“Teams win games, squads win titles.” (Sir Alex Ferguson)

Sir Alex Ferguson’s philosophy paid dividends in the 1999 European Cup Final when Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjear (two substitutes) scored late goals to secure a 2-1 victory. 

Other high profile substitutes who have came to the fore on the big occasion include Kevin Mc Manamon who scored the decisive goal for Dublin in the 2011 All Ireland title and Stephen Donald kicking the crucial penalty in New Zealand’s 2011 Rugby World Cup success.

Substitutes play a more subtle, unseen, yet equally important role in the context of training. If all players in a squad are committed to attending and to giving 100%, the quality and intensity of training will be at an optimum level. With a healthy competition for starting places no player will be able to coast through training leading to increased performance throughout the squad. This is a scenario managers crave.

By contrast, if managed poorly, substitutes can develop a sense of learned helplessness. This is common in people who suffer depression, where they adopt a ‘what’s the point’ mindset. Managers can actually foster similar feelings (not depression per sé but associated feelings towards their sport) where substitutes can feel there is no point and potentially give up the sport or don’t exert their maximum effort.

In a school team I was part of I experienced this. Throughout my school years I was a committed player and regular starter, however, one particular year I found myself in the unusual position of being a substitute. By the end of the season I had lost the motivation required to make the first 15. Whilst ultimately an individual has to take accountability for their own actions, on reflection the environment fostered by the management also contributed to my attitude.

Firstly, the starting 15 and two subs used in each game were nearly always the same, irrespective of their level of performance.

It must be recognised that  team selection is a particularly difficult part of management. A settled team leads to greater cohesion and understanding among the starting team. However, if substitutes believe they are not going to get a chance to play in matches no matter how things are going, it is human nature for motivation, and hence effort in training, to decrease.  

Gary Neville sums up two different philosophies taken by different managers he played under; “The boss would leave out big players in big games, showing the courage that makes him such a great manager” (on Sir Alex Ferguson); “if I had a worry it was that Sven created a fixed first XI. While it is helpful to have a settled team, it doesn’t keep players on their toes” (On Sven Goran Erikkson).

Secondly, our starting school team was named individually with the phrase, ‘the rest of you lads are subs, take a jersey’, covering the others. During the shooting phase of the warm up the starting 15 took active involvement while it was the sub’s job to retrieve the balls. Essentially the coaches had created a two tiered system elevating the starting players above the subs. 

N.B (See http://www.thesportinmind.com/articles/developing-an-inner-drive-within-players/  on this in relation to self-determination).

This two tiered approach is in direct contrast to that of the triple European winning Leinster rugby team.  “With Leinster, there was less of a split between first team and peripheral players in later years, and that helped us” (Brian O’Driscoll http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/rugby-union/29837289).

Thirdly, during school training sessions the coaches very rarely engaged in any dialogue with the substitutes, rather, focusing exclusively on the starting players. No feedback was given on how I could  improve or what I could do to put myself in the frame for the starting 15. 

These factors added to a ‘whats the point’ attitude. On one particular Saturday towards the end of our unsuccessful campaign, I turned off my alarm and went back to sleep instead attending an early morning training session. I look back on this incident as something I am not proud off. As perviously stated, individual accountability has to come to the fore, however, on reflection it is clear to me that poor man management was also a factor on why this happened.

The following are some tips for managers to combat the feeling of learned helplessness within their squad, thereby helping to establish an environment where all players will be pushing themselves in training. 

1. Managers must communicate to ALL players – the substitutes have to know exactly why they aren’t starting and what they can do to to enhance their chances of making the team. 

2. Substitutes must feel valuable members of the team and, I feel, should be in the changing rooms along with the other members of the team before the game and at half time. Although a lot of bodies may add a slight distraction, I feel everybody ‘in it together’ outweighs any con.

3. A lot of teams play ‘in house’ games, where the likely starters play against the subs. These games allows a coach to focus on tactics, shape and movement. A  smart ploy used by a recent All Ireland hurling winning team was for their manager to give a team talk and feedback to the substitutes during such a game. The assistant manager did the same with the starting 15. This strategy gave the subs an elevated sense of importance and worth as the main manager was investing time and effort in them and their role within the team.

Renowned basketball coach John Wooden believed in publicly praising the unseen sub during feedback in coaching, enhancing their confidence and highlighting his appreciation for the role they were doing. Other players were praised and encouraged privately. Managing his squad instead on the starting team was a philosophy he deployed successfully throughout his career.

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