When I say “problem athlete,” you all know what I am referring to. At least one athlete just doesn’t like the training or your coaching style on every team. This does not mean they are disrespectful or lazy. Still, for one reason or another, they just don’t have an affinity to training hard, lifting weights, or doing other physical training. As you start reading this, I know you are all thinking of that athlete in your mind right now.
These athletes are very common, and the reason I bring this up is they pose a challenge to your normal work environment. The reason being is a negative training attitude, for whatever reason, can be infectious and lead to a degradation of the team culture you are trying to establish. Many athletes, especially in team sports, have a pack-mentality. Meaning when one person stands out and does something, others are likely to follow. The more athletes that jump on the bandwagon, the more want to pile on as well.
Having athletes that do not want to train, or refuse to uphold your team standards can lead to others following along. And if you have dealt with one problem athlete, you can imagine just how difficult dealing with three or more would be.
How do we address these athletes to ensure they are on your side and “get with the program!” (Sneak peek- yelling that at them isn’t one of them)
Coaches, How To Build Relationships With Your Athletes
The first thing you need to do with these athletes is show that you care about them. I know it has been said over and over again in many of these articles, but you really can’t put a price on how valuable it is to have someone care about you and be the one to help you along the way instead of a stranger or distant coach.
Being a caring coach helps build a relationship with that athlete, so when you need to tell them “what’s up” and make sure they are in line, they know it comes from a place of love and wanting what is best for them.
How do you do this? Talk with them! Ask them about their day, find out about their family, and just generally learn about them as a person. Only knowing your athletes on a surface level (how much they bench) and trying to get them to do what you need them to is like only learning your girlfriend’s first name before you propose. You need to find out about them and cultivate that relationship!
Just like a romantic relationship, you need to take it slow. You wouldn’t propose on the first date (hopefully) so don’t expect this athlete and you to have an airtight relationship on Day 1. Especially if you are dealing with an athlete that doesn’t enjoy what you are trying to get them to do, they may have reservations against you and be less willing to open up. So take it slow. Start by asking them simple questions “How was your day so far?” Then as you learn more about them, try and connect on common points of interest. “Oh, you like to listen to Nickelback? They were my first concert!” And so on.
If every time that athlete comes in to see you, you can learn one new thing about them, or make one new connection (even if it means solidifying one you already had) those will add up over time. Those small additions are what lead to a rock-solid relationship based on real conversation, information, and trust!
How To Earn Your Athletes Trust
Yes, getting these problem athletes to like you is one thing, but do they trust you as their coach? If no, how do you earn that trust?
The first step is to know your stuff. You are the professional, so it is up to you to know what these athletes need to succeed in their sport. During my undergrad, I focused a lot on the science and technical side of my profession. During this time, my mentors stressed the importance of learning to deal with people and build relationships. Now as a Head Coach, I still appreciate and value the importance of being able to deal with people. However, I also now know the importance of knowing your stuff. When the department or team is counting on you to get results and make athletes better, having a great smile and a positive attitude won’t cut it. Do your job, learn new things, make mistakes, but always strive to get better!
So when trying to demonstrate your competency with your athletes, once again, take it slow. Don’t spend 30 minutes lecturing them about why you chose one drill over another (Front vs Back Squat). Explain to them what you are doing (ie. “Today we are doing Split Squats”), why you are doing it in terms they can understand (and in as few words as possible) (ie. “It will help increase your legs for a more powerful sprint” OR even more simply “It will help you run faster”), and then coach and cue it well (ie. “Push straight down with the front foot and keep a slight bend in your torso”!).
The biggest part of earning trust with problem athletes is stepping up when called upon. I have had times when I thought I did an excellent job of explaining the what, how, and why of an exercise (plus a killer demo), only to find out that the athlete wasn’t paying attention (hence the “problem athlete” part). So, when they come to ask you questions about certain things they either didn’t catch the first time, or other areas you are supposed to know things about (“Should I eat breakfast?” or “Why does my knee hurt when I squat?”), it is your time to step up and provide an answer. Not necessarily the right answer on the spot, but an answer.
If you know the right answer for that athlete in the given situation, by all means, give it (“Yes, eat breakfast before coming to training”). But other times you won’t know the answer. It is okay to admit that (“I don’t know why your knee hurts”). Coming up with something on the spot and having it be wrong will only lead to a lack of trust from that athlete, so don’t just make it up!
Three Options For “I don’t know, but…”.
1. “I don’t know, but I will find out for you and get back to you on it”. This is for less immediate needs and things that can actually be researched
2. “I don’t know, but in my opinion, I think that…” If you have an educated guess, you can state it, but make sure they know it is a guess and not for sure facts
3. “I don’t know, but I can direct you to someone who does know” Providing them with the tools to get the answer, either by sending them to someone else (team therapist when hurt) or by giving them articles/websites/books to learn more on their own
Any of these options can be great, the key is to make sure you state your intention and show you are willing to help them. Especially with the first option, getting back to someone about a question they asked earlier demonstrates you care about them and are willing to go above and beyond to help them, which is a great way to build trust!
Having Tough Conversations
At some point, these difficult athletes may cross the line. You may have to take the next step beyond simply addressing it and have a personal conversation with them. This can be a very intimidating thing to do, and it is very difficult for a young coach (especially a “people-pleaser” like myself!). However, these moments can be some of the most rewarding in building a trusting relationship with problem athletes and getting a chance to speak to them and hear the story. Now, this could be a whole article in itself, but here is a brief rundown on what to do in those scenarios.
