A question came up from a fellow coach on the subject of talking with non-starters.

So many times when the discussion of playing time comes up, either the player or parent is asking what they need to improve on, or the coach uses improvement in particular skills as a prerequisite for more playing time. Now the paradox: As a coach, don’t you expect improvement from Everyone on your roster? If everyone improves, including the non-starter, is your starting team going to change? (probably not!). So by tying more playing time to improvement, aren’t you setting this player up for more disappointment?

This definitely represents an interesting conundrum for us coaches. In order for a non-starter to become a starter they need to get better. Either that or a starter needs to have a dip in form. You certainly hope and expect that the starters will continue to improve, though. If that’s the case, then the non-starter should never get into the starting lineup. So how do we handle this?

Control what we can control

First and foremost, it is important to get the non-starter focused on what they can control. They cannot control what others do. They can only control their own effort and attitude. It’s about putting in the work with intention. A potentially big part of this is making sure you give them at least as much attention as you give your starters. Probably even more. That way they don’t feel left behind or left out.

Different rates of improvement

A major consideration in this whole scenario is a kind of assumption that players improve at the same rate. This really isn’t the case, though. Player’s progress at different rates. That means non-starters can definitely overtake starters over time. This is especially true when you’ve got players at different points in their development. Younger players tend to make gains more quickly than older ones.

Don’t tie playing time to improvement

Here’s the mistake coaches can make. We obviously want to see our non-starters improve. Even if they never make the starting team, their better play in practice will at least create a higher level of play in that context (see A-team vs. B-team), challenging the other players more. We cannot, though, tie playing time to improvement – at least not in a nominal sense.

By that I mean we can’t tell players they just need to get better because the reality is that they need to be better than the starter(s) ahead of them. Thus, it’s a relative thing, not an absolute. That being the case, you have to frame it more along the lines of, “You need to be better than (or at least as good as) Jane in …” That gives you room to base things on the relative levels of the player rather than absolute changes by the non-starter.

Note that all of this can tie in with your decisions on substitutions as well.

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John Forman
John Forman

John is currently the Talent Strategy Manager (oversees the national teams) and Indoor Performance Director for Volleyball England, as well as Global Director for Volleyball for Nation Academy. His volleyball coaching experience includes all three NCAA divisions, plus Junior College, in the US; university and club teams in the UK; professional coaching in Sweden; and both coaching and club management at the Juniors level. He's also been a visiting coach at national team, professional club, and juniors programs in several countries. Learn more on his bio page.

    2 replies to "Communicating playing time prospects to non-starters"


      I agree with your post, 100%. The only thing I find challenging is comparing non-starter with ‘Jane’ in your response. We have many athletes & parents, who perception they are as good or better than Jane. Their perception is their reality. When I have this talk with athletes and their parent(s), I say, ‘you got to improve far enough that I am consciously noticing your abilities.’ At this point it seems I have athletes to really start to push themselves.

      When it get to a point where the athletes are close then I have a position competition. All the athletes in the position that is being contested have a challenge competition. We stat the different events, which include all skills sets, transitioning (offense & defense) & back row play. The stats rank the athletes and they get to see where they fall. The athletes have two weeks to improve their position before we can have the next challenge competition. Full disclosure I’ve only had to do this a handful of times since I’ve used the challenge competition. Once completed, athletes and parent(s) for that matter, seems to understand their role and or position.
      Keep the info coming, I enjoy reading and seeing different ideas!

      Koach Kelly…

      • John Forman

        Hi Kelly – Managing player/parent perceptions is definitely a major part of all this. And being able to point to concrete numbers to demonstrate relative levels is extremely useful.

Please share your own ideas and opinions.