Team Selection

It was estimated that in 2013 over thirty million people in the US played in a fantasy sports league. Here they got to pick teams, shuffle rotations, choose who started games and solve injury problems. The majority did it for free. Some even paid for the privillage of being in the league. No one pays to play Fantasy Parent Meeting. So what is it about team selection and management that people find so attractive? To some it is like a living game of chess where the coach sits up all night planning their next move or reacting to that of their rival nemesis coach from the other team. To others, it is as close as they get to actually being on the field.

“A good manager can, at best, make a team 10% better. But a bad manager can make a team up to 50% worse.” (Giovanni Trapattoni)

But with any decision comes risk. As Giovanni points out, a good decision might slightly improve a team’s chances, but a bad one can have a far more significant impact. Also, with most decisions comes fallout. If someone is promoted, someone else is dropped. At tryouts it is fun to make the ‘happy’ calls, but you have to remember that at most clubs you are also responsible for making the ‘sad’ calls to those who did not get on the team. As Brian Clough once said “management demands that you upset people from time to time.” By working on your ability to make decisions and communicate them fairly, you will improve as a coach.

“Don’t seek confrontation. It will come to you anyway.” (Alex Ferguson)

“All managers are hated. Every manager I ever played for has been hated by the players.” (Gary Lineker)

We recommend that you give yourself time to think about your decisions. This website says over and over again that being prepared will only serve to help you with all aspects of your coaching. The same is true for team selection. The more you know about your players and the situation they are getting into, the better your decisions will be. Watch their games and scrimmages, sit back in practices and watch what they do, how they solve problems, how motivated they are. Arrange individual meetings with your players to learn more about them and give them a chance to get to know how you work. As veteran coach Alex Ferguson puts it, “when you mature you start observing more and that’s when you become a better manager.”

“It is now basic to my philosophy of management to deal personally with players who might have expected to be picked for a game but are not. I let them know the position before I announce the team in front of the squad.” (Alex Ferguson)

“You must never justify yourself … once you start explaining you undermine your position.” (Gianluca Vialli)

“With Jose Mourinho, every player knows five days before a match which team will be playing from the start.” (Luis Lourenco)

Once the decision is made, your communication of it becomes key. You need to decide when you tell the players and in what environment. Telling players in person is almost always better than on the telephone, email, or text messages. You also decide where and how the message is put across. Is it better to meet with players on their own or in a group? Should the message be open to discussion with the player or is your decision final? Finally, you have to decide the timing. Is it something to bring up right before the game or should you give your players more time to think or prepare for it? In our opinion, there is no one right answer to any of these questions. Answers depend on the players you are dealing with and the consequences of the decision you are making.

Picking the Team

Depending on your level, there may be constraints on exactly how you pick your team. For recreational teams, all players need to be on the field for at least 50% of the game. For competitive teams there is no rule, but you might have made agreements with certain players about time on the field or starting games. This is particularly common at clubs who are aggressive on recruiting players. At high school you might have to deal with social constraints, where, for example, it might be expected that certain seniors start games.

Putting all that aside, your next factor is to establish what your role is as coach. For most competitive clubs your priorities are player development and winning. For recreational clubs your priority is probably player development or ejoyment. So the question is, if you put a player in a certain place on your team, will that help their development, and will it also help the development of the players around them? For competitive coaches, the other question is, will putting that player there help the team to win the game?

To be able to answer those questions you need to have a good understanding of your players, from observing practices, previous games, and other situations. You might also have watched your opponent in their previous games or have played against them in a different season. This information will probably help shape how you choose to set out your team. Beyond that, as a coach you should have an instinct as to what your strongest team is on their current form. Neil Warnock wrote that he was taught to ” always pick what I felt in my head was my strongest team and never to let sentiment get in the way.” Although it is important to consider social (sentimental) factors, if winning is important, we recommend trusting your judgement on who is playing well. Beyond that though, we also recommend shying away from the “Fantasy Fever” of making changes just because you can. Players need time to solve problems and to learn to work together. Constant changes will only serve to limit that process.

“One of the first things I learned as a manager was that there’s no point in simply making changes for the sake of making changes.” (Bill Nicholson)

In conclusion therefore, our recommendation is that you get as much information as you can, trust your judgment (but don’t be afraid to ask others for input), communicate it, and finally, stick with it. No point in monday morning quarterbacking yourself before you’ve even had the chance to see if it works.

During the Game – Analysis

When the game starts, the rules change. Your job now is to observe what is happening and decide whether your team is having the success you had hoped for. At the same time, you need to evaluate whether the other team are achieving things that you had not anticipated. Too often the game tells the coach what needs to be fixed before it is too late. An outnumbered defender might be fixable before the other team actually manages to score from it. Waiting until halftime or after the game is probably too late! We encourage you to look for patterns in the play. Assess whether an occurrence is a freak one-off moment or whether it might continue to happen. Look at where on the field the game is taking place, which players are having success against their opposite numbers, and which are not.

“People think the hardest thing is to set out your team, but more important is to be able to see what is going wrong and knowing how to change it” (Mick McGuire)

Learning to accurately read the game is a difficult skill to obtain. Like most things it takes practice. Watching games and listening to feedback from other coaches is a good place to start. Televised games are often hard to learn from because your view is limited to what the camera chooses to focus on (usually the ball). Also, whereas some commentators have a good understanding of the game, others (often former players) have as poor or worse understanding of the game as the rest of us! It is dangerous to assume that the analysis you hear on tv is always accurate. In fact, a good approach to improve your reading of the game is to question theirs against your own. Pretend you are the coach. What changes would you make, what would you say at half time?

Watching games in person can help you see the bigger picture of the field. We recommend varying the levels of what you see, from professional, to college, high school, and all ages and levels of club. You will see different things from each, all that can improve your game. if you have the opportunity after the game to ask the coach what they saw and what they did about it, you can compare it with your own thoughts.

During the Game – Making Changes

The key here is making the change at the right time. A coach needs to find the balance between letting the existing players solve their problems (with your verbal help) and changing the player to fix (or gain from) a situation before it is too late. Obviously it is important that the new player knows exactly what you want them to do, so give yourself enough time to talk to them (usually one on one) before they go on. Also you need to factor in the rules for substitution and the likely delay this will add to you making changes.

After the change has been made the coach must first provide feedback to the player coming off, explaining why they were removed and what you need them to do next. Secondly, the coach again must sit back and observe the game to see whether it has changed and what needs to happen next. And repeat!

Half time just becomes a larger version of a substitution. Here in competitive soccer you can change as much as you like, and have the luxury of five minutes to explain to everyone (without the other team hearing) what exactly they need to do to address the issues that they have seen. It also gives you a chance to hear what your players have observed and then try to deal with it.

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