- If it is a first offense of breaking the rules, address the incident with the athlete. If the athlete repeats the same offense or even a different one (repeat offender), it may be time to step in and address further conversation. Ask them if you can speak to them briefly in a place more private (outside the weight room, side of the pitch). If you can help it, try not to have the conversation in front of the whole team as you don’t want to embarrass the athlete and put them on the defense right away. Bringing one team leader with you can help with liability and ensure your message gets across.
- Don’t have the conversation when your emotions are still hot. Write down your thoughts if you have to, address it with the athlete so they know they were in the wrong, but make sure you do not yell at them just because the emotions are still fresh.
- When having the conversation, a simple structure I learned from John Berardi (founder of Precision Nutrition and author of Change Maker) is the STATE method.
- Tell the athlete what happened, just the facts, not your interpretation
- “You were late”
Tell Your Story
- Explain your thoughts on the subject (your interpretation). Make sure they know this is what you think, not what actually is happening (even if it is true)
- “To me this demonstrates a lack of respect for the team rules and our time”
Ask Their Path
- Get them to share their side
- “Is there a specific reason this keeps happening? Can I do anything to help you with this?”
- Use words like, “I think”, “My opinion” so they know they are free to share their thoughts and you are not accusing with facts
- Give them opportunities to share their side and challenge your thoughts if they are incorrect.
- “Does that sound accurate?”; “Do you have anything to add?”
Protecting the Culture
The main concern with problem athletes is that they will be a negative influence on your team culture. It all comes back to your culture and what you want it to be. If you aren’t worried about culture and just want people to lift heavy things or do drills mindlessly, then this may not be a big deal. If a positive team culture is something you desire, then this is definitely something you need to consider. And if you haven’t really thought about your team’s culture before, you better! You can’t take steps towards a destination if you don’t know where you are heading, no matter how good your map is!
Now that you know what your team culture is, the next thing to do when dealing with a problematic athlete is determined if their behaviors are harming it or not. Now that may seem pretty straightforward, but it isn’t. In the game of coaching, there is lots of giving and take.
When some athletes are showing up late, you need to determine if you want to have a culture of athletes coming in whenever they want and not adhering to start times. If you don’t care, then you need not say anything. However, if you want to have a culture of coming on time, and obeying the start times as I sure do, then this needs to be addressed. How do you do that? Well, first you make sure everyone knows it is a standard you uphold. Tell them what you expect from them (“We all need to come on time”).
Reinforce The Rules
If they come late, make sure to address it so they know you disapprove of that behavior. Next, if the issue continues, more drastic or even punitive measures need to be in place to show you mean business. This could be having that tough conversation we discussed to get more info from them, not allowing late athletes to train, or even burpees for those who are late. I don’t recommend instilling physical exercise as punishment, but some teams have done it with great success, hence why I listed it here. It is your culture and your team, so you need to decide what the punishment is and then stick to it! For myself, if an athlete shows up late to their lift, they need to sing in front of the group. Yes, it sucks, yes it is embarrassing, but I’ll tell you what, very few every come late twice!
To protect the culture you want, you need to decide what it is, set boundaries to protect it, and have things in place to deter others from breaking it and making sure everyone knows you are serious
Yes, there will be some give and take. I have had athletes come late from class in the lateness example because their professor held them late. Did they sing? No. If it is out of their control, I am lenient. After all, I am trying to be a caring and trustworthy coach!
However, you need to establish what you are willing to give on. You should try and avoid giving on one standard to enforce another. Another example is that I require our athletes to wear a shirt representing their school or team (TWU Spartans). A compromise I should not make is telling an athlete that doesn’t come on time, “If you come on time, you don’t have to wear a TWU shirt”. By doing that, I have demonstrated that some of the rules are not important, and if you disobey one, you can get out of another. Not a good way to establish team culture! Instead, you could look at something like, “On days when you come on time, I will let you pick the music”. That way, there is an incentive to bring them on time, as a consequence wasn’t working (especially if they love to sing).
One other thing to consider: when you let one player do something, everyone is going to want to do it. Make sure that whatever compromise you are giving, you have to be willing to give it to everyone. If one athlete is doing something, like skipping sets in the workout or not touching the cone on a running drill, that may not be a big deal. After all, you are just happy this difficult athlete came on time, is wearing their kit, and is doing at least part of what you want! But if this starts negatively influencing everyone and more and more athletes start falling into these habits (pack mentality), then it is a good idea to address it to stop it right then. So in the lateness example, I flipped it. I allow the athlete who shows up first to choose the music for the lift. That way there is a race to come early instead of a culture of coming late.
The same goes for larger concerns. If we go to the lateness policy again, if one athlete shows up late and nothing is done, what are the chances no one else comes late? Slim to none. In fact, if we go back to my singing example, there are times when some athletes show up late, but I exempt them from singing due to things outside their control, as mentioned. Then when another athlete comes late the next time and I tell them to sing, you can for sure bet they pull the “But they didn’t have to!” card. You see? It is important to establish your culture and to get everyone on board. Establish what you are willing to “give” at each moment with these problem athletes and what you want so that you can step in before it is too late and their negative influence spreads.
I get it, and know what you are going through. We all deal with athletes that make our sessions a bit more difficult and just seem to have a problem with us, with our training, or with something outside of this and they are just taking it out on us.
The key is to build that trusting relationship with them to better understand what is going on. Talk to them. Learn about them as a person. What is their motivation? Then use that!
Know your stuff. Ensure what you are getting them to do is benefit them, or you find resources that benefit them so you can demonstrate your competency and earn their trust
When dealing with problem athletes and testing you, you may have to have a tough conversation with them and address the issue. Feel free to use the STATE method to ensure you and the athlete have ample time to speak, express yourselves, and come to a solution that works for both parties
Lastly, know your culture, protect your culture, but be ready for some give and take on the little things!