“Saving the best for last” is a puzzling expression. In everyday life, we use delayed gratification as a motivational tactic far too often. Leaving our happiest moments until the evening, thus creating a positivity bubble allowing us to forget the tribulations of the past day.
The idea becomes further misleading when you apply it to the world of sport. Why are we fixated on tight games which are decided in the final moments? Why does an Olympic gymnast’s routine feature her most difficult moves at the end?
Momentary society has caused us to make snap judgements based on a singular memory. There is a massive emphasis on the closing moments of any sport whether it be to decide the fixture or simply the abiding memories of the supporters in attendance. As this has been statistically acknowledged, it has caused an alteration within the thought processes and actions of management teams across various sports.
Eddie Jones has inexplicably modernised how substitutions are viewed in rugby simply by referring to his bench as “finishers” as opposed to replacements. Outwardly it appeared a vain attempt at massaging the egos of those not selected. If they are better players or in better form why not start with them? Yet within one simple word there is an acknowledgement that the vast majority of key moments in a tight contest come at the conclusion and you require your best players to be present at that juncture.
Looking at Ireland’s national sport of GAA, Jim Gavin, the manager of the top team in the country for the last three seasons has stated that he selects his finishing team first and then works his starting team around that. Emphasis being on what players can make an impact from the beginning vs. players that are best used for their explosiveness against tired legs late in the contest. Not starting is no longer necessarily a knock back. Impact and Decisiveness from the bench is considered a specialized role within the team set up.
In football, the most prestigious cup competitions are often decided by penalty shoot-outs. The formulation of the five takers is always scrutinised and in this high-pressure situation, we see a great conundrum for “saving the best for last”. Most commonly at lower levels, the strongest players will take the 4th and 5th penalties. Mentality wise this appears smart as the most pressure to succeed is on these shots. However, it often is the case that the team who front loads their takers emerge victorious.
Even within team selection, managers face a similar challenge. Congested fixture lists mean top teams can face three games in less than ten days. It is common for European fixtures and big-league clashes to be prioritised but how often are fans left lamenting a rotational draw or loss to a weaker opponent when eyes turn to later fixtures.
In the same way, it is common for players to be rested for a period in the run up to Christmas. The reasoning given for this usually refers to the player being fresh late in the season. Managers condition their teams to be at their best in the closing 4-6 weeks of a campaign. You can argue that trophies are handed out in May not October but it is also the case that a strong start can lead to a knock-on effect. Just ask any of Leicester City’s title winning squad. It was a strong start, belief and consistency in team and role selection amongst other things which contributed to that incredible season.
Psychologically, the constructs of having a successful season or event individually have changed dramatically in the last ten years. Man-management is taking a back seat and the best players across all sports are being asked to buy into the statistical and ideological views of the management team.
While this change in the very fiber of modern sport was not immediately obvious, when coupled with some basic psychological thinking, the above patterns clearly emerge. This emphasis on an “end goal” or appreciation of “saving the best for last” is an integral facet of any sport in 2017 and when analyzing managers and players over the course of a season, it is important to keep this strategic overview in mind.