easy score finish and a not-so-easy score finish) if they get the disc on offense and are not a primary handler. 

Different kinds of rotations (Ones will rotate in for ones, twos for twos, and threes for threes, in all rotations):

  • Standard Rotation: 1h, 1h, 1, 1, 2h, 2, 3
  • Even Rotation: 1h, 1h, 1, 2h, 2, 3, 3. (This can also be 1h, 1, 2h, 2h, 2, 3, 3)
  • Power Rotation: 1h, 1h, 1h, 1, 1, 1, 1 (Don't save the power rotation for late in games. Use it to get an early lead, to get the important breaks, to end a big game as quick as possible in tournament play)
  • 2/3 Rotation: 2h, 2h, 2, 2, 3, 3, 3. (This group has practiced against the power rotation so they are comfortable playing together. If the power rotation has just run off four or five points against an opponent, put this rotation in and tell them they stay in until they give up a score.)
  • Fun rotations: Tall, Short, Seniors, 9/10, Soccer, Basketball.

If all goes well and you picked the correct rotations and made the proper strategy adjustments you have put your team into a position where they have found success on the field. It is not quite over yet, you still have to make a good post game speech where you will mention the role players first and stress how important they were to the success of the team. And when one of the parents who has been working hard for your program and whose kid didn't play in the big game comes up to you and says, "Hey coach, I asked my son how he felt about not playing in that game and he explained to me that he was okay with it because he knew his role and feels that he helped the team succeed as much as the guys who were in the game. Nice job coach. I'll see you this summer. My son is really looking forward to improving his skill set." Well, you know that you will probably get to keep your job for another year. You get three days before the high of winning the tournament wears off. Four days from now you get to start thinking about next year by looking at the rotation sheets to see how many points each kid played and what needs to be done for next year. 


huddle Issue 9 Sub-Calling

Tuesday, September 9th, 2008

A Basic Checklist
by Gwen Ambler

Be Careful What You Wish For
by Tully Beatty

The Best Sub-Caller Is...
by Lou Burruss

by Matt Dufort

Practical Considerations
by Adam Goff

Empowering The Team With Self Subbing
by Greg Husak

Elocution & Enunciation
by Andy Lovseth

For Your Team, Not Your Teammates
by Ryan Morgan

Prepare Your Team For The Hard Decisions
by Mike Mullen

My Sub-Calling Philosophies
by Miranda Roth

The Pod System
by Mike Whitaker




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