Coaches Corner Roster Size by John McNaughton

Roster size is an important consideration when planning your season. Two-time world silver medalist John McNaughton explains why a big roster can help your team to succeed

This article isn’t for everybody. Depending on your country, level, personal experience, etc, you may not need to hear this. I’m writing to those who, like my younger self, want as much game time as possible and hate the idea of extra subs… and though you don’t have to agree with me, I hope you understand the reasons for an alternative.

Advantages of a big roster

Fatigue loses championships

It’s a cold, hard fact. Emotionally, many of us love playing until we’re exhausted. We rally around cries of “leave nothing in the tank”, and “leave it all on the field”… but why?? As fatigue accumulates, every aspect of performance decreases: physical, mental and emotional. We run and change direction slower; our cognitive and decision making abilities are impaired; and our emotional processing goes out the window. We know that tournaments (and even individual games) are fatiguing environments. Every team trains to build fitness, and works on recovery during a tournament. A bigger roster is a simple way to reduce player fatigue, and less fatigue means maintaining a higher level of performance in the business end of games/tournaments.

Reduce injury issues (in two ways)

You should expect that, in every season, a couple of players won’t make it to the end at full capacity. That’s part of training and competing at high level for multiple months. There’s a clear connection between fatigue and injury risk, so for the first benefit, less fatigue should contribute to less injuries (if all else is equal).

Secondly, losing players from a squad of 18 makes a much bigger difference to game time than losing players from a squad of 25. The smaller the squad, the greater the impact of each injury (and the more significant the snowball effect of subsequent injuries).

Enables quality training sessions

For me, this is perhaps the single biggest advantage. We all know the challenges of amateur sport: you have 18 on your roster, but once life gets in the way, 11 people turn up to weekly training. Big rosters allow for consistent training sessions. They allow you to have subs and a sideline during scrimmages. They allow you to split into smaller groups, and still run something useful. They usually make “pod” training sessions more viable.

A few extra players can improve the quality of your team’s training over a multi-month season. Better training = better team. What’s not to like?

Allows freedom to meet individual needs

This comes in a range of forms. All of these things *can* be done at any roster size, but more players
makes it much easier.

  • Life happens, and a couple of players have to pull out from a tournament? No biggie – you
    can still play
  • You want to rest a couple of guys who are returning from injury? That’s fine, it won’t
    significantly increase others’ game time
  • Need to give someone a bit of individual coaching? Easy, the group has enough numbers to
    keep going

Most athletes hate to let their team down, and with a small roster, the absence of 1-2 players can be fairly noticeable. This can put people under stress in various ways. Knowing that the team can absorb the needs of those individuals can create a more passively supportive environment.

Future development

A bigger roster means that you’re exposing more people to a season of training, and to tournament play. This pays dividends over multiple seasons, where you have a larger pool of players who have valuable big-event experience.

As an incidental note, taking extra players in the team means that their learning can be disseminated further down the chain. Uni clubs and league teams are likely beneficiaries of this, and the bigger/better the pool of players at grass roots, the better the talent flowing into club teams.

More “optional efforts”

I like to think of things in terms of expected vs optional efforts (name it however you want). In an expected effort, you don’t really have a choice – based on your situation, there’s a very clear expectation/need for you to act. Examples: you’re the dump and the thrower pivots to you on stall 5; you’re at the back of a stack, and your structure says “cut from the back”; you’re the deepest defender and you see someone streaking long unmarked. These are no-brainers: you have to do something.

In an optional effort, you’re not part of the main play, your actions may or may not make any difference, and most people wouldn’t really blame you for doing nothing. Examples: you’re the dump (or defending the dump) and a huck goes up to the endzone; you’re the mark/dump in a zone and they’ve broken through to a 3-on-2 scenario with your wing/deep. Generally, these come up when the disc is nowhere near you. If you have a deeper roster, then you can afford to invest more energy chasing “lost causes”. We’ve all seen a situation where the disc hangs longer than expected, so giving chase might result in catching a spilled catch, or making a defensive play. Pull chases could possibly fit here, too; fresher players can chase pulls harder.

Drawbacks of a big roster

The average player ability level is decreased

By definition, the extra players you’d add to a roster are weaker than the existing group, and thus your average ability level decreases. If you allocate even game time, this means your team is weaker on average.

Players can get grumpy about reduced game time

This one’s pretty simple. If you like playing a lot, and then play less, you’re likely to get grumpy. On a team of 18, you’re playing 39% of points (assuming even game time), or 1 in every 2-3 points. On a team of 26, you’re playing 27%, or just over 1 in 4.

Players get less Ultimate for their dollar

Similar to the above point, but a different angle. Most costs associated with Ultimate are individual, so there’s not much economy of scale with a bigger team. Your season will cost almost the same, but you’ll actively play less points of Ultimate.

Individuals may develop less because they’re playing less points

From another angle: if a player is on the field less, they have less total opportunities to practice and improve their on-field skills.

Some people find it hard to “get/stay in the game”

Many people find the shift to reduced game time a mental challenge, being able to switch on and deliver their best performance with longer stints on the sideline. While this can be overcome, it is certainly a barrier at first.

May require extra planning/management of subbing

I strongly stress *may*, but it can be hard to figure out how to use 26 players the first time. How do you balance all kinds of competing demands? There are various specific scenarios which add complexity to this; for example, how do you manage your roster in a big game, when we already know that we’ve weakened our average player ability with the smaller group?


These are my suggestions only; try them, modify them, improve them or discard them to suit your context.

Forward planning and communication are everything

This applies to so much in our sport. You need to create a very clear vision and plan for how you will handle this change, and communicate it explicitly and openly to all interested players BEFORE your tryout process.

Players need to know exactly what they’re signing up for. You need to make sure their expectations for the season, all the way to the very end, are spot on. If you get complaints about game time at Nationals, your error was many months earlier, not at Nationals.

To achieve this level of communication, you need to know exactly where you’re going in that season. Goal setting and culture building are outside this article’s scope, but those both need to be planned before they can be communicated.

Train for intensity, not volume

It’s a simple equation: volume and intensity are inversely related in exercise. If you run 20 sprints, you won’t have the same intensity as if you run 2. This means that many Ultimate players actually get used to not delivering 100% intensity, as they’re playing lots of points.

Train in an environment that requires and rewards intensity, and players will begin to understand how their on-field effectiveness can increase by playing less points, but playing harder. One example: set up any defensive 1-on-1 drill, and have the defender cover players for 6 reps, where they rest for the same amount of time as they work (e.g. 10 seconds of defence, 10 seconds rest). Then, after a
few minutes’ break, give them the same drill, but 4-5 reps and double the rest time.

Set up a roster management system, from the start, that covers all tournaments

This can be hard, and subbing systems are a big topic, exceeding this article’s scope. The key here, though, is to look ahead to the end of the season, and ensure your system prepares for that. How will you change your system in a knockout quarterfinal? How about when you’re up or down by 5?

What if a key player gets injured, or two or three? If you can build this into your plan, and even better, train for it, then your large roster of players supports the plan rather than questioning it.

Be clear in leadership structure and processes

If you got annoyed by dumb questions with 18 people, you’re going to hate 26. Build a plan for how things will work. This isn’t really any different with a bigger roster, but it can certainly have a bigger payoff.


You must be logged in to post a comment.

Also in Coaches Corner:

  • Coaching Fundamentals
  • Coaching a Team: Get Organised
  • Technical Discussion
  • Train Like A Champion
  • Well-being
  • Misc