By Peter Tonsoline
Game day! These are the words that can trigger a spontaneous reaction in many coaches and push them into an almost hypnotic trance. Hours, or even days, of planning have all come down to the inevitable contest against that formidable opponent. Carefully charted practices and preparations go into the recipe for success, but each coach mixes in his or her own secret ingredient – strategy. What are the ingredients of this strange concoction that blend together to form a strategy? Complicate this even further with an added measure of tactics and the surreptitious potion is ready to be served.
Strategy and tactics are perhaps more synonymous with military battles and campaigns than with coaching a sport. Yet typically, most coaches during their careers have probably resorted to employing some form of strategy. Maybe it was for that critical playoff game, or to overcome overwhelming odds against a far superior opponent. Strategy does appear to have a place when the situation warrants desperate measures, but can it be a coaching tool throughout the season?
Strategy by definition is a plan of action designed to achieve a particular goal. Military connotation might imply a territorial gain, the displacement of an enemy or the capitulation of a country. Strategic motives in sports might not be quite as combative and lethal as a warring army, but as a general plans his next attack, a football, basketball or any type of coach could be employing a reasonable facsimile.
Too often a developed strategy is perceived as an admission of one’s weakness and an acknowledgement of an opponent’s dominance. This can be far from the heart of the matter, as a strategy could be a thoughtful, analytical and creative endeavor to devise a game plan to follow, taking in consideration many other contributing factors. A strategy might be developed for only a quarter, period, half, offensive drive, goal-line stand, inbound play or face-off, or it could be for an entire contest. Take it even further and a coach might be drafting a strategy for an entire approaching season.
Certainly, the architect in designing such a strategic plan will be the coach who needs to rely on experience, instinct and an inner strength to initiate such a course of action along with input of the coaching staff. However, there are many things to consider when developing a strategy for success.
Developing a strategy:
From the very start, a strategy must be recognized as a plan for the ultimate purpose of creating opportunities for victory. There should never be any thought to formulate a plan that might produce a respectable score or acceptable margin of loss to a stronger opponent. Here is where the coach must step forth and develop a realistic, decisive and attainable goal with the single purpose of winning. The methods selected to bring about this success have to be clearly explained to all players and assistant coaches, each with their roles defined and enhanced.
Strategic objectives formulated should be flexible and adaptable for adjusting to any variations in the flow, swings and the ebbs and tides during the duration of a contest. Strategy begins with the understanding that a coach’s forethought and organizational planning must be supported by a strategy of contingencies. Experienced coaches recognize the fluid nature of a game, and prepare their players and coaches for the expected and unexpected events of a contest. Similarly, a coach must also develop alternatives in the strategic scheme to account for player injuries, penalties, fouls, poor field conditions, time constraints and myriad of other possibilities unique to one’s particular sport.
In the initial steps of formulating a strategy, a coach will have to identify the opponent’s weaknesses or vulnerabilities, then recognize his or her team’s precise strengths that can specifically exploit these points. Consider such things as the opposing players, the opposing coach, the opposition’s scheme and possible strategy, weather and field conditions, and home site versus traveling to the opponent’s field. A coach must maintain a strong conviction of what can possibly be done and not lose perspective of the opponent’s weaknesses. If these vulnerabilities are not considered to be a focus point, there is no game plan, and a team is no more than simply executing events during a contest with the hope something positive will happen.
More importantly, this strategy of exploitation will not be successful unless a coach can hide his or her team’s own weaknesses, and some way contrive a means to control and neutralize the opponent’s strengths. Specific to the sport, this might involve limiting scoring opportunities, possession time, field position, shots on goals, territory penetration, etc. The “bend-but-don’t-break” approach might suffice until the opportunity presents itself to offer a scoring opportunity for one’s own team.
This defensive-control strategy plays the percentages of limiting an opponent to few and/or good scoring chances. Obviously, this mindset must be considered against a strong offensive opponent. The concept is not only to limit scoring potential, but also to create frustration and disorientation as an opponent’s strength is negated. If this strategy is successfully maintained, one’s own team gains confidence and momentum, and instills its own tempo and pace to the contest. At some point a mistake by an opponent because of frustration or pressing too hard for a score might result in that perfect scoring opportunity for the defending team.
An offensive-control strategy tries to exploit an opponent’s defensive weakness. This weak link must be attacked boldly and directly, yet patience can be a virtue in some instances. An offensive thrust is perhaps more effective as a subtle surprise rather than a brute force punch. “Surprise without being surprised” describes a point of strategy when the opponent least expects such an effort, and even then does not fully comprehend what is happening. This is where coaching experience and instinct are critical in recognizing the moment to exploit the situation and tempo of the game to spring the trap.
