At the risk of sounding like a wimpy coach I am going to go the sport of Professional Basketball as a metaphor. Think that is a bad idea? Well at least I did not suggest Soccer …
Professional Basketball coaches have a defined strategy for substitution patterns. I am pretty sure I said strategy not seat of the pants execution. So, what is your strategy?
There are two types of decision that fall under this category. First, there are those decisions that may be decided before the actual game, and secondly those that arise during the course of a game.
Before the game the Coach needs to decide the parameters of the substitution strategies. Questions that the Head Coach and all the Assistants Coaches need to determine might be a little more complex than you might initially expect. The Game is going to be hectic enough without compounding the confusion with disagreements or differences of opinion while the game is going on. These can only deteriorate the player's trust in the Coaching Staff.
1. Which Coach or Coaches on the bench will make substitutions?
A. Most HS Teams do not have a unique coach for the box like many college programs have. Identifying who will send in the lines as well as unique position players is key for your bench organization, substituting on "the fly" is acceptable, while coaching "on the fly is not."
2. Are we going to substitute as units or lines or as individual players?
A. This is not as simple as you might expect. Many Coaches have moved away from rigid substitutions of middie lines with the advent of LSM players as well as defensive midfielders. Maybe you are a high school program that does not have a pure three-man defensive midfield, but probably you might have a strong athlete, not great with the stick who could possibly be an effective rider or defensive midfielder when combined with a LSM and the Best midfielder on a line. Or possibly when you substitute your fifth Attack player or fifth defender you want to have them play with two of the starters.
3. What is your priority for a lot of players playing in the game?
A. It has always been my strategy to play all or as many players as possible in each game. But the strategy might surprise you. I like to substitute most of the Bench in the first quarter, and predominately in the first half. I learned this lesson by watching the kid's body language on the bench as an observer rather than as a coach. Actually, one year I had to play many freshmen and sophomores and once we get over the initial "Deer in the Headlights" phase it will be OK.
B. Players that expect to have a good chance of playing in the game practice significantly harder and are far better at paying close attention in practice. Not to mention they will be significantly more prepared (since a lot of it is mental anyway) should you need them due to injury issues.
C. Players that have played even 30 seconds to a minute or two in the first half are aggressive, engaged vocal supporters for the rest of the game.
D. Once the starters realize this shift in your culture as well as realize they are going back in the game in a moment or two, they are too engaged with the younger or less experienced players.
E. It sure changes the weight of the terms "Team" and "we".
Finally, as the Head Coach I might strongly suggest that both you as well as the Assistants are CLEARLY on the same page. The day before the game take a few moments to discuss as a coaching unit who might be learning a little more playing time and have a definite strategy for making that happen.
So often coaches get to the end of the game and did not have an opportunity to give players the time they had expected to give. And then more often than not have a tendency to get defensive about the decisions or lack of substitutions. Has this happened to you?
The game is far too hectic, make a plan, and then make a plan to implement the plan. Or ask an Assistant to make sure to remind you in the first quarter of the plan. Getting these types of substitutions out of the way in the first half takes a lot of pressure off you as a Coach, and reduces the player's anxieties about "Will I play?" Off the table as well. After three or four games you might find you had more 'players' than you expected.