Friday, April 8, 2011

Riding The Pine - Steve Barker

As we get precariously closer to "Open" season, I'm putting my regular interview feature on hold for a week to discuss something different.
In an earlier post, Jeff wrote a great piece on the "lead-off" position in the lineup, so I  thought I'd give you my take on another spot in the order- the "bench". In my opinion, the bench or sub is one of the most important roles on a team and is often misunderstood and under-utilized. The use of the bench is also the most hotly debated issue when discussing how well a coach handles a team.
Most rookies or inexperienced players who are asked to start on the bench wrongly consider it a demotion or think that the coach is showing little confidence in them. Well, anyone who has had team success at a Provincial or National level can tell you that this is NOT the case. In almost every instance, the sixth player plays a vital role in the success of the team.
There are many ways that a bench player can help a team.
Firstly, they must stay upbeat and positive to help the squad's morale. Also, because the coach is usually watching the scores and the person on the lanes, the sub can also act as an assistant by lending an ear for a team-mate who is struggling and needs to vent their frustration. The sixth player can also be an additional set of eyes or ears for the coach, as well as someone the coach can talk to if they need a second opinion.
It is also vital that the person who doesn't start the game emits a feeling of confidence throughout the team. When you are in the starting line-up and are struggling, it's much easier to play when you have faith in the person who might be coming in. If the bench player is struggling with their game and their confidence, it makes the players who started the game "press" that much more.
And by staying upbeat and being a great "team" player who doesn't complain about their role, you make the coach's job easier and the team stronger!
As mentioned before, how a coach uses the bench position, and how aggressive he/she is at making a "pull" goes a long way in determining how a team will do.
The decision of who to sit is usually one of a coach's toughest. Many times a coach will have a plan heading into an event, only to have it blow up after a game or two. One of the determining factors for whom to start on the bench can be the experience of some of the team members.
If there are rookies or folks who haven't been there in a while on the team, some coaches (me included) like to get a newcomer's feet wet by starting them in the first game. Other coaches like to ease them in and start them on the bench. In many cases it also depends on the player and how their nerves are, as people handle different situations differently.
A coach will often have an idea of who is going to play Leadoff, 4th or Anchor, and have some options for the remaining positions.
Once someone proves themselves as effective off the bench, it can be hard for them to find a starting spot, as any coach loves the comfort of having someone there that they can rely on. For people who would rather bowl more than sit, being really good off the bench can be a double-edged sword! Coaches also struggle with the decision whether to start someone who just got pulled in the next game or to give them a break. For me, it again depends on the situation and the personalities involved.
The use of the sub also depends on the team. If the team is balanced from top-to-bottom, then the strategy is simpler and making the change should be easier. If there is a big difference in the quality or average of players on the team, then making moves becomes much more complicated. That is usually more evident on Ladies teams and Mixed teams where there can be a greater average differential.
The dynamic on Mixed teams has really changed since going from 7 players to 6 players.
When there were 7 members on a Mixed team, coaches usually played 3 guys and 2 girls with 1guy and 1 girl on the bench. Teams would usually set the lineup this way, unless they had very strong girls in which case they would occasionally start 3 girls and 2 guys, leaving 2 men on the bench. As long as there were always 2 or more women in the game, you could sub any way you wanted. Teams starting 3 guys and 2 girls would usually sub a guy for a guy and a girl for a girl. In an extreme case of strategy, if a team had some points wrapped up and wanted to "steal" another match, you could sub a weaker girl for a guy very late in a game that had a certain outcome, and then have the remaining guy try to steal the other match. And ladies, before you get offended, I am being "very" general with the "guys" and "girls" that I'm using as examples. Keep in mind that in most of these cases I'm referring to teams where the guys are 240+ and the lower girls on the Mixed teams are about 200.
