Tuesday Tips: Dos And Don’ts For Calling Subs, Presented By Spin Ultimate

Whether the duty is assigned to a captain or a coach, a team's subbing strategy should not be an afterthought.

Marcus High School Mixed coach Jenna Bigbie calls a line at the Texas HS State Championships. Photo: Daniel Thai — UltiPhotos.com

This article is presented by Spin Ultimate; all opinions are those of the author. Please support the brands that make Ultiworld possible and shop at Spin Ultimate

Subbing, whether with whole lines in between points or individuals after an injury timeout, is one of the most fundamental ways a team can control or change the flow of a game. However, teams often fall into predictable, hurried, or thoughtless patterns of selecting which seven players will be on the field for any given point. This is not a duty that should be taken lightly or done lackadaisically.

Many leadership groups focus intently on constructing rosters, but then fail to give the same level of attention to the composition of specific lines. Yet a team is bound to be successful if a given line is clicking and thrums like a well-oiled machine. On the other hand, with the wrong seven on the line — with makeup, chemistry, and talent out of whack — the same team can be miserably unsuccessful, no matter how good the overall roster is.

It is important to be thoughtful about how the leadership of your squad subs lines and individuals, making sure your team is prepared for a variety of situations. Games and tournaments are the time to be efficient with that roster you’ve constructed and make the most of the talent you’ve got.

To help that process, here are some dos and don’ts for calling subs.

DON’T call subs one at a time.

Probably the most common way to sub, it is also the among the least effective for a variety of reasons.

If your subbing plan is to wait until a point is over, then have a captain or coach scan a sideline or stare at a roster on a clipboard before calling out individuals one by one, your team is wasting valuable time in between points and likely ending up with disjointed lines with the wrong mix of players.

This strategy puts both the team leader and the players in a terrible position. The leader has to make the tough decisions, literally on the spot, each second of valuable time ticking away, while distracting himself or herself  from focusing on more important, bigger-picture strategy. And on the other hand, the players have to stand by uncertainly, hoping (or not) to be called, debating whether to self-advocate or stay quiet.

Don’t make this mistake; if your team calls lines one person at a time, make a change and fast. It will make your team quicker to the line (which gives you more time to strategize and prepare), make your players more confident (not doing the desperate dance of “Will I be called?”), and ensure better chemistry through prepared forethought.

DO create prepared groups to call.

Subbing should not be done individually, but with prepared groups and lines. The more of these lines and combinations can be prepared and practiced in advance, the better.

This will often take the form of carefully prepared groups for specific purposes, usually lines for different offensive and defensive sets. However, this doesn’t always have to be the case. Sometimes you can simply have good, creative player combinations that fill a specific purpose or groups of players that have excellent chemistry and play well together. It is often surprising to teams how successful they can be running groups of like-minded individuals with similar styles, regardless of O or D.

For the players, they will be a part of 2-3 groups that can be called in an instant, get players on the field quickly, and give the group a sense of what strategy to employ.

Don’t be afraid to individually tweak groups in the case of injury, fitness, and if other needs arise, but try to have good lines that you know will work together ready to go, with easy to remember names to call.

DON’T always call just the best players.

Another way teams run into trouble is simply by calling all the best players in, whether individually or in a group, as frequently as possible. While this seems like a sure way to win, the problem with it is two-fold.

First, the best players aren’t always the right players in any given situation. “Best” is subjective to say the least and most of the time people make rankings on talent that are arbitrary only to them or are focused on a specific skill (whether throwing ability, athletic ability, etc). The “best” player at any given moment may mean the wrong player for a specific role to contribute to the team on the line. A line of your seven best cutters — simply because they are your best players — is unlikely to be as successful as a line that has a variety of skills and specialties.

A second problem with this “best” strategy is the issue of fitness or endurance. As long as ultimate continues to be played primarily at tournaments with stacked up games, exhaustion and injury will play a factor in subbing. There are obviously “must-win” games and perhaps even “must-win” points, but the reality of the situation is that you can’t have your top players play every single point in every game. There will be a drop-off in performance, likely even after 2-3 points played in a row. If you put the burden of playing time onto the shoulders of your superstars without a plan in place, they’ll probably end up playing their worst just when you need them to their best: at the end of important games late in the weekend.

Be smart, have a plan. Disperse your superstars with specific strategic preparation, where they can maximize their ability to influence the team’s success, while also pulling up the rest of your team.

DO sub with goal-focused lines.

Each line should not only be prepared beforehand, but should have a specific goal that matches their talents and the strategy that they will run.

