MASTERING THE ART OF SUBSTITUTIONS
FORMER HEAD BASKETBALL COACH
**Obviously not written for youth basketball. Some great points that will help you see some opportunities and help make your team better. In youth basketball, having to get everyone playing time is a factor to consider while reading this. **
One basic rule must be used as a guide. Substitutions should be made to strengthen the team’s chances of victory! Whether the substitution is to relieve a tired regular or to withdraw a player who is performing poorly, the replacement should be made with this basic rule in mind.
To correctly substitute, one prerequisite is necessary. A coach must know his players– their strengths, their weaknesses, and their condition, both physical and mental. If better rebounding is needed, he must know which of his reserves best meet this necessity. If better shooting is needed, he must know which of his reserves is the most dependable shooter. The same is true if a better defender is needed, or more speed, or better ball-handling.
The times and situations where substitution is necessary include:
1. To replace a tired player
2. To replace a player who is playing poorly
3. To replace a player who is in foul trouble
4. To convey information
5. To maintain morale
6. To make a defensive or offensive substitution
7. To set up a press
8. Because of an injury.
9. To maintain discipline.
10. When players mentally are not ready to play.
Let’s look at all of these situations:
To replace a tired player. One of the most important reasons for substitution is to give rest to a tired player, OR to rest him early before he gets overly tired. In the majority of cases, a coach can detect any signs of weariness and can substitute accordingly. Generally, a fresh reserve is more effective than a tired regular. Delay in substituting can cause valuable baskets. You should strive for peak physical condition but you must realize that the endurance of some players is less than others. It is not will they get tired, but when. I highly recommend a coach use the “North Carolina” system devised by former UNC coach Dean Smith. If a player is tired, he gives a closed fist signal indicating he is tired and needs to come out. He knows that the coach will not be mad with him for asking to come out. Instead, the UNC system lets him put himself back in the game when he is rested. The player can put himself back in the game, but the coach will tell him who to go in for. If a coach does not let a player know he will not be mad if the player tells him he is tired, then many players will continue to play and “pace” themselves. They are afraid the coach would not put them back in the game.
To replace a player who is playing poorly. Repeated mistakes, either offensively or defensively, usually require a substitution for the player committing the mistakes. Fumbling the ball on offense, taking bad shots, and missing open teammates are some of the offensive mistakes a player might make that would require substitution. Often a player may be nervous and just a few minutes on the sidelines may be all he needs to return and play better. Defensive mistakes that require substitution depend a great deal on a coach’s philosophy. There are coaches who let their players know that one defensive mistake and they will come out of the game. I personally believe this to be too harsh, but I do believe if a player makes 2, 3, or more defensive mistakes, he must come out of the game.
Many coaches substitute very quickly when a player makes a mistake, either offensively or defensively. These coaches feel that the bench is the best method of teaching players not to make such mistakes in the future. This is often true. No player loves to “sit on the bench” and the knowledge that he will do so if he makes foolish mistakes repeatedly may make him more alert and a better performer. On the other hand, care must be taken not to instill in players the idea that they will be benched if they make one mistake. This will place mental strain on a player and make him play too conservatively.
To replace a player who is in foul trouble. There are varying philosophies about how many fouls a player must make before he is removed. The main decision in the first half is whether or not you take a player out after he commits two fouls, or after he commits three fouls. Score and time must always be a factor. I personally think it is wrong to take a player out after two fouls and leave him sitting for the rest of the half, unless it is late in the first half. I believe that when a player makes his 2nd foul in the first 10-12 minutes of the half, he should be removed and cautioned that when he goes back in he must play “safe” defense and not make careless fouls. Then, after he sits for 3 or 4 minutes, send him back in. If he makes his third foul, then take him out immediately. I have seen too many times when a player sat out most of the 1st half with two fouls, then returned the second half and played the entire half without making a foul. In that situation, if you lose a close game, keeping him out so long may well be the reason for the loss.
In no situation should you let a player get his fourth foul in the first half. Allowing this to happen puts undue pressure on him during the last half and tends to have an ill effect on the morale of the team.
The major question of the second half is how to sub for a player who makes his 4th foul. How long do you let him sit before putting him back in the game. If a player picks up his 4th foul with 10-12 minutes to go, I believe in taking him out and sitting him until 5 or 6 minutes to go before putting him back in. Don’t keep him out too long. However, the player’s position may determine how long he sits. You might want to sit a good ball-handling guard longer in the event you need him late to help freeze the ball.
To convey information. Often you might need to convey information to your team, but you do not wish to call a time-out to do so. For example, you might be leading and need to run a slower offense. Though you may have a signal for this, it can be helpful to send in a sub with specific instructions to tell the team at a free throw huddle or a break in the action.
To maintain morale. All players want to play, especially after they have worked so hard in practice. Your key subs must get in every game, even for a short period. The main thing is to be consistent and establish roles for your subs. If a player plays five minutes one game and does not get in the next, he will not understand. Your starting point guard might play the first eight minutes, then his sub plays five minutes, with the starter returning for the last seven minutes. If this is your sub pattern game after game, and you come to a game and play the sub only one minute, again he will not understand and his morale may slip. Be consistent with your substitution pattern.
A very key morale situation is subbing late in a game with a comfortable lead. If you lead by 16-20 with 3 minutes to go, your subs should play. Try to get all of your players in the game. They deserve it and their morale requires it. For reserves to be of value, they must feel that they are part of the team. If they are not used in these situations, any feeling of belonging they may have is bound to be reduced. This situation may require that you call a timeout to get them in the game if the clock does not stop. It is that important! Reserves deserve a better fate than continued bench warming after victory has been assured.
To make a defensive or offensive substitution. This is one of the more important reasons for substitutions. An opposing player may be scoring too easily on your player guarding him and this might require that you rush your best defensive sub into the game. You may be getting out-rebounded and your best rebounding sub may be needed. On offense, the opposing zone defense may be hurting you and you need to get a good shooter into the game. A press may be hurting you and you might need another ball-handler in the game.
To set up a press. When you are behind in score and pressing late in a game, substitute on every dead ball. This allows you to get your press set up, a big key to late pressing. The opponent usually wants to get the ball out and inbounds quickly before you can set up the press. Subbing on every dead ball prevents this. It is imperative that you sub after a made free throw to set your press.
Because of an injury. This is an obvious reason. When a player is hurt, he must come out. One word of caution. A player may be hurt, but does not want to come out of the game; therefore, he tries to fake the severity of the injury. Watch for this, for the safety of your player comes ahead of anything else.
To maintain discipline. When a player plays in an undisciplined manner, he should be replaced. Make your team aware that any technical foul called on them will result in immediate removal from the game.Any disrespect to you as the coach, hollering at teammates, arguing with a referee, loafing, and baiting an opponent are all examples of reasons for disciplinary substitution.
When players mentally are not ready to play. A basketball season is long and it is difficult for players to be “up” or mentally ready for every game. There can be a number of reasons. Perhaps the team is playing a supposedly weak opponent and have taken this opponent rather lightly. This is often the case when playing against a team the second time after being them the first. Trouble at home, with a girlfriend, or worry over other problems may cause them not to be totally focused on the game. Quick substitutions can help correct any mental unreadiness regardless of reason. Usually the replacement of one or two players is sufficient; however, I have seen coaches replace their entire starting five. When the starters return they usually are much more focused.