Making Team Lineups

Do you make your line-ups based on your assessment of your player’s strengths and weaknesses, or do you go solely by challenge matches?

Both methods have their advantages and disadvantages. We asked USHSTA member coaches how they handle making their line-ups, and consulted other sources to determine the pros and cons of each.

Coach’s Determination
Some coaches feel that challenge matches may create animosity among team members, especially when players are allowed to challenge on a weekly basis. Other coaches do not believe that one challenge match can or should determine a line-up, and may not be fair to an opposing team if a clearly stronger player loses a challenge match one week, and the opponent now has to face that player at a lower position.

For this reason, many coaches make their line-ups based on their judgements of their players’ abilities. The drawbacks to this method of making line-ups includes players’ questioning a coach’s objectivity and fairness. As players improve during the season, they also desire the opportunity to move up. Doubles players may want to play singles, even though they may be more valuable at a doubles position.

Challenge Matches
The basic tenet of the challenge match system is that the player who wins is the better player and should play the higher position. Team ladders and weekly or monthly challenges allow all players a fair chance at competing for the various singles and doubles spots.

Legendary collegiate coach Jim Verdieck used to allow his players to challenge weekly. Even if a player who had beaten the same teammate in challenge matches week after week, season after season, lost a match, that player moved down. Coach Verdieck believed that if that player knew that he would lose his position with even one challenge match loss, the player would experience realistic match pressure each week. And maybe, even if only for that week, the winning player might be the better player.

Many coaches believe that regular challenge matches are not fair to teammates and opponents.

Take the case of an Illinois team with a #1 and #2 player who were fairly close in ability. Most observers believed Ernie clearly to be the better player than Rich. In a preseason challenge match, Rich beat his teammate in a third-set tie-breaker and took the #1 position. After the season started, Rich and Ernie played one more challenge match, and Rich again beat Ernie in a third-set tie-breaker.

Most would use this as evidence that Rich was the better player and deserved to be #1. However, as many predicted, Ernie, the higher-ranked junior player, went undefeated at #2 while senior Rich struggled at #1. Was this fair to that school’s opponents?

This is a thorny issue. How could the coach have played Ernie at #1, despite his two challenge losses to Rich? How could the coach play Ernie at #2, knowing that day in, day out, Ernie was the better player?

Stick with Team Rules
As with all team rules, you must stick with your established rules unless you have a valid reason to do otherwise. For example, if you tell players that they may challenge and take the place of the person they beat in the next match’s line-up, you cannot arbitrarily decide that the player who lost had a bad day, and that overall, he or she is the better player and should stay in that spot.

How Many Spots Up?
Many coaches limit the number of spots a player can challenge up. Some coaches limit players to challenging only the player above them. Others allow players to challenge up two or three spots. In this scenario, you must be careful of a #4 player challenging your #1 and winning, because he played out of his mind that day, or the #1 player had an off day. You must then play your next opponent with a player who played #4 in the previous match now playing at #1.

This is something you must consider when deciding on the frequency of challenge matches and how many spots up a player may challenge. Most leagues require that you play your players in order of ability. Some leagues require that players who move up from one match to the next have a challenge match, with dates and scores, on file.

Some coaches may require that a lower-ranked player beat a higher-ranked player twice before taking his or her spot.

Conference/League Rules
Every coach should study his or her conference rules regarding lineups.

In a season-ending match, Hilton Head High School was playing a team which it had previously beaten two weeks earlier. Both teams had one loss for the season, and the winner of the final match would win the conference.

When Hilton Head’s opponents presented their lineup, they had switched their #1 and #2 singles player. The coach’s reasoning was that the #1 had missed a practice and that the #2 player had won a tournament the weekend before. Hilton Head’s #2, who had previously won, lost his match, playing the opponent’s previous #1 player. Neither coach, however, knew that according to South Carolina rules, a challenge match, with scores and date, had to have been played for the coach to make this switch. Hilton Head’s opponent eventually forfeited this match when the coaches consulted with their ADs after the match.

Fortunately, Hilton Head won the match 4-3 without the forfeit and legitimately won the conference title, but the forfeit could have tainted the season for everyone had it been the determining point.

All of the coaches who responded to our survey said their conference, league or state had rules governing the position of players. Some conference played as few as three singles and two doubles matches, while others played as many as six singles and three doubles. All of our responding coaches allowed players to challenge throughout the season, and all limited the number of spots a player could challenge up.

Doubles is a trickier situation, because most leagues require that you play the best team first, and so on. If your singles players are allowed to play doubles, as well, you may not want to place them in the same order for doubles (#1 and #2 singles player #1 doubles; #3 and #4 singles play #2 doubles, etc.).

Also, coaches will want to experiment with doubles combinations, and may not be able to play enough matches to determine the true, “best” doubles teams.

Finally, a #3 and #4 singles combination may actually be better than a #1 and #2 team. A #4 singles player may be a serve-and-volleyer who is a much better doubles player than a #1 singles player who is a baseliner.

Keeping a notebook with the dates and results of challenges matches will go a long way to at least avoiding hard feelings with opposing coaches and teams.

Each coach will ultimately determine how he or she will handle line-ups and challenge matches, and your methods will change during your first few seasons. Even one of the coaches who responded to our survey who is a long-time coach replied, ” I usually only allow players to challenge two spots up, but I am thinking of changing that.”

All coaches should start with a review of their league or conference rules to ensure that whichever method the coach decides to use for making lineups, it does not violate those rules.

Again, you should not change team rules once the season has started if at all possible. If you are a new coach, come up with a system for making your line-ups, then contact local academy coaches and/or collegiate coaches, as well as other high school coaches in your area to get their feedback.

Once you have your ladder/challenge program in place, you’ll need to stick with it.

Plan in advance, seek the advice of other coaches, and stick with your plan. You’ll provide a much better experience for yourself, your players and opposing teams and coaches.

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