Coaches do their best to have a team filled with players who are not only skilled in their sport, but who also have a good attitude, are coachable and are great teammates.
However, you’re always going to have those one or two players who give you a harder time than the rest. Whether they’re not listening to feedback, disrupting the group, giving minimal effort during drills, or talking back, these players are just more difficult. But just because a player is difficult doesn’t mean you should give up on them. This player may have a lot to offer your team, and as the coach, it’s your job to find a way to work with them and bring out their best. With that in mind, here are six of my favorite tips for dealing with difficult players.
1. Realize Every Player Should Not Be Coached the Same Way
Humans are individuals. Every single one is different in their attitude, perspective, goals and abilities. The key is finding out where individual players stand as a baseline then striving to help them improve from there. Expectations in terms of skills and fitness should vary depending on the athlete. If player X has a hard time finishing her sprints at the end of practice, perhaps she should be allowed a little more time to do so. Or perhaps you can organize the sprints in relay fashion so players are paired or teamed up, promoting teamwork and competition but also eliminating embarrassment for that specific player. In terms of mindset and attitude, you have to actually care about them as a person (and show them that you care) to find out what makes them tick. Why are they playing this sport in the first place? What do they like about it? What don’t they like about it? What do they want to achieve? Is anything going on outside of sports that’s affecting them? These are simple questions, but the insights they reveal can be hugely helpful when trying to find the best way to coach and push a player.
2. Change Your Language
Some players respond well to being coached hard, but not everyone can take being yelled at for making a mistake. If you’re screaming at a player who doesn’t respond well to that, they’ll often just shut down, and your coaching will go through one ear and out the other. If you’re having trouble getting through to a player, try changing how you talk to them. Use constructive criticism, explain to them calmly what they did wrong, and be sure to include ways they can change their form or actions to do better the next time. Studies have shown that high school aged athletes during a sports match can retain and act upon only 1-3 pieces of feedback during any given time. So, keep your feedback focused and concise.
3. Play the Long Game
No matter how much you change a drill or practice plan or plan the right words to use during a timeout, some players continue to have difficulties listening or conceding to a coach’s authority. This can be frustrating, and at times, infuriating for a coach. This is when a coach should consider using playing time as a learning tool. No matter how incredible an athlete is at their sport, they also should understand they need to act the right way and be a good teammate in order to play as often as they’d like. Playing time is earned, not given. And if they express concerns about a lack of playing time, that can be a great time to have a one-on-one conversation about where they can improve. This not only gives them a palpable goal, but shows the rest of the team that sort of behavior is not tolerated. Alternatively, consistently praising and rewarding coachable players sets the right kind of example for other athletes to follow.
4. Set Clear Expectations Ahead of Time
A coach who constantly changes their expectations makes it tough for players to know what they want. It’s always smart to hold team and parent meetings at the beginning of each season with clear guidelines and rules that are tangible and precise. Put it in writing. Include expectations regarding behavior, attitude and commitment. Laying down the law early can help save you headaches down the line. On the flip side, inform parents and athletes what they can expect of you throughout the season, as well. This will make it clear that you’re not a dictator, but rather a coach with good intentions and a plan to help get the most out of your team.
5. Stay Calm
Every team and every season, there is bound to be a player or two who test the limits of a coach’s patience. There will be times the coach wants to scream, curse or toss a ball just to get this player to listen, pay attention, and focus during a drill or game. But keeping your composure is always the smarter play. None of these are acceptable forms of discipline for high school-aged players or younger, and constantly existing in an angry state will create tense players who are terrified of making a mistake. Take a minute, take a breath, have your assistant coach speak to the player, or pull them off the court or field and allow the player a minute to assess their own behavior.
6. Utilize the Parents as a Resource
If you’re really having trouble reaching a player, don’t be afraid to reach out to their parent or guardian. Be tactful in your words, let the parent know you see potential in their child, and calmly explain what’s going on. Parents can also provide great advice on how to coach or push their child, as they know them better than anyone else. Best-case scenario, the parent will sit their child down and talk about what’s going on, possibly finding out the cause for their outbursts or inability to focus. Worst-case scenario, you’re pretty much in the exact same boat you were before.
Being a great coach means being a great communicator. Not every athlete is going to be a coach’s dream. Some have more difficulties than others when it comes to communicating their fears, weaknesses, needs or troubles. However, if that player is on the team, it is up to the coaching staff to find a way to break through to them and get the absolute best they can out of them. As a coach, there’s nothing more rewarding than helping a difficult player change their ways and get more out of their sport. Because when you do that, you know you equip them with skills that will serve them well for the rest of their life.
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