By Dr. Steve Juaire
Contributor, Sports & Fitness Network
We have all read accounts of coaches losing control of their teams. Often, this occurs during a heated confrontation in a game. Players lose control, make poor choices, and they and the team ultimately suffer consequences, sometimes very serious consequences.
A coach losing control does not have to be a game time crisis however. In 1965, Bruce Tuckerman talked about the phases most groups or teams go through as they are nurtured into a cohesive unit. Tuckerman’s developmental sequence of small groups is called: forming, storming, norming, and performing. The idea here is that teams come together, experience challenges, including authority issues and players’ individual roles. Successful resolution to these challenges will determine the team’s cohesiveness and usually trust in its coach.
The coach’s leadership qualities become key to a successful resolution, or growing undercurrent of discontent.
I had a personal experience with this kind of challenge. After taking over as athletic director of a division II university, and a little more than three months on the job, the men’s basketball team walked into my office and informed me that they were walking off the court that evening, just as the game was about to start, in protest against the head coach.
After taking a very brief personal time-out to process this information and the potential calamity that could occur, I was able to calm the players by reassuring them I would listen to their grievances. I asked the team to write down its issues and present them to me one hour later in a private meeting.
During the hour I had time to reflect:
- Whom should I contact? My decision at that time was to communicate the issue with my supervisor.
- Aware of some issues, I summarized in my mind what the team’s concerns might be so I was better prepared to quickly address each.
- Significant reflection was given to my persuasion strategy that would be used to prevent a walk-off
- Personal and university embarrassment
- Forfeiting the game
- Potential conference sanctions
- Possible player suspension and/or dismissal from the team
I had one huge resource that proved invaluable. I was a past coach at this university and knew many of the team members. They trusted me. After listening to their issues, and reading their written paper, I leaned on specific team leaders and asked, “if you were me, what would you do?” I felt by sharing some control and demonstrating, a willingness to listen, the “temperature” in the room would cool. A calm open discussion continued where I explained the potential damage that would result from walking off the court. As a result of this discussion, and my commitment to address their issues, I was able to persuade the team to play the game and let the university leadership work on the grievances.
As a follow-up, I spoke with the coach at length after the game. Later, following extended discussions with my supervisor and the coach, the coach was persuaded that retirement was the best option.
Human behavior issues are complex and often very passionate. Successful administrators must have a “game plan” for conflict resolution. There are many problem solving paradigms that include problem identification, review of policies and procedures, and proposals for possible solutions and outcomes. An important point here is that these issues happen. Put yourself in the position of leadership, and mentally train how you would respond. Time is usually not on your side. Responding without a “game plan” usually intensifies the crisis.