Substitutions And Opportunities

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At some point in the past (I don’t remember exactly when) the substitution rules for Australian junior tournaments was changed to allow more substitutions.  One of the reasons put forward for this change was to provide greater opportunity for players to play by giving coaches more possibilities to redistribute playing time.  I disagree with this reasoning at two levels.

Firstly, I philosophically disagree with the implication that a player’s experience in a team is a direct function of the amount of playing time that player has.  When I was fifteen my first main coach[1] taught us what it meant to be in a team.  He taught us about roles.  He taught us that by working at our maximum in practice we made other players better not just ourselves (co-opetition, but 20 odd years before someone put a name to it).  He taught us how to play the right way.  He taught us that not every player gets to play the same amount, and that amount depended on the work you put in.  And he taught us that when we won a medal, which we inevitably did, every player had contributed to it and every player deserved it.  If you don’t learn these things, you miss out on so many shared, wonderful experiences.  Measuring the value of an experience using playing time is shortsighted and superficial.

Secondly, by adding substitutions to redistribute playing time, fewer and fewer people actually get a chance to play volleyball.  Volleyball is unique precisely because its rotation rules demand that every player has to play every position and therefore must learn every skill.  Over time coaches have invented systems to get around this and the libero has obviously had an effect but it essentially holds true to this day.  That everybody has a chance to do everything is not only unique, it should be an attraction.  Allowing extra substitutions might redistribute playing time but that playing time isn’t playing volleyball.  It is playing ‘defence’ or playing ‘blocking’.  And of course one of the attractions of specialisation for coaches is that they don’t have to spend time practicing ‘unnecessary’ skills[2].

The final consequence is that players don’t learn how to play volleyball.  They don’t learn about teams, or about roles.  And dare I say they never have a chance to develop a love for the sport and therefore drop out the first chance they get.

Women’s volleyball in the USA has similar issues.  They recently increased the number of substitutions allowed to 15.  In response Terry Pettit wrote, far more eloquently than me, in the most recent edition ‘Coaching Volleyball’.

[1] That coach was John Dunstan.  The lessons I learnt from him I still use every day.

[2] If you couple this with the movement to restrict numbers in a team to 10, then you have players who never even get a chance to practice playing volleyball.


  1. Interestingly, the argument which is used to lower the net heights in junior divisions is to enable players with a lower reach to ‘play volleyball’ – specifically part of the all round game which includes spiking. This is actually a compelling argument in lower levels (in my opinion).


    1. The unintended consequence (as I know all too well) is that it becomes easier to score an ace and harder to make a reception. The opportunities to see kids spiking on a low don’t happen as often as intended as most rallies are determined by service reception errors and serving errors. MV200 + Low net = not many rallies.


  2. …also the ridiculous thing about 12-sub-rule allowing coaches to redistribute playing time, is you can be just as or if not more equitable with 6 sub rule, using a tactic called “taking turns”. In the 2 years after they introduced 12-sub-rule to SA state league, there was no significant redistribution of playing time. The people who weren’t starters still didn’t go on much. It’s the willingness of a coach to put a player on so they can learn and develop in the appropriate context that redistributes playing time.

    It’s sad that too many young players equate their contribution to a team with their playing time and to think like that means missing out on a richness of experience that comes from being a part of the team.

    It’s like making a film. The performances of the actors on the screen are not a complete summary of how the film was made. Most of the crucial work comes from unseen people who have been toiling away for years.


  3. I disagree with you on this one Mark but you do make some good points about how to maximise the involvement and value of the guys who don’t get to see much court time.

    I would be very happy to have the 12 sub rule for my guys. I think there would be a lot more learning opportunities available.


    1. Tristo… coaches control the number of learning opportunities, not the rules.
      If the coach wants players to have learning opportunities, he can put them on the court and let them play. The problem is that many want to win first and provide learning opportunities second. All the coach needs to do is flip his priorities then he will find that he has all the opportunities his players need.


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