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Winning "Unwinnable" Games with Calendar Optimisation

In my “Perspectives on Perspectives” post, we discussed the essential ability for practitioners to use their figurative zoom button. Zooming out to observe the bigger picture is one such function. One of the most vital “bigger picture” roles is schedule planning. Designing your team’s calendar is akin to a building’s foundations. Done well, it can provide a solid foundation to build everything else upon. Done poorly, it can skew all the preparations that follow. Time and collective effort should therefore, be placed in the design of a team’s training calendar. It is a process I vehemently believe can bestow a competitive advantage.


How you optimise a team’s schedule depends on many factors. The sport, league, team, location, opponents, facilities, culture, traditions, to name but a few. Yet, there can – and should be – consistency with your approach towards the problem. Here I set out to discuss the importance of having a critical process for designing a team’s schedule.


Winning "Unwinnable" Games

Competitive team sport calendars are designed by their respective leagues with revenue maximisation at the forefront. Performance staff should therefore respond to their fixture schedule with the intention to optimise the team’s calendar according to performance.


Calendar optimisation is no easy task however, especially as the competition calendar can impact chances of success. For instance, analysis of the NBA 2016/17 season demonstrated a significant increase in the likelihood of winning a game with a rest day in-between, compared to playing back-to-back.


Performance staff should therefore respond to their fixture schedule with the intention to optimise the team’s calendar according to performance.

The fixture list provides a fixed constraintdefined here by Robertson and Joyce (2017) as factors set prior to the start of the season, such as the number of days between competition, game locations, and previous season rankings of opposition. Unlike in many football (soccer) leagues whereby everyone plays each other home and away in each season, other team sports (including the NFL, NBA, and NHL) and leagues enlist a rotation format as not every team plays each other. With varying opponents and game locations, the travel demands of each team are a hot topic for discussion each season. That is without even considering the impact of continental cup competitions or international travel games.


Research has quantified the impact of the competitive calendar on outcome. For instance, we have previously discussed Cheri Mah’s “Schedule Alert” system that identified the most unwinnable games of the NBA season based purely on calendar constraints (e.g., home/away, time between tip-off, how many games in how many nights etc.). This system predicted the so-called “unwinnable” games with an accuracy of 76-78% accuracy across two seasons.


This is where I see opportunity. Almost a quarter of the so-called “unwinnable” games were won by the team with the schedule disadvantage. As such, we must consider the dynamic constraints – those that are subject to change throughout the in-season (Robertson and Joyce, 2017) – and more specifically, those which we have control over. By focussing our energy and collective foresight on the factors we control, we can seek to optimise our team’s calendar, and help to put the playing and coaching staff in the best possible position to perform.


How Success Complicates the Calendar

Success in knock-out competitions can add further complications to a team’s calendar. Much focus is placed on the teams competing on “multiple fronts” and the admiration associated with multiple competition success demonstrates how challenging this can be. We have previously discussed how Champions Leicester in 2016 and Chelsea in 2017 only played 43 and 47 games respectively, in contrast for example with Manchester United who played 64 in 2017. The lack of European involvement assisted Leicester and Chelsea in utilising the least number of different players in a squad in their respective successful seasons.


The Europa League has previously been described as a “poison pill” for Premier League clubs due to its “largely unnecessary strain on resources”. However, the effect of midweek Champions League and Europa League competitions on domestic form has been shown as variable, reiterating that the burden of extra games does not necessarily have to be a competitive disadvantage.


Although much of a competitive calendar is fixed from the start of the season, leagues may maintain the option to adjust the calendar as they go. Since 2016, the NFL has implemented a “flexible scheduling” approach that allows them to move match-ups to primetime TV slots, particularly late in the season. This is not dissimilar to the staggered announcement for televised fixtures in English football. Just as Saturday 3pm is the standard kick-off time in English football, Sunday at 1pm local is the standard match-up in American football. Having games moved to different days and/or times warrants even deeper consideration for the best approach to the team schedule.


An NFL Case Study

In 2017, the Buffalo Bills played 14 of their 16 games at 1pm Eastern, with 12 of the games scheduled with a standard seven-day turnaround time (i.e. Sunday to Sunday). This regularity enabled a consistent approach to scheduling, particularly in a year when building consistent habits and routines were emphasised by the new Head Coach (Sean McDermott) and General Manager (Brandon Beane).


In contrast, in the 2020 season, the Buffalo Bills had only 8 of their 16 games at 1pm Eastern, with only 6 standard seven-day turnarounds. This was particularly apparent in the final third of the regular season, specifically the last six games in a crucial stretch trying to get into the post-season playoffs. Coming out of the bye week, there was not a single standard seven-day turnaround and no 1pm Eastern kick-offs between weeks 13 and 16 (see Figure 1).


November & December 2020 calendar showing game days, locations and kickoff times for the Buffalo Bills in the NFL.
Figure 1. Buffalo Bills Game Schedule 2020 Weeks 12-17

This presented an entirely different challenge from a scheduling perspective. It was however, one that we as a collective staff embraced as a means for unlocking a competitive advantage. We went unbeaten over this stretch. Of course, this on-field success is thanks to the preparation and game planning of the coaching staff, and the ability of the phenomenal playing group to execute when it mattered most. As a performance staff, we were able to support the players and coaches in this quest, through extensive schedule planning that helped to put the group in the position to perform.


Considering Constraints when Optimising the Calendar

A team’s schedule may be designed based on logistical ease and/or tradition, perhaps with decisions made because “we’ve always done it this way”. There may also be agency issues thrown into the mix, with competing interests across different departments. Performance should however, be kept central to decision making and a collaborative process used to allow key stakeholders to plan together in an objective manner.


My approach to calendar optimisation takes into consideration the competition, training and recovery constraints, and understanding to what extent we have control over each. There may be governing body rules that we have to adhere to. For instance, the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), such as in the NHL , may place regulations on when teams can/have to travel to games. However, there remain many factors that are within our control and therefore, an intentional approach to schedule design is crucial to optimising the calendar.


When considering the training constraints, planning (and monitoring) the volume and intensity of both on- and off-field training is one of the keys to physical preparation. These physical considerations must also be planned alongside the technical, tactical and mental preparation of the coaching staff. Team sport performance is multidisciplinary and therefore, understanding perspectives of other departments and communicating the reasoning behind your own is essential.


Training volume – in the form of drill and session lengths – is probably the most apparent factor to plan. However, it is important this is paired with discussion around off-field training volumes as well to ensure alignment in time on feet. Often training volume takes precedence in planning when in fact, there are a host of factors – some obvious, and some less so, that influence intensity and should therefore, be considered and manipulated as part of a deliberate approach to scheduling.


Fundamentally, the training process is the quest for a sufficient balance between training and recovery. Therefore, the training stimulus is supported – or potentially undermined – by the scheduling decisions made throughout the rest of the day. While much of this time may be spent outside of the training facility, and therefore outside of our control, every minute that the athletes are in the facility should be optimised towards performance.


Final Thoughts

The competitive calendar set by the league is a fixed constraint that can be seen as a gift or a curse! No matter how challenging the constraints (opponents, time, turnarounds, locations), there is always an opportunity to try to put the team in a situation to be able to perform. If a quarter of so-called “unwinnable games” can in fact be won, then a critical framework for schedule design can provide a significant competitive advantage. This is both an iterative and collaborative process; it requires responding to various data streams such as training load and response, combining with subjective feedback, and communicating between key stakeholders to design optimal interdisciplinary solutions.


Global Performance Insights delivers performance solutions bespoke to your sport and environment. Get in touch to learn more about our framework for calendar optimisation.