The First Thing To Say After “Locking Horns” With An Athlete Or Student.

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Inevitably, there will be moments in a coaching career when you have an issue with the way that one of your athletes is behaving. The way in which you handle this conflict resolution can either strengthen or undermine your relationship with those in your care.

Communicating Expectations

The worst thing to do is to tolerate the behavior or ignore it. The message to the student is that it is OK to act in this manner. Therefore, addressing it is essential and there are multiple ways in which to do this. However, these conflict resolutions can have a positive or adverse effect, and both have the potential to be long term.

Hopefully, coaches and teachers know their athletes and students well. The athlete/student behavior that can occur on occasion is not in line with their baseline typical behavior. The first interaction after the initial experience is going to be very important. What I am about to describe is one way to handle the problem, but is by no means the only way. I merely speak from personal experience and share the following so that it provides food for thought moving forward.

Positive Conflict Resolution

First, the conversation needs to be one that happens in private avoiding making the incident a public issue is important whenever possible. If the athlete needs a time out, then getting that to happen as efficiently and carefully as possible becomes paramount. There is ego in play here, and the athlete is probably acting in a manner driven by some stress or pain either between teammates but often at home, school or a relationship issue.

The next step is to meet with the student and athlete after practice or class, and hopefully, have an assistant coach to as back up as it is never a good idea to be alone with an athlete when conducting these conversations.

Therefore, my first question is usually the following –

“Are you doing ok? Something seems wrong is everything alright?” or words to that effect.

Diffusing The Emotion

This question achieves two critical goals.

First, this question communicates to the athlete that their behavior is not in line with my previous experience of them. The athlete or student will understand that their behavior is not in line with my expectations of them. The action is addressed rather than labeling their response as part of their character. The question allows the athlete/student to understand that you think better of them. This effectively creates a safe space in order to truly address the problem.

Second, by employing empathy, positivity, and creating a safe space, the student is more than likely going to explain what is going on.

9.5 times out of ten, the athlete is going to tell you that there is an issue. There may be stress at home. They might be experiencing relationship trouble with their boyfriend or girlfriend. You might also get some feedback on your program, coaching, or teaching. This can be important feedback if the issue lies within the way that you are running your environment.

Once you have the reason that your student is acting out of line, there will be a better understanding of how to solve the situation. Most often, athletes need an outlet, and by talking it out they have been allowed to vent. By using this fundamental conversational technique, trust and positive relationships build that serves to strengthen the athlete/student/coach relationship.

Build Long Term Relationships

These types of occurrences have happened quite a few times in my career. When I have taken the time to understand what is driving the behavior, we have progressed to a positive relationship. We are closer as a result of the interaction, and a ton of positive things evolve as a result of taking the time to understand the students needs.

After reading this, you could possibly be thinking that I am being soft here. In response, I would say that handling athletes with negativity and fear may result in short term gain. However, to win the long game, deploying positivity and empathy whenever possible is the best strategy for handling conflict resolution.

In conclusion, it is easy to forget what it is like to be a teenager. The human brain is not fully developed until the age of twenty-five. It is important to remember the prefrontal cortex is still establishing. When you ask a young mind “What were you thinking?” and they respond “I don’t know,” they aren’t lying to you!

I hope that this piece has provided food for thought at the very least. I don’t have it all figured out. However, this technique has served me well so far in my career. I hope it creates some value for you as you journey through your coaching or teaching career.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and feedback. If you think this might help that educator or coach in your life, please consider forwarding it on and sharing with others.

Until next time.


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