Maintaining the advantage:
A success in your strategic plan might suddenly present itself when an “opening” or advantage appears in your opponent. This is the moment when the advantage must be quickly and directly exploited before an opponent can regroup or recover. A trick play or surprise offensive move for a quick score can paralyze an opponent to react, resist and/or adjust, but how will your opponent respond?
This is perhaps the most overlooked part of strategy development. Did the coach prepare for the counteraction, retaliation by the opponent after an offensive effort has been successfully employed? Too often, a team enjoys a fleeting moment of success, completely unprepared for the retribution and countermoves coming from its opponent. The team mentally begin to let down, allowing its opponent to assume the tempo and pace of the contest.
The let-down effect after a team has taken an unexpected lead against a stronger opponent has to be expected. This loss of a team’s momentum is often described by coaches as a lack of the “killer instinct” to put the game on ice. A captured lead by a clever strategy has quickly dissipated, yet can the blame be solely directed at the players? A coach should realize that this can be more the result of a team and players not knowing what to do next. Therefore, a coach in planning a game strategy must contend that a lead can only be protected if there was a plan of action to follow and maintain in the original scheme.
Certainly, there is an assortment of attributing factors that a coach will have to consider. Probably the most critical factor is at what point was the scoring lead attained. Sometimes an unexpected early score in a contest is an earmark for a timely recovery by an opponent, even though it might seem to be a valuable psychological gain. This can be true, however expect a concentrated, energetic reprisal from your opponent. This further reinforces the importance of having a plan to maintain a scoring lead. Timing can be everything, so springing the trap at the right time may be a critical segment of a strategy plan.
A coach can secure a lead and keep their opponent off-balance by specific player substitutions, time outs, time management, territory and field placement, switching to a more conservative attack, slowing the pace to control the tempo of the game, and adjusting the team’s tactics. The value of role players is often heralded as they enter a game and turn the offensive momentum around. Just as effective is the player coming off the bench and protecting a lead by tenacious defense and control of their opponent to prevent them from scoring.
Plans have been drawn and the day of battle is now unfolding. Again, this may sound more militaristic, yet for a coach the implementation of his or her strategy has arrived. Tactics becomes the accompanying defining principle since “it is the means by which strategy is conducted throughout the engagement.” Some generals have become famous by tactical moves of troops and materials adjusting to the flow of a battle. This can also be where a coach is recognized as an outstanding game or bench coach by his or her tactical moves through a contest.
Tactics can be a contrast to strategy, whereas the latter takes longer to realize the outcomes. In the heat of a contest, tactics can be a short sequence of moves or adjustments to limit the opponent’s options and consequently may result in a tangible gain. The utilizations of tactics can range from simple to very complex, and be specifically employed by the coach, team, or individual player.
The effectiveness of a tactical move can only come about if it first recognized by the coach or player as a specific means to accomplish their goal of a successful performance. On the playing field of a sport, the individual player must either be cognizant or be coached in adjusting their tactics against an opponent so they may be able to fulfill their role. From the bench, the coach is responsible for each player as well as the entire team to guide and lead them through the perpetual changing flow and environment of the contest.
However, tactical adjustments must be utilized within the framework of a pre-designed strategy. Slight adjustments are acceptable, but a complete deviation from the entire strategy during a game is not sound coaching. With an abandonment of strategy plan, a coach reverts to a lucky hunch to achieve a successful outcome. It sometimes happens, but wise, experienced tactical adjustments within an equally proportionate strategy are hard to beat.
There is no simple formula or model to follow in designing a strategy. Due to the uniqueness and particulars of each sport, a coach must be the designer for the specifications of building a strategic framework. The main point to realize is every action in an athletic contest must have some type of strategy and tactic to be successful. Realize that your analysis of an opponent and your own team will be the deciding factors of constructing a strategy. Strengths and weaknesses, compared and contrasted are the gateways to devising a plan. Will they always work? Like a scientist in the lab, the experimental results will be on the field of play. The knowledge and experience gained by a coach implementing a designed strategy will be lasting.
Are you thinking this way?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Peter Tonsoline is a teacher and coach at Iroquois Central High School in Elma, New York. He has taught science for 38 years and has coached boys ice hockey, girls field hockey and girls softball. He has had several articles published in Scholastic Coach and USA Hockey magazines.