A Self-Substitution System for Basketball

By Bruce Brown on January 08, 2015 Basketball Print

As both a classroom teacher and a coach, I always wanted to try and stay innovative in my approach to teaching the game of basketball. Beyond just the “Xs and Os,” our coaching staff was always looking for opportunities to motivate and inspire our student-athletes to compete with great enthusiasm. Our ultimate goal was to provide our athletes those situations where they might develop personal initiative and internal cognizance of their own drive to excel. 

As we worked with a broad range of skill sets and experience on any given year, each team presented unique challenges as well as varying strategies to execute throughout the season. One particular tactic we were able to deploy over several seasons was a “self-substitution” pattern for our basketball players. Although the initial concept may appear to be too “loose” or anarchistic for some coaches, it actually fit well for the group we trained to execute the substitution plan. 

As a background, the idea was not entirely original from our end. Coach Larry Wilson of Massillon Perry High School was using a version of this strategy in the late 1970s as he attempted to overwhelm his opponents with “fresh legs” over the course of the entire game. Our team’s style of play was a full-court press, transition offense and multiple half-court defensive looks. Combined with the fact we had a relatively balanced, but not overwhelmingly talented, group of players, we felt we needed to study those ideas that would create great competition in practice as well as keep our entire team alert throughout the game and season. 

As with this style of play, we were constantly emphasizing to our players that to be successful, we not only had to have each player understand that the maximum time they could likely give us if they were each going all-out, was 5 to 7 minutes of activity at a time, but each athlete and coach had to develop a real trust factor among the team members in that we would share the effort over the course of the game. (Note: We were clear that “share” did not mean “equal,” but rather that everyone would have some type of role to play with our team success.) 

The essence of this system is this: Whenever a starter needed a break in the game or needed to come out, the player signaled the bench (our signal was a raised fist). A sub for that player reported immediately to replace the starter. After taking a blow, the starter then could replace himself when ready. 

However, we also laid out some critical groundwork prior to deploying this philosophy. There were three critical requisites for each player and each coach: 

  • Trust yourself 
  • Trust your teammates 
  • Trust our strategy 

We substituted “by the numbers.” Like many basketball coaches, we had positions listed as “1”, “2”, “3”, “4” and “5.” Whether they are names, numbers or some other type of indicator, the positions typically had specific defensive and/or offensive responsibilities. In our case, “1” was our point or lead guard, “2” and “3” were our off-guards or wings and “4” and “5” were our post players. Again, the assignment or naming of the positions can easily be adjusted to the specific coaching philosophy or offensive schemes. 

At the front-end of the season, we would typically develop responsibility areas for each player as to the positions we would expect them to understand. For example, those players who may see time at our “1” position, would be drilled and coached in the assignments and responsibilities for that spot – both offensively and defensively. We might say, “Greg Adams: Know the No. 1 and No. 2 spots”, “Jeff Biggs: Know the No. 3 and No. 5 spots,” etc. 

Having drilled our players over their responsibilities and then creating practice opportunities to play their possible game assignments, we would prepare for games by giving the “starter” and “sub” alignments a term; in most years, we referred to our starters as the “Pilot” and subs as the “Co-Pilot” for that position. “Mike, you’re the Pilot at No. 3 tonight and Jeff, you are his Co-Pilot.” We gravitated to those terms because we liked how it created an image that two team members were working together as part of our team game plan for that night. 

The partners (“Pilot” and “Co-Pilot”) constantly would read and assist each other before, during and following-up the game. Many times, we’d see these two huddled up prior to our halftime talk in the locker room. They would often offer positive criticism in helping assess what was going on during the game and provide support for each other. 

Whenever a player, especially the “Pilot,” felt he couldn’t continue on at full-out pace, he raised a clenched fist signal and continued to play hard through his substitution. “Co-Pilots”, upon seeing the signal from their partner, reported directly to the scorer’s table to check in. We wanted them focused and eager to look to help their teammate. 

If a “Pilot” took himself out on his own volition, he could report back in when ready. Obviously, the coaches always maintained the prerogative of substituting for any player or delaying a substitution based upon game situations or effort. If I, as the coach, removed the player because of fouls, effort or any reason, then I maintained the prerogative as to when to place them back in the contest. 

The player partners must be flexible. The game plan may dictate different schemes each contest. Game situations (fouls, special strategy, adjustments to game flow, etc.) may also necessitate lineup changes. Players must be able to change roles occasionally (Pilot to Co-Pilot, and vice-versa) and often on short notice. 

Even our time-outs were designed to facilitate the Coach-to-Pilot-to-Co-Pilot communication. As indicated in the diagram below, each of the starters would sit in numerical order; the head coach knelt in front of the No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 players, while the varsity assistant knelt in front of the No. 4 and No. 5 players. The respective Co-Pilots stood behind the coaches facing their respective partner. Additional players would assume similar positions nearest their possible assignment partner. If we were fortunate to have a third coach, his responsibility would be to stand just outside the huddle, making sure all of the other subs were focused in on the discussion while keeping another eye on the scorer’s table to check on any substitutions the other team would be making. 


A Self-Substitution System for Basketball Graphic 


As simple as the system is, we believed it provided a unique approach to compel both our coaches and our players to buy-in to our approach to the game as well as to commit to each other’s efforts. There were also inherent challenges to this system: 

  •  It obligates the coach to study and evaluate player strengths. This plan will lose effectiveness if the coach hasn’t done a good job of outlining each player’s role within the team framework. 
  • There is a premium placed upon training for versatility. Each player should be expected to fill more than one role within the team. 
  • The system must be coached and initiated as early in the season as possible. Developing that critical level of trust among all participants can be worked on during the summer competitions as well as early practice sessions. 
  • There is certainly a significant amount of ownership that is placed upon team members as well as a limited degree of control that the coach must be willing to relinquish. That skill (surrendering a small portion of control) can be promoted, however, as a sign of strength with a coach’s confidence level in their team participants. 

Likewise, we believe there were some very clear benefits of utilizing this approach: 

  •  Players can develop a positive dependency upon each other. The Pilot expects his partner to give him a break after a few minutes of hard effort. The Co-Pilot expects his partner to signal for relief. 
  • Players can grow closer by working together versus “against” each other. 
  • The system keeps the sub’s “head in the game” at all times. The sub must watch everything that goes on and be aware of adjustments being made that they’ll be expected to execute upon their entry into the contest. The sub can also pick up valuable information to share with his playing partner. 
  • Lesser-skilled players tend to improve faster. As they become aware that they will be called upon relatively early in the competition, they realize they play a vital role in that night’s contest. As such, they tend to concentrate harder and play with greater intensity which usually accelerates their development. 
  • Team morale and effort are typically enhanced. Although certain players may get more actual playing time than others, all will understand their role(s) and realize they will be involved in the game. 
  • The system can be adjusted to fit virtually any style of play: up-tempo, controlled, quick team, slow team. Keeping the attack going full-speed with a consistent influx of fresh competitors usually will produce positive results.