Tuesday Tips: Calling Subs in Big Games [Context and Vocab — Part 1]

Who should play? How much should they play? And when?

Toronto 6ixers coaches Carla DiFilippo and Alena Papayanis consult on the sideline during the 2019 Club Championships final. Photo: Rodney Chen -- UltiPhotos.com
Toronto 6ixers coaches Carla DiFilippo and Alena Papayanis consult on the sideline during the 2019 National Championships final. Photo: Rodney Chen — UltiPhotos.com

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As leaders, we all want our teams to have success during games, and it’s up to us to make key decisions that will determine whether or not we do. One of the fundamental decisions that influences your team’s chance for success — no matter how you define it — is choosing who gets to play and how much. We need to be prepared, and that means talking about it amongst leaders.

A Framework for Language and Conversation

This article is about building vocabulary for playing time decisions. At some point, you need to have a conversation within your leadership about how you call subs. In order to have a good conversation, you need some common language. That’s what this article is for: to develop a framework for the language. Keep in mind that it’s not about using the exact language I use; it’s about figuring out the language that you and your team will use.

My Bias and Context

I am a white 37 year old dude. I’ve played and led at the elite club level in the US for 10 years in the men’s division and three years in the mixed division. I’ve coached teams from middle school girls to high school boys to college D-III and D-I men to national teams. I don’t call subs the same at the middle school level the same way I do at the elite club level. But what is the same is that I use the team’s stated goals to inform my decision making when I’m in charge of calling subs.

Your Bias, Your Context, Your Language

Don’t coach like me. Coach like you.

If you find something in this article helpful, great, use it. It will truly be awesome when you make it your own. The best coaches and leaders I’ve observed (both in ultimate and in society) shape and mold everything into their own unique style and philosophy. That is a best practice in leadership. Also, the best coaches steal from each other, while giving credit where credit is due. It’s ok. It’s normal. Maybe return the favor and share something sometime.

The big key: be aware about your own context. Does this article even apply to your team? If not, or you think you have a better idea, that’s awesome. Bottom line: do you, and that means knowing and understanding yourself, the team you lead, and the context of your team’s environment.

What do I Mean by “Calling Subs?”

If I’m calling subs, it means I’m in the person who is managing and deciding which players play on a given point. Some teams interchange the phrase “calling subs” and “calling lines.” I generally prefer using the phrase “calling subs” because I think it’s more clear, while “calling lines” can sometimes get confused with “calling the play,” which refers to the moment when you’re talking to the seven players who are about to start the point and setting up the strategy for what to do during the point.

It’s important to differentiate with your team that there are two different actions going on there. Calling subs is not the same thing as calling the play. This article is about calling subs.

Defining a “Big Game”

Some games are more important than others. Not every game is a “big game,” no matter how much you may try to “win the game to three” or focus on one point at a time.

I’m not saying every moment isn’t a learning opportunity. I’m not saying you don’t prepare similarly and have similar rituals and routines. I’m not saying every game isn’t important on your path in a season.

I am saying the whole point of the season is to grow and become something, to become something different than you were at the start. Part of becoming a team means setting goals, and most of the teams I’ve ever played on or led have wanted to be better by the end of the season then they were at the beginning. Those teams wanted to be able to perform at their best by the end of the season, because it was mutually understood that the end of the season is when the most important games take place, the games that define when your season ends.

Those are big games. Or that game against your rival. Or the game where if you win, you make the playoffs, or you make semis, or you win a championship. Or when your season could be over. That’s a big game.

This article is about calling subs to try to win those games.

Some general observations about how most top teams in ultimate call subs in big games:

  • The most common framework is some version of O-line and D-line.
  • Players are NOT given equal playing time in big games.
  • There is often a clear and observable stratification in how playing time is allocated. Some players don’t play at all, some play a few points, some play some, some play a lot, some play far more than everyone else.
  • There are certain situations where you see teams break from their normal sub calling patterns

Hold Rate, Break Rate, and Stacked O-lines

In general, elite teams prioritize the O-line’s ability to consistently hold (“hold rate”) more than the D-line’s ability to get breaks (“break rate”). This prioritization leads to two key things we see on most teams:

1. Stacked O-lines [most or even all of the the team’s best players on the O-line]
2. Fewer O-line players than D-line players

The rationale behind “stacking the O-line” is that some combination of your best players gives you the best chance to score. Or if you turn it over, that group is also a strong defensive unit, and they’ll get it back and then score. Pretty simple. The other underlying concept is that being able to score relies on playing consistently great offense. It’s a commonly held belief that great offense relies on chemistry, and chemistry is easier to develop when there are fewer overall players involved on the line throughout the course of the season.

