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The Truth About the Second String. How to Help Non-Starters Manage Pressure.

Mindset Made Simple Tip #181 - Watch or Listen HERE.

I am not sure if you are paying attention, but Joe Flacco has the Browns in the playoffs!   

Yes. I’m a Steelers fan and “we” are in the playoffs, too. But that is commonplace for Mike Tomlin’s teams.

Not so for the Browns. And if I’m being honest, I am always happy when the Browns do well because I LOVE Cleveland. It’s where my career began, and we spend a lot of time there since we are only 30 minutes south of the city!

Flacco is amazing and exactly what the team and the city needed!

No Clevelander would have ever thought they would say that since he led the original Browns, also known as the Ravens, to the Super Bowl, but the whole region is now singing his praises! What a twist of fate!


 Watching yesterday’s game, a 31 – 14 loss to the Bengals where the starters rested and the 2nd string guys played against Cincinnati’s starters (minus superstar Joe Burrow, of course), took me back to several recent conversations about starting…or not starting, more specifically.

A major topic of conversation between the announcers surrounded this issue of starters versus 2nd string guys. Jay Feely was VERY direct saying there was a “big difference” between the everyday guys and the 2nd string, basically saying the level of play dropped significantly when comparing the two groups of players. 

Ouch. But the proof was in the pudding, so to speak.

I work with several basketball teams and have had this “starters vs. non-starters” conversations with a few of my coaches since they are in the thick of it and several of my teams have been hit with the injury bug. I have had the same conversation with a few of my family members about my cousin’s daughter who plays college basketball as well.  

There is a difference between the first and second string. Every team has them. Everyone knows this. 

Everyone also knows that coaches want to win. You can throw in “politics”, “favorites”, “lack of knowledge” or any other reason the lineup looks the way it does, but I have come upon very few coaches in my 30+ years in college athletics (or at any level) who are trying to lose.

Ask a coach why they started someone or made the call they did and I bet they never say “I was trying to lose!”

Everyone also knows that coaches can’t start everyone. There is a limit on how many kids can play at a time. I shared this story before, but it is good enough to repeat.

There was a high school basketball coach who had all 15 kinds on the court for the jump ball. The referee told him to put out his starters. He said, “I have them out there.” The ref then said, if you don’t get these guys off the court, I’ll give you a technical. The coach said, “Let’s get the game going.” The ref blew the whistle, called a T and told the scorer’s table the coach got a technical for having too many players on the court at which time the coach turned to the stands and said to the parents “I told you they all can’t play!”

 Good, huh?

But no one wants to be on the second string and if it’s your kid on the second string, Jay Feely’s direct assessment shoe doesn’t fit too well.

Like one-third of the players on the teams I work with, my cousin’s daughter isn’t starting. She plays for a perennial DIII national power. She’s a freshman.  

Reading those facts, most of you are thinking “And?”  

If she sticks it out, she’ll start. And even if she doesn’t start, she’ll do something very few people on earth get to do…make a run at a national championship!

If she sticks it out!  

Since not starting is a defining factor and identity and this is a huge problem in sports and since the culture has changed over the years where not playing leads to transferring or switching teams, what can we do to help those who don’t start stick it out??

I’m not pretending this is a new issue. I remember asking a kid 20 years ago if she’d rather play on a losing team or sit on a winning team and she unequivocally said she’d rather play on a losing team.  

I was aghast…easy to say since I never really sat but it’s not what coaches want to hear. It’s like Kobe Bryant saying losing is exciting…only said by guys who rarely lose!

First, we need to acknowledge that sitting on the bench comes with as much pressure as starting.  

Think about it, non-starters often feel as if they face the constant challenge of proving themselves to coaches to earn more playing time. This pressure can lead to a sense of urgency and anxiety.  

Non-starters must be mentally prepared to contribute at a moment's notice. The uncertainty of when they will be called upon requires a unique level of readiness and this in and out of the lineup experience can cause disappointment if they are not called upon in situations similar to those that provided playing time in the past.