Obviously the goal of every line is to score; but the more specific, or SMART, you can be with your goals and how you intend to score, the easier it will be to quantify, analyze, and improve upon them. For example, a defensive line should not simply have the goal to “find a way to force a turnover and then score,” but have a specific strategy to pressure an offense that makes the most of the skills they have on the line. Perhaps the line’s goal is to run zone that forces a ton of throws to encourage an execution mistake. Perhaps an offensive line’s goal is to score quickly in a fast or huck-filled attack. Maybe a line is sent out to counter a specific strength or strategy that the other team has been employing successfully.

The more specific your goals are, the better your lines will be able to accomplish them. Have each line geared around that goal, have them practice, train, and gain chemistry together, and your team will have great success on the field.

DON’T sub strictly through traditional player roles.

Whether it is O or D, handler or cutter, sometimes it is easy for a coach or captain to draw up lines just making the numbers match. But if you’re caught balancing four cutters, three handlers every single time as your primary focus, not only do you become predictable, you are failing to consider a lot of other factors.

Too often this traditional kind of number balancing limits the chemistry or maximum talent your team might be able to offer on the field. You can’t just choose three handlers; they have to be the right handlers. Depending on the circumstances, it may be better to play two or four handlers if the condition call for it or you are trying to capitalize on similar playing styles. Putting two guys or girls on a line cutting or throwing to each other who have completely different styles and attitudes is not only likely to fail, it is a recipe for disaster, whether the line has the right ratio or not.

Remember, the goal is to put the best possible line out there — as a combined force. If that means tweaking the ratio or having a player step into a role they are not used to for a specific purpose, go for it, provided that it does indeed help your team accomplish its goals in a better way.

DO look for the right circumstances to sub experimentally.

Sometimes a coach or captain needs to try something new.

As previously mentioned, preparedness is one of the greatest strengths of successful subbing. Ideally, a member of the leadership knows the team well and has seen various combinations in practice. But, sometimes it is good to try new strategies or groups together in a live game situation to see how they work.

Giving an individual a try in a new line or group is especially important when looking at new or young players, or in thinking about tweaking lines.

Make sure the situation is appropriate (none of the “must-score” times here), where ideally your team is in command or the results don’t matter as much. Then again, sometimes running out a new player or group during an important point is the best test to see how they react and be prepared for similar situations in the future. Just make sure your team comes through with the advantage in the long run.

DON’T sub based on who has played the least.

This section comes with the caveat that it’s intended for competitive teams and situations; there are instances or squads where it IS appropriate to distribute playing time as evenly as possible.

Subbing based solely on who has played the least has some appeal. After a long point, fresh legs are important. For some teams, equitable playing time is something that is important for every team member. However, as admirable and well-intended as this subbing strategy is, it rarely puts you in the best position to win.

Putting out a fresh player or line in the wrong moment could gift an opponent a quick, easy point that provided little rest to your squad. Nothing is more demoralizing than heaving from the sidelines watching an unprepared group get scored on in just a few throws. Instead of just going for fresh legs, still use a prepared group. Sometimes you may have to ask players to temporarily step out of traditional roles to make the line better. Likewise, you may have to ask a tired player to continue on for one more. It will be worth it if the point is scored.

Keep the points played stat in mind, but cultivate playing time carefully, making sure that each player is put in the best opportunity to succeed as well as just get on the field.

DO sub to swing the advantage of momentum.

The most important and the best way to sub is to control the momentum of a game and tilt the overall advantage to your side.

If your team badly needs a break, don’t feel obligated to run out the same old D line set on defense. Instead, if you have a specific line that puts you in the best position to accomplish that — whether it’s a zone line to catch an offense by surprise or a D-line prepared to go upwind on a turn — then use it.

The same goes for offense. If your offensive line is being broken, don’t continue to give it chance after chance because that is their “job.” Instead, switch things up! Try new lines and groups in new situations if it will help swing the momentum back to your team.

Overall Takeaways

Remember, as a coach or captain, subbing can be one of the best ways to make an impact; use this power carefully and thoughtfully.

Subbing should always be purposeful; however, it can also be flexible. Think about every given situation in a unique way and have options prepared. Think of your various groups and lines like weapons in a team’s arsenal or clubs in a golf bag. Yes, most often you’ll have specific ones that go with certain situations. However, if you need a big change, try something new.

If you remain thoughtful, intentional, prepared, you’ll be on the right track to making the most of your team’s potential.

  1. Alex Rummelhart

    Alex "UBER" Rummelhart is an Ultiworld reporter. He majored in English at the University of Iowa, where he played and captained IHUC. He lives and teaches in Chicago, Illinois, where he has played for several ultimate teams, including the Chicago Wildfire and Chicago Machine. Alex loves writing of all types, especially telling interesting and engaging stories. He is the author of the novel The Ultimate Outsider, one of the first fictional works ever written about ultimate.


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