In the current Mixed format with 3 guys and 3 girls, the coaching decisions are much tougher. Communication with the team before the event can be vital. In many cases coaches are faced with the conundrum of deciding how badly a 240-250 average player has to be struggling to pull them, if the bench player is around 200 in average. Especially if totals are close and the 4th or 5th player in the order suddenly falls apart late in the game! It's a tough call.
Be sure to keep in mind, that The Open at any level is a very long event, so a player's role and position can change drastically from the first game to the last.
While the proper utilization and effectiveness of the bench can energize a team, a weak or misused bench can also kill a team.
Personally, I strongly advocate being proactive when communicating with the sub and making changes. While you want to have confidence in your starters, I think that many coaches wait far too long before making a move. Of course, there are many factors that go into a coach's decision to pull the trigger. You must consider totals, matches, experience, whether someone is in a funk or simply needs to adjust, reputation, how long the sub's been sitting, etc.
As a general rule, I think moves (if necessary) should be made by the 5th or 6th frame at the latest, unless someone who started well goes completely south, or the team needs a momentum swing.
Often times, a coach will wait too long to make a move and then get "strung" along. Here's an example; let's say that four players on the team are playing well and one person is struggling, but that person's opponent is also struggling. The player picks a Head-pin in the 4th and the coach lets him finish the frame. It's the fifth frame and the coach is waffling. His player trickles the headpin and leaves the corner, but misses the spare. What to do? He decides to leave the player in, citing the fact that they're hitting the headpin. In the sixth frame, the player "just" misses the headpin on the first ball, the coach gives them a "stay-in shot" at the spare, but the player gets tapped and leaves the corner. Meanwhile, the opponent has either found his shot or, even worse, the opposition has pulled the player and "their" sub has come on strong to give the team a boost. A huge swing in momentum has taken place and when the coach does make a move, it's 2 frames more and 10 minutes longer that the sub has been sitting without throwing a ball.
I realize that this is an "example", but it's amazing how often it happens.
Another common error I see, is when a team has two or more people struggling, the coach waits too long to make a move because they can't decide which person to pull. In this case there's no wrong move- you've got to do something!
I think you can see by now why the Men's team I coached a few years ago called me "Captain Hook"!
Here are a few more reasons why I believe in being proactive in using your bench:
1) People play better when they don't sit too long. (Also, if you haven't used your sub the entire game, take advantage of any meaningless 10th frame shots to get a couple of practice balls in.) Depending on when they last threw, if your move is too late in the game, your sub will have more pressure and will be less "loose". Also, the longer they wait when the chance is there to make a move, the less confident they'll be after wondering "why the coach won't put them in".
2) A move can also give the rest of the team a "kick in the arse"! If you have a few people struggling, they will be looking over their shoulder wondering if they'll get the hook. Once the move is made and people know they're finishing the game, the culture shock can be healthy. In the "same boat", try to keep your sub in the loop so they have an idea of what you the coach, are thinking. This can help them prepare and be ready when called upon.
3) Get "MO" on your side. Nothing changes the tide in a match as quickly as someone coming off the bench to throw a strike- Don't let your opponents beat you to it!
People think I'm crazy (Jeff did ask last week if I'd lost my mind) when I tell them that my favourite position is the "bench". I enter the Open to win! It doesn't matter how much I play. I enjoy supporting my team without the mental and physical rigors of "that" many games. When I am called on, I look at it as a challenge with nothing to lose.
The bench position and its use have made the difference in helping teams to Championships. One of the great Metro Toronto teams of years passed saw Jim Swartzman come off of the bench to throw about 20 strikes in a row, over 3 games! How much do you think the rest of the team was able to freewheel, knowing that he could come in?
And when our Mixed Team won the Ontario Open to go to Winnipeg, the main reason was the unbelievable work of Lisa Groombridge and Ron Ryan coming in to "fill"!
And so, remember not to fret if you're not in the "starting five".
I hope this helps give you some perspective on the position, and also what might be going on in your coach's head. We know that the coaches in the bleachers will all be playing along!
Good luck everyone in our quest for the Open Nationals in B.C.!!

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