Non-starters often grapple with feelings of frustration, embarrassment and frustration when playing time is limited or nonexistent and the stress of answering questions from parents and teammates on why they aren’t in the mix. They are often in the middle of the staff and their support system, understanding their role, but unable to deal with it because it doesn’t sit well with others. 

All of this adds up to pressure…the same pressure a coach feels to win and the same pressure the starters feel to put up numbers or carry the team to victory.

How can we help our non-starters manage this pressure?

First, setting the expectation that practice is much more than practice for them may help.  

A non-starter’s game day is M, T, W, and TH at 11 am, or whenever you practice. 

Approaching practice as their game may change the game for everyone! How would they prepare for a game? Would they approach the day differently? What would they do in the locker room? How would they put on their “uniform”? What would they do as they walk to the field/court? What would change? How would they behave?

The most important question is, would all of this put them in a better position to perform at their peak?  

Asked and answered!

Yes, part of their practice can be for learning, growth and pushing out of their comfort zones, but getting them to COMPETE on their game days will change their level of focus and intensity.  

Legendary softball coach Sue Enquist wanted her team to ENACT roles, not ACCEPT them. She expected her non-starters to make the starters work so hard to keep their jobs in practice that the games seemed easy. If they lost, she got all over everyone for not doing their jobs. 

The non-starters were as important to the wins as those on the field on game day.  

She didn’t expect anyone to be “good with it.” She brought people to UCLA to win National Championships. She wanted them to do something with it!  

I am sure you have heard that non-starters want a chance in a game to show what they can do. In this approach “practice is my game” approach, they are getting into the game EVERY DAY to show what they can do and if they choose to approach practice like a game, they may outdo those who don’t! That is sure to get a coach’s attention!  

Chances aren’t given in games.  Chances are given every time you walk into the facility!  

Making practice a game gives you the best chances!

The pressure that exists from being put in and out of the lineup at a moment’s notice is real, too! 

Helping athletes stay engaged and in the flow of the game can help them be prepared to make an immediate impact when called upon. To do this, a mental rehearsal routine is vital.  

Nothing keeps anyone from taking at-bats, shots or making plays as they are engaged in the game. At any time, we can put ourselves “in the game” by rehearsing what we would do if we were in the situation in front of us. We can take at-bats with those who have a similar style as us. We can defend the person we will guard should we go in. We can fill in space as the position we would play on the pitch. Seeing and feeling the flow and pace of the game as we are observing and gathering information can help us be prepared to enter at a moment’s notice.

No one can tell if we are doing this, but our performance will be enhanced immediately by pre-experiencing our roles and priming our brain and body to do what they need to do. 

Lastly, asking our non-starters to keep in mind that there is a limit to what they can control may be helpful. 

They don’t control what others think, say or do but they can always control how they respond to it. Keeping a list of even the smallest things they did to get better can be helpful and distinguishing between real expectations and those we create or assume is important.

Others' thoughts and feelings can impact us, but they don’t control us unless we allow them to. As author Joshua Medcalf reminded us in Chop Wood. Carry Water, “You fuel your heart with six things: what you watch, what you read, what you listen to, who you surround yourself with, how you talk to yourself, and what you visualize.”  

Making a list of what they think others expect of them is a great step to keeping perspective. Once the list is made, have the athlete go through and cross out anything that wasn’t specifically spelled out to them (the things they assume). Then have them cross out anything that can’t be turned into a goal. Lastly, with what is left, have them rank order the items and decide what they can control to move toward that expectation that is now a goal…with “by doing what” behaviors.

We decide what we let in and how we respond to it all whether internal or external!

We have POWER TOOLS to help us navigate even the most frustrating situations.

Sitting is hard. Not getting what we want is hard. But not giving our all and seeing how we can influence the things around us with our best is much harder in the long run.

There is no simple answer to helping disappointed players because sometimes playing time does not come. 

But helping them give their best so they know what that looks like and helping them prepare for what may come will give them the best chance…and who knows what happens next!

Manage your chances!


P.S. School is starting! Get on my schedule today!  Shoot me a text at 234-206-0946 or an email at and let me help you reach new heights this year!

Julie Jones

Mental Performance Coach

SSB Performance • 234-206-0946 

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