Tuesday Tips: Calling Subs in Big Games [Impacts On The Team — Part 2]

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

Harvard coach Mike Mackenzie keeping stats at the 2016 College Championships. Photo: Kevin Leclaire — UltiPhotos.com

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This is part II of our Calling Subs series.

The nature of constantly making judgements and decisions about who should play at any given moment is an ongoing risk-benefit analysis, where a sub-caller is challenged to consider both the short term and long term. Great sub-callers understand all of the different variables at play and the effects their decisions can have on the team. They understand that any given point is just one small moment in a game, and that one game is just a small moment in the context of a season.

When thinking about one game, the extremes of the risk-benefit spectrum are easy to conceptualize. In a big game, teams can’t have all of their best players play every single point, because players get too tired and can’t sustainably perform at their best. On the flip side, if a team rarely has its best players on the field, it’s less likely to have success.

The best line-callers recognize the nuance of the spectrum between the two extremes. In order to understand it, it’s helpful to look at games as a whole and the cumulative effect on players. This gives us a clearer picture of how hard we can push, and the associated risks and benefits.

The D-Line Math

How many D-lines do you need to call? And how many of each line? We can actually do the math.

In Part 1, we talked about the six different types of D-lines you can call: Depth, Rotation, Starting D-line, Half Push, Full Push, and O-line. To win a game to 15, you need to score 15 points before the other team. Duh. That means your D-line is going to play 15 points per game. As a sub-caller, that means you’re going to have to call 15 lines in a game, using some combination of the six different types of lines.

Elite teams often have an overarching game-long sub-calling strategy that guides how aggressively lines get called. Zooming out even more, in a tournament format, teams often even have a tournament-long plan. For example, in the first game of an early season tournament, elite teams are generally not aggressive with their line-calling strategy. On the other hand, at the end of the season when more big games arise, teams get more and more aggressive in distributing playing time.

The chart below shows the implications of how many of each type of line might get called using a full game approach to calling D-lines. Each column adds up to the 15 points required of the D-line.

Full Game ApproachNot AggressiveOccasionally Aggressive Fairly AggressivePretty AggressiveAggressiveVery AggressiveExtremely AggressiveMaximally Aggressive
Starting D-Line03-46-89-117-97-96-86-8
Half Push0001-22-32-344
Full Push00011-222-33-4
O-Line (Very Rare)0000specific casespecific casespecific casespecific case

Scroll horizontally to see all columns.

The type of lines you call affects how much each player on each line plays. The more aggressively you call a game, the more there’s an imbalance in playing time between players on the D-line. This helps understand the effect that each approach will have on team-wide playing time.

Effect on Playing TimeNot AggressiveOccasionally Aggressive Fairly AggressivePretty AggressiveAggressiveVery AggressiveExtremely AggressiveMaximally Aggressive
Depth D-line PlayersEven PT3-42-3210-100
Top D-line PlayersEven PT8-1010-1111-1212121212-15
O-line Players that FlexEven PTUp to 15Up to 15Up to 15Up to 16-18Up to 16-18Up to 16-1816-20

Scroll horizontally to see all columns.

As you can see, the more aggressively you call the game, the less your depth players see the field. Equally as important, the more aggressively you call the game, the more you’re relying on your top players.

The goal here is not to place a judgement on which of these approaches is the right one: it’s to understand the effects of your game-long decisions on subgroups of your players.

Considering the Implications

There are some important considerations when assessing how to utilize specifics subgroups.

Top D-line Players

Being a top D-line player is the most physically demanding and grueling role on a team. As a sub-caller, we should consider:

  • How fresh are they? How effective are they?
  • Do they need a point off?
  • If so, when should I give them a point off?

When you call games aggressively, you’re asking a top D-line player to play around 12 points against fresh and skilled O-line opponents. You are pushing these players to the brink of what their bodies can handle, and that becomes one of the key limiting factors to their effectiveness.

O-Line Crossovers

In a big game, elite teams expect their top O-line players to play basically every single offensive point. In addition, a few of those players might play a couple of high-value defensive points. For these players, we should ask:

  • How many extra defensive points can they handle?
  • When should they play those points?
  • How fresh are they?
  • What’s the risk of having them play a defensive point?

Overall, the impact of aggressive game calling on an O-line crossover is that they’re playing a lot, and the thing you need to be careful of is not having them play so much that their impact goes down when they play offense. Remember, offensive hold rate is the top priority for most teams.

D-Line Depth Players

Being a depth player on a D-line is a tough role to buy into, because when the big games come around, available playing time decreases. When approaching a game, sub-callers should think about:

  • How do I set up depth players for success, knowing they might minimally step onto the field?
  • In what specific situations can depth players have the greatest impact in this game?
  • How will we keep them engaged?

Playing a couple points per game or not playing at all isn’t enjoyable, especially over the long term. This inherent tension is unavoidable; that’s where your team leadership’s ability to build teamwide trust, buy-in, and mental resilience get tested.

While the math may seem simple, it’s obvious the impact on the humans that make up your lines is more complex. Choose wisely, and anticipate and accept the physical, mental, and emotional impact it can have on people. If you’re a line-caller, you’re making decisions for the team, but you’re also affecting each person’s individual experience. Neither is necessarily more important than the other, so you have to understand the implications of both. They are deeply connected.

Your goal as leadership is to keep the team appropriately engaged throughout the course of a game, while also getting the right people on the field at the right time. As humans, we have to acknowledge that engagement ebbs and flows as events unfold around us. Great line-callers understand how playing time affects engagement for different individuals, different subgroups on the team, and for the team as a whole.

By connecting our approach to its effect on players, we have a better picture of our impact as line-callers. But how do we quantify the impact? What are the limitations to the impact we can have? And how is that connected to success and winning games?

In the next part of “Calling Subs In Big Games,” we’ll talk about the relationship between risk and reward of calling D-lines aggressively in the big game.

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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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