Picking an 18 Person Roster

As a coach, the worst day of the year is notifying the team and having individual conversations with the young men or women that will not be a part of our championship scoring roster.  We’re allowed 18 roster spots for points and in order to do right by our program, and the group trying to win a championship, it’s important to make the most of that limited number.  Fortunately, the MIAA allows the non-scoring team to compete at the meet.  They are circle seeded into our conference championships and allowed to swim on prelim ‘B’ relays.  I am of the opinion that we’re doing right by the athlete with this format.  Other formats, like the NCAA Championships, only allow those 18 spots.  While I can’t imagine having a conversation with an athlete that has qualified for NC’s, to inform them that they were among the best in the country to be invited, but not among the top 18 on our team, but those conversations are happening and will continue to happen.  You need to applaud the programs that are in this position, a job well done.  But how does a coach evaluate who those 18 are when more than 18 could potentially score?  On the conference level we’ve used several factors and they aren’t always given the same priority from one year to the next.

As a team, goals and expectations change from one year to the next so you need to make sure that you’re evolving the way you evaluate these roster spots.  One of the first things I have done in trying to determine this in the past is look at, what I refer to as safety points and potential points.  What is the minimum number of points I expect each person to score?  On the other hand, if the stars align and each athlete is on fire and finding a way to get their hand on the wall first, how many points could they potentially score?  While there is a going to be quite the variance from athlete to athlete in terms of how big this spread could be, it provides me with an idea of minimum and maximum expectations.

Another factor is how many events can each individual score?  While this is similar to the potential points it also helps create an idea of where additional opportunities will be.  If I’m down to an athlete that is a one trick pony or someone that is more of a well rounded swimmer, I need to start thinking about team balance and where my team needs are.

I also take into consideration who can potentially impact our relays.  At this level, being great in the relays is difficult when you only have four people as true relay options.  If one of them is off, the relay is off.  If you’ve got additional athletes in close proximity to one another, fighting for those relay spots, it makes it easier to go with the hot hand at the meet to ensure the relays are as strong as possible.  This is especially true at NC’s.

It’s also important to look at opportunity points.  If I take person ‘A’ off the scoring team, who moves up in the events person ‘A’ would beat them in?  With three events and the potential of multiple entries per event, a person that might be ranked highly in one event, but not others, may not be in the team’s best interest.  If the team can score three more points in that event, by others moving up, because that one trick pony isn’t on your scoring team, those opportunity points could loom large.

If I’ve tried to factor in all of these variables and I’m still stuck, or a clear line at 18 hasn’t been outlined, I will look more to intangibles.  If everything else is equal and one athlete is a senior, I will give that senior the benefit of the doubt.  They’ve put their time in, they understand as much as anyone else in the program what we want to do and I like them stepping up and embracing the situation.  If there are no seniors or the last couple spots are athletes of the same age and everything else is equal, I will try to consider a few additional things:  Who has a better history to taper well?  Who is more likely to step up in a pressure situation?  Who has had a better training and more consistent training season?  Who has had the better attitude throughout the course of the year?  And while it may not factor in to how many points the 18th spot can score, I do believe the team dynamic is incredibly important.  If there is a team player that is constantly building others up around them and making his or her teammates better, my decision becomes a lot easier.  If you want to capitalize on how many points your team can score, in a sport as mental as swimming, sometimes who is on the side of the pool is indirectly scoring points for your team.  It’s an important factor that cannot be quantified.
There are a few other approaches that I have taken in the past and things that I want to make sure I am giving enough thought to.  Believe it or not, coaches have been wrong in the past.  I have asked my assistant coaches to do the same thing and independently I want us each to come up with our own list and discuss in as much detail as necessary where our opinions differ.  These discussions have helped me maintain the right balance in such a big decision.  I’ve also asked my captains to do the same.  As much as I like to think I know what’s going on with the team, once in a while I could be missing somewhere, and that last intangible is an area I was going to misjudge.  These conversations, as much as any, can help me determine who that pointscorer from the pool deck might be.

When you’re putting it all together, you also need to have a clear focus on what your team goals are and what different scoring rosters help you achieve that specific objective.  If you’re an underdog and need to be the team taking the chances, I’ve had a tendency to put more emphasis on the ‘potential’ point column.  If you’re the favorite and need to just go out and do your job to achieve those objectives, I’ve swayed more towards the higher ranked athletes in my ‘safety’ points category.

What I can tell you is this: any time a coach has a roster of more than 18, this is the worst part of their job.  And it’s something a coach thinks about, stresses about and does everything they can to make sure all factors are considered before making a decision.  It’s the worst day of the season for the coach too.

I’d like to thank Facenorth for his input on this sensitive topic.

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