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The Art of Substitution

Terry Schroeder
US National Men's Team Coach
US Team Won the Silver Medal in the 2008 Olympics

Volume 3 Number 12November 15, 2011
The Keyword in Real Estate is Location and the Keyword in the sport of Water Polo is Fundamentals!

Water Polo is definitely one of the most demanding sports on the planet.  There is really no rest when you are in the pool.  No one should be resting while they are in the water.  Between the swimming up and down the tank and the wrestling in between to get advantage with position, there is a great deal of energy expended.   This month I have decided to write about the importance of substitution to the game.   There is definitely an art to “subbing” successfully and I will discuss some of the important factors that I have learned throughout my 25 years of coaching.

First and foremost, know your team.  A coach needs to know what each player is capable of.  This includes positions that they are best at and where else that they can play.  For example, on our Olympic team we will have a two players that are primarily centers, three players that are center defenders, two right handed attackers and two left handed attackers (or players that play this side of the pool),  and two utility players that can easily play 2 -3 different positions in the water.  Of course, to round out the 13 players on the team, we will have 2 goalies.  The most difficult part of my job (as coach) is to select the final 13 players.   There is much observation, discussion, thought and prayer that goes into making this final decision.  I try to look forward to the teams that we have to beat to win a gold medal and determine which players are going to give us the best chance.  Who will perform under pressure? Who can be counted on when the game is one the line?  And equally important, who will fill a specific role that is needed?  For example, who can be my defensive stopper?  Who can I count on to guard the opposing team’s best player for a good part of the game? 

Also, I take into consideration chemistry.  Which players will help us have the best “team”?  This is often different that just picking the 13 best players.  When I am coaching a game, I need to know who I can count on to do what before I can substitute successfully.  The only way that I truly know this is with experience and time.  We try to keep the intensity very high in all of our trainings so that we can mimic what we will see and experience in a game.  This is a good way for me as a coach to be able to really see what players can do in certain situations.  This is also a good place for me to experiment a little and give players different opportunities to perform in certain situations.   One of the things that can really help is keeping stats.  Stats normally don’t lie and they will always give you clues as to who is doing what in certain situations.  Stats like good entry passes, perimeter field blocks and 6 on 5 goals are critical to who you want in the game.  I think it would be beneficial to have a stat similar to baseball has – base hits with a man on base.  Perhaps a stat of who is scoring fourth quarter 6 on 5’s or critical game changing goals.   These would be valuable stats for me to know as a coach.  It is only when I truly know my team that I can substitute with confidence throughout the game. 

Another very important factor is to know the clock.  Obviously, this is a physically demanding game and no player can play with the intensity needed for 32 minutes (all four quarters) and be at their best at the end of the game.  So keeping track of minutes played can be another important factor in when and who to substitute. This may seem cumbersome and difficult but the reality is that after keeping track of minutes over the course of 3-4 games you will begin to see patterns as to when you need to sub for a certain player. After awhile you can begin to keep pretty good track in your head (but it helps to have someone keeping track of actual minutes).  For each player, you should begin to understand how many minutes that they can go and still play at a high level.  There is a breaking point for each player and you don’t want to cross that line if at all possible.  When a player gets too fatigued, they begin to make mistakes and these mistakes can cost you the game.  So use your bench to keep players fresh and at their best.  Also, as a coach you should always be thinking ahead with a plan in mind. Who do you want in the game at the end of the quarter or the end of the game?  Giving key players a break at strategic times will put you in a position to have your best team in the water at the end of the game. For example, I might rest a key payer or two at the beginning of the fourth quarter so that I know they will be fresh and ready to go in the final 4-5 minutes of the game. 

Finally, know the situation.  The obvious one is the score.  This certainly may determine who you put in or keep in the game.  If you are behind, the risk is trying to stay with your starters for too long and breaking them down so that in the end of the game they have nothing left in the tank.  No doubt that there are times that you push this envelope and play your key players a bit more than normal but being able to play some of your bench in key times will build your team.  The better your bench is the better your team will be so learn to trust all the players on your team and be ready to give guys a shot at helping the team in a critical time.  Also, because 6 on 5 and 5 on 6 is often where the game is won and lost, you as a coach need to make sure you have good combinations in the water for both your five man defense and your 6 on 5 offense.  If you don’t have these combinations in the water then you need to be ready and willing to use a time out to make your changes in your line up when you earn that big 6 on 5.  It should also be obvious to know who is in foul trouble.  This obviously may change your substitution patterns.  If my best defender is in foul trouble, I am probably going to sit him and save him/her for the fourth quarter.  I want our best team in the water when the game is on the line. There is one more factor that I often try to keep my mind on.  Not every player is going to perform at his/her best in every game.  So as I am watching from the bench, I am keeping on eye on who is playing well and who is struggling.  This may also determine my substitutions as the game goes on. And perhaps help me make the right choice when I have to choose between two players that are pretty equal when the game is on the line.  

There are games when making substitutions just seems to flow nicely.  Goals are scored at good times to sub and no key players get into foul trouble and you are ahead the entire game.  Unfortunately, this is not the norm and this is why you need to stay sharp and pay attention to the details of the game. Knowing your team takes time.  Don’t get frustrated if you make some errors, especially early in the season.  You will make some mistakes - this is how we all learn and get better.  Always knowing the clock and knowing the situation will definitely make you a better coach.  Stay focused and sharp on the bench.  Certainly, most of your work as a coach is done preparing the team for the game.  However, once the game begins the ability to make good substitutions can make a big difference.  I like to map out (on paper) what my subbing patterns will look like prior to the game.  I will write out different scenarios for when a certain key player gets into foul trouble.  How does this change my patterns?  The more you plan ahead and prepare prior to a game the easier making good substitutions becomes. As I said before, the ability to use your bench will make your entire team better.  We carry 13 players when we go to the Olympic Games.  I need all 13 to perform at their best to give us a chance to win the gold medal.  Some may play 28 minutes while others may only play 8 -10 minutes per game.  My goal is to help each player understand his/her role prior to the game and then try to stick to that plan as much as possible. 

As always please feel free to shoot me an email if you have any questions.   I am at [email protected]

Happy Thanksgiving!

See you at the pool.



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