Substitution systems can be very different depending on the needs and goals of each team. The coach (or captain) will decide based on team level, culture, strategy to name a few. With Thunder 2018 we constructed lines that would give us offensive flexibility, pair up some big connections, and build a sense of pride and identity in the players on that line.
We considered a number of different approaches to substitutions, and broadly speaking, there are two main approaches used in Ultimate today: Groups and Lines.
Groups are often utilised to create balanced lines, with each line taking a set amount of players from each group. Groups are dependent on the players’ roles - to ensure the right number of handlers, cutters, etc. This system is best employed by teams who want all their players playing together, playing both offence and defence. It gives players a wide range of experiences on field, whilst still making sure you have the right type of personnel available. The weakness of this system is that in ensuring a minimum level of talent each point, you are sacrificing the potential to have your maximum talent available often.
Lines are the more common approach, particularly in higher level teams. The traditional approach is the Offence/Defence split, where the O-Line has all the stars and is expected to convert every time, while everyone else plays on one or more D-Lines, sometimes sorted into specialisations like zone or match defence.
Whilst this structure gives you a lot of firepower on offence and allows your defence lots of time together to develop essential connections, it can result in team inflexibility - if your offence is not converting, you have to change something, which means either moving players or whole lines into roles they’re not used to filling.
Building out flexibility whilst keeping the consistency of a line-based system is where innovation has come. Upwind/Downwind lines were used at US Nationals in Sarasota (a notoriously windy venue) and multiple offensive lines with different philosophies have been used by Australian teams. Building on this, for Thunder 2018 we constructed lines with an identity in mind.
Thunder had a squad of 22 athletes, split into two lines (12 and 10) named “Grindstone” and “Sword”. Grindstone was a line all about wearing down the opponent - on offence working with many passes, playing disciplined and problem solving to find the holes, whilst on defence playing relentless, hungry, pressure defence. Sword was a line about being aggressive and attacking opportunities - on offence running plays to exploit powerful throwers and strong connections, whilst on defence playing team defence looking for an opportunity to get a block.
Strategically, this had a number of key benefits:
Both lines capable of executing all our standard offensive plays and defensive tactics meant that we were never forced into a tactical choice by rest (or similar) considerations
Large lines meant that within each line we could change out certain players to shift the skill set of the line slightly in a certain direction
Different offensive philosophies allowed us to quickly find what a team was poor at defending and exploit that, whilst being difficult to stop
Different defensive styles allowed us to control the pace of the game and throw a spanner in the flow of the opposition
Other teams scouted us and assumed an O-Line/D-Line split, and were very thrown when we played opposite to their expectations
The strategic benefits of this line system are good, but what really made the system shine was the identity it brought the players on each line. When we called a Sword line, players began making a “schwing” noise, as a sword coming out of a scabbard, ready to fight. Grindstone had their own noise, both of these were entirely player-created and driven. This group identity was another layer built on top of our team culture, and it gave the players an ideal to strive for as tenacious or aggressive, whilst binding them closer together as teammates.
It also gave the athletes another point of reference to come back to when we were not playing like we wanted to. Our team had a culture that defined our intensity and drive to represent the country well, but the specific identity of each line meant that the athletes had a good knowledge of what type of player they were supposed to be, what kind of impact they were trying to have on the field. This, supported by individual communication from the coaches, meant that each athlete knew their role, what the team needed from them, and had the personal drive to execute that.
Over the campaign we built a team of athletes that were committed to each other and pushed each other to challenge themselves, and supported each other through that. Creating lines that had meaning beyond “we play offense” built a sense of pride in their line, and helped bring out the best in our athletes.
So don’t be stuck using the same substitution structure if it’s not working for your team. Build something that has both a tactical meaning and an emotional identity - you’ll see athletes buy in, work hard and strive for excellence not just for themselves and their team, but also their line.