Photo Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

“I’ve Shuffled The Lines…” – Change Management In Games

I’ve seen this floating around tumblr for a while now, and every time it gets back around, it always gives me a good laugh because every fan has watched their team and groaned when they’ve heard that the lines got shuffled a bit. The Jets fanbase tends to rail on Maurice a lot for using the line blender during games, especially as a panic move. It reminds me of this image and I started to ask myself; how often do we see change management applied in sports?

Change management is something you’ve probably heard of if you work in a larger company. Simply put, they’re concepts and ways to prepare individuals on how to adapt and adjust to changes so that they can drive an organization forward. In hockey, you’ll hear of players that can play with anyone, but they’re always referring to skill. One of the key components of change management is work style and personality as well. It’s not absurd to think that those elements can also come into play when it comes to sports and line combinations. If you are also changing lines up and you have individuals that aren’t used adapting to change, you will have struggles. Athletes typically have set routines that they are used to, and this includes lines and teammates. Changing that can create anxiety and discomfort, even if that’s not what they describe it as.

One of the biggest aspects in sports that teams deal with are injuries and how they affect a team. With lines in hockey, it’s not uncommon that top lines will stay the same or a couple of top guys will stay paired up for long stretches at a time. Coaches and fans alike will say that there is chemistry and there is credence to this fact. In any workplace, some people will have personalities and work styles that just mesh better than with others. It’s the same in sports. It becomes a problem when those top guys have issues adapting to change, especially during injuries. Injuries can shift the dynamic of a team and create a constant churn of players coming in and out. Having talent depth helps mitigate the damage, but adaptability is also key. I want to look at a couple of great examples of how it works and how it doesn’t.

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A great team that has shown in the past that it is great at adapting to change is the Pittsburgh Penguins as a whole. It can be argued that they have the organizational depth talent-wise to mitigate injuries, but when you lose Crosby and Malkin, that’s a talent loss that’s irreplaceable unless you have a spare McDavid laying around. Last I checked, he’s still trapped in Edmonton though. The kicker is, when Pittsburgh seemingly has all their top guys out with injuries, they still seem to find ways to mesh and do well. This is a sign of great adaptability within the organization and a group of individuals who have worked to a place where they can deal with change in a healthy way. That adaptability and healthy change management has shown and helped them achieve success even in years when they get plagued with injuries.

 It’s easy to point out a team that does well and have it be the reigning Stanley Cup champions. Everyone wants to be like them and it’s a combination of a million things that makes them who they are, that’s just one aspect that gets them to there. For an issue like managing change and adaptability, sometimes it comes down to individuals.

Nik Ehlers is a great example of a player that isn’t the greatest at adaptability. Currently he has a spot with Bryan Little and Patrik Laine, but is that the best option for him? Their numbers as a set line aren’t exactly peaches and cream. If you look at how he performs with a player like Blake Wheeler, things change.

Stats are from Corsica.

People who tend to get used to working with the same few individuals struggle when they get moved around often as it creates a low level of anxiety. Sometimes they can be ill-equipped to deal with this anxiety and as a result, you can see a dip in their performance. In a fast-paced environment, like sports, players need to learn how to roll with the changes as they come. We tend to refer to these players in hockey as one that can play in all situations. A great example of such player on the Jets is Blake Wheeler.

He’s adaptable and can play with pretty much anyone. When thrown into any situation on the ice, and with any player, he can thrive. On top of that, he can make those players better.

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Stats are from Corsica. 

It’s been reported that Wheeler is incredibly hardworking and is the leader in the locker room. Often people in a workplace that take leadership roles and work extra also put in extra effort to work with everyone. They develop a work style that allows them to slot in with everyone in a team setting and often sacrifice aspects of their personality to make it work. This doesn’t mean that they are pushovers, this just means they know how to be personable in a work setting. They can often be closed off outside of work because they give so much there.

Another aspect is behavior modification. This is something that typically needs to be started at a lower level of the sport, but an easy one that could be implemented is lessening panic moves of line shuffling. The constant changing does create low level anxiety and having a coach that can recognize which players adapt to it well and which don’t would make a world of difference. So if a coach does want to adjust the lines mid-game, knowing how to do it without creating the anxiety would be ideal. Practicing the line shifts in practice would get players used to it and help eliminate that anxiety, as well as get them used to working with different people. Often teams practice in set lines and that’s it. The switch to practicing on a rotation could train that anxiety away. This is just one way it could be used.

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It won’t eliminate the problem or make people better, but if a team starts to implement these two things; identifying players that don’t adapt to change well and practicing in a way that helps foster change, I’m sure some struggles mid-game would start to lessen. If anything, you’ll have a team that’s stronger and able to work with anyone else on the team and confuse the other team. That should be worth something at least.