Another reason it’s feasible to stack the O-line is because successful O-lines score more often than not, and that means not playing a lot of consecutive points. Fewer back-to-back points means they’re fresher when they step on the field, hence fewer subs required.

So, that’s why you get stacked O-lines, and that’s also why O-lines end up being only 8-11 players on a team, whereas you typically see D-lines of 14 to 20 players.

The Aggressiveness Spectrum

As a sub caller, you have to make judgment calls about how important any given game is or any given point is. That decision helps inform the combination of players you put on the field. Whether you’re calling subs for an O-line or a D-line, there is a spectrum of situations you encounter, and I refer to it as the aggressiveness spectrum.

In essence, the more important the point or game, the more aggressively you call the line.

The question good sub callers are always subconsciously answering for themselves is “How aggressively should I call this line?”.

This vocabulary is important, although it isn’t novel. We need to be able to have conversations with our co-leaders before and during games, and I think having this common vocab helps with that. We need to think and say things like:

  • How aggressively should we call lines to start the game against team X?
  • We’re up a few breaks, how aggressive should we be?
  • We’re down a break, how aggressive should we be with the next line?

This type of vocab is better than referring to how ‘tight’ the lines get called. If you’re tightening up lines, you’re generally referring to being more aggressive. I like the aggressiveness spectrum better, because I think it has more nuance, and there’s a ton of nuance to calling lines.

Now that we can talk about how aggressive we’re going to be, we need words to describe the different types of lines we can call.\

Names for the Lines


Line TypeDescriptionWhat You're ThinkingHold Rate
Depth1-2 starting O-line players, the rest rotation playersFocused on recharging the O-line because they're tired or ineffectiveLowest
Rotation4-5 starting O-line players, 2-3 rotation playersThis line is likely to rely a bit more on the top 1-3 players to drive the offense.Medium
Starting O-LineThe top O-line group that gives us a chance to hold. All players have an obvious offensive superpower, as well as solid defensive skills. No rotation players.Unlikely to turn it over. Good chance of getting it back on a turn. Can score via system OR via 1-2 power players.Highest
Universe O-LineYour starting O-line OR offensive starters + 1-2 top D-line playersThis is it: these are the players we want on the field with the game on the line.Highest
D-Line (Very Rare)D-line personnelUsually a desperate move. Focused on recharging the O-line because they're very tired or ineffective. We need to try something else.???


Line Type
DescriptionWhat You're ThinkingBreak Rate
DepthNone of the top D-line players on the line.Focused on recharging the top D-line players because they're tired. Anything this line generates is a bonus.Lowest
RotationHalf rotation players + half top D-line playersMight generate a turn, likely relying on 1-3 players to drive the offense.Low
Starting D-LineThe top D-line group (usually choosing from 8-9 players) that gives us good chance to break. All players have an obvious defensive superpower. No rotation players. No O-line players.Likely to generate a turn. Can score via system OR via 1-2 power players.Medium
Half PushA combination of top D-line players + one key O-line player.Likely to generate a turn. Multiple ways to score. One offensive superpower player to work throughMedium-High
Full PushA combination of multiple O-line players + top D-line playersVery likely to generate a turn, many stars to help you scoreHighest
O-Line (Very Rare)O-line personnelUsually a desperate move. D-line personnel not affecting their offense. We need to try something else.Medium

The first step in calling subs is having the language to talk about it. Step two is understanding the effects of using different line combinations and applying them to different situations. 

Overall, O-lines are typically easier to call than D-lines, because there are fewer moving pieces to choose from and the need to score on any given point is always high. D-lines, on the other hand, are a whole different beast, because there are so many more players at your disposal and so much more variation in the necessity to push to get a break on any given point. 

In the next article in this series, I’ll go in depth about the macro-implications of using different approaches and combinations of lines throughout a game, as well as the effects these combinations have on specific players.

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  1. Mario O'Brien
    Mario O'Brien

    Mario O'Brien is an ambassador of excellence in ultimate leadership and education, and the creative director and head coach of RISE UP Ultimate. He is an ultimate renaissance man, but at heart, a lifelong learner, teacher and leader. He currently plays as a handler with Seattle BFG and formerly played for Seattle Sockeye and Portland Rhino. He has coached and captained at every level of ultimate from elementary school to elite club. His recent leadership and playing accomplishments include gold at USAU Masters Nationals, gold at WUCC 2018, gold at WCBU 2017, silver in the 2016 AUDL Championships, silver at the 2015 USAU Club Championships, and gold at WCBU 2015. His professional background, experience, and education as a teacher and his desire to give back to the ultimate community inspired RISE UP, the world's only professional ultimate instructional video company.

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