As an athletic director, you know that the unity of your team is vital. If your coaching staff or players aren’t getting along, it’ll affect their performance. What can start out as simple disagreements can turn into huge interpersonal rifts, which have the potential to greatly impede play.
It doesn’t even matter if the players are playing as a team. Even if they’re working independently from one another (as in cross-country or track-and-field events), interpersonal disagreements can cause stress and anxiety that can affect your players’ performance.
Disagreements are, unfortunately, part of life. But your players need to know that they’re all on the same team, and are working together toward a common goal. How can you, as their coach, help them to overcome their differences, and learn to support each other and work together as a team?
Types of Conflict in the Locker Room
There are a few different types of conflict that can negatively affect the quality of your team’s play. Here’s a quick overview of some of the kinds you’re most likely to find.
One type of conflict you’re likely to see is the result of poor performance on the field, whether that’s individual performance or the team’s performance as a whole. Players may end up sniping at each other or giving each other the cold shoulder, over bad calls or bad decisions. This type of conflict can be very destructive, but it’s also perhaps easiest to remedy: if you can tone down the emotions involved, you can harness the care your players are showing toward more rigorous practices and better performances. You may also be able to encourage more experienced players to mentor other, less skilled members of your team.
Another type of conflict is personality-based. Some people just aren’t going to get along with each other; they may become competitive in unhealthy ways, or they may argue with each other, turn other players against the other, or even physically attack each other. Unlike the first type of conflict, this emotional energy typically can’t be harnessed into something more useful, and you should bring both players into mediation as soon as you notice the dynamic at play.
A Note on Hazing
While hazing isn’t a division