They’re the four words you dread hearing as a netball coach: “I’m away for finals”.
Nothing kills your team’s chances at the end of the season quicker than having players unavailable to take the court. Even during the regular rounds, it’s a constant challenge to juggle the team’s performance when players are ducking in and out.
And while there’s nothing you can do when injury strikes, it’s an eternal frustration that many coaches face when players or their families announce they’ve booked holidays and will be absent for one or more finals rounds.
One of the toughest decisions I ever had to make as a coach was leaving an under-age player (and one of the team’s best players) on the bench for an entire grand final – the only time I’ve ever had a player not take the court in a final. The player had played the entire season, however their family had revealed a few weeks before finals that they had booked an overseas holiday and would miss the semi-final and preliminary final but return the day before the grand final.
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Forced to hurriedly qualify another player to cover that absence, the team won through to the grand final, which was an incredibly tight match that our team won by a single goal. With that player having missed the three previous training sessions, as well as the semi-final and preliminary final, in my view it would have been unfair on the other members of the team to put that player out there in such a tight game, when the rest of the team had been working towards playing well together for the previous three weeks.
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Did the absent player also play a role in the team reaching the grand final? Absolutely – they’d played great netball throughout the season. But there were nine other players to consider who had been able to remain 100% committed throughout.
Would I make the same decision again? I’m not sure, but these kinds of episodes do provide some key learnings for coaches, players and parents that are worth considering when faced with finals absences.
HAVE POLICIES IN PLACE
The easiest way to manage potential absences is to have clear club or team policies in place for when this occurs.
Include these policies in the player registration forms or player/parent codes of conduct that you ask them to sign at the start of the year, so that if there is a conflict at some point, you can refer back to those agreed-to policies.
BE TRANSPARENT THROUGHOUT
As clubs and coaches, be definitive and open about what those policies are around unavailability for finals (and throughout the season in general).
Reinforce that if a player will be absent from one or more finals, there may be certain consequences.
Perhaps they can’t be guaranteed any court time for the finals after they return, or perhaps their absence might jeopardise their potential selection the following season. Or maybe there are no consequences, and finals absences are an accepted part of your club’s ethos. Either way, be clear about it, and reiterate it again when players inform you they’ll be absent.
Nothing is more frustrating than finding out at the last minute, or late in a season, that a player won’t be able to see the entire season through, or will miss some of the finals series.
In fairness to the club, the team and the coach, any players and parents should let them know as early as possible about any holiday dates, so that they can prepare for it.
The club may elect to qualify another player for finals to cover for that absence, and particularly to protect against an injury. If your child is a goaler and one of the team’s two other goalers rolls their ankle the week before finals, the team will be decimated, so do the right thing and discuss holiday dates with the coach, or advise them the moment you book anything.
KIDS AREN’T IN CHARGE
Arguably the most challenging consideration for coaches around finals absences is that younger players aren’t usually the ones making the decisions about family holidays.
In a lot of cases, the player would desperately like to be there for all finals games, but they’re tied to whatever their parents decide to do.
That said, it’s a very hard sell to the other parents and players in the team when you ask for commitment from them and their children, only for them to discover that other families are coming and going constantly.
Of course, some families are very limited in when they can take holidays, so again, ask for parents to communicate with the club as early as possible so that the club can make an informed decision about how best to manage it.