In light of Fury’s victory at Nationals this weekend, we dug through the URCA archives to find a few pearls of wisdom from legendary Fury coach Matty Tsang. His challenging of the conventional wisdom of calling lines caught our eye. Could strategies like this have an impact on your team’s season next year?
Tsang's full talk is titled We Are What We Speak: Calling Subs, Team Meetings, & Building Team Cohesion. You can get access to the full presentation here as an URCA Classroom Member. This presentation is part of the fundamental skills we've put together for our new URCA Certification.
How does your team call lines? If you are like most teams in ultimate, one person calls out the seven names that will be playing the next point. In his URCA conference talk from 2015, Matty Tsang makes the argument that this method of calling subs is inefficient and that your team can do better. Matty backs up this bold claim by spelling out the problems with calling subs, and provides solutions to help teams communicate as positively and effectively as possible.
Establishing systems of positive communication between team members is always important. Whether your club team has just finished at nationals, or your college team is beginning the season, it’s always worth looking at and understanding how leadership can affect a team’s culture and performance in a way that helps it achieve its highest potential. Through the context of calling subs, Matty gives valuable insight as to how to accomplish this as a coach or team leader.
7 players play at a time in ultimate. For a team of 27, this equates to players, on average, playing 1 in every 4 points. Even while skewing playing time to favor starters, as many teams do, the reality is that most of a player’s time is spent on the sideline.
Each time a player does not hear his or her name called to play a point (on average, 3 out of every 4 points), that player may feel a sense of rejection. It is not conducive towards building a positive team culture when you are openly rejecting 75% of your roster every point. Even worse is when the sub-caller makes an error (wrong player, 8 on a line, etc.) and a player is removed from the field despite not making a mistake.
As a coach, there are lots of reasons you may or may not call a player. Perhaps you want to reward a player on a hot streak, or sit a player to rest them for the next game. Regardless of your reasoning, it is not possible to explain to each individual player why they are called on or off for a certain point. Players are then left with their own self-talk dictating your feedback. It is unavoidable that some players think they are being punished, or excluded, among any number of other negative thoughts about why they are not being called. These negative emotions build up gradually over time and can eat away at a positive team culture.
Sub calling happens in front of everyone: teammates, opponents, and spectators. One of Matty’s coaching principles is to give praise openly and to give criticisms privately. Because some players’ self-talk may interpret your sub-calling as a criticism, you can end up giving your players consistent feelings of public shaming.
Players demonstrate their value the best and develop their game the most by playing in games. When a coach gives certain players far more playing time, and others far less, the players playing have more opportunities to show and develop their game, while the players at the end of the bench are denied these opportunities. When these imbalances are consistent over the course of a season, it severely limits a team’s ability to develop good depth to use in the postseason.
You can’t change the math: most of the team will not play each point. A traditional approach to sub calling leaves you with 7 instances of positive feedbacks and 20 or so negative ones. There are many ways to balance this equation, but one of the easiest is to platoon your players into different squads. Most teams already do this in setting O lines and D lines. If it is an O point, a D player knows that they will not be called, and you can avoid the mental rejection of not calling that player. However, when on D points, there will still be times when that player is not called. Coaching Fury, Matty counters this by taking this traditional platooning one step further. Rather than dividing players into two groups of O and D, Fury is comprised of smaller “squads” of cutters and handlers. If a player knows it is not their squad’s turn, you avoid giving that player a sense of rejection by not calling them.
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As a coach, it is critical that you are aware of how you are communicating with your team. Some players will constantly fill their heads with negative self-talk if given the chance—and since sub-calling is both negative and a necessity, you need to constantly be searching for opportunities to communicate something positive. This can be as simple as a high five or a pat on the back as a player comes off the field.
While we’ll stick to discussing calling lines here, Matty goes into several ways to deliver positive feedback, including “positive time-outs” and how to honor your players both as individuals and as a team.
A coach should be in tune to how his or her players operate best. You need to take this into account when determining when and how much a particular player plays in a game. Some players are able to sit for 6 or 7 points in a row, then instantly hit game speed when they are called. If you have a player with this quality filling a niche role on the team, it is valuable information to know that you can trust them to be at 100%, even if they have not played in a while.
On the contrary, many players play their best when they are playing consistently. On many teams, the end of the bench players may not see the field until near the end of the game when the outcome has already been decided. If a player sits for an hour and gets cold, they may not be able to play their best. If you redistribute this player’s points throughout the game, rather than loading them all at the end, you can keep that player in a rhythm and maximize their contribution to the team.
In tense situations, almost all coaches tighten their rotations and call stricter lines. However, doing so actually prevents you from getting the most out of your team. Deep teams win the big games late in tournaments, and you cannot be a deep team if you do not develop depth. This does not mean that you have to play rookie lines on universe point, but coaches should recognize high-pressure situations that arise throughout the season as opportunities for players to develop and prepare for big moments later on. If you have not developed all of your players to play under pressure, you will be left with a small pool of players you can call on when it matters most, and you will make it much harder on yourself to win the biggest games.
Matty’s talk is rife with examples of these principles in action, pulled from his lengthy and illustrious coaching career, including lots of ways to give positive feedback that we haven’t discussed here. You can watch the full video in the URCA certification package!
Does your team call lines in the traditional method that Matty argues against? Do you already follow Matty’s advice? Do you do something different entirely? Let us know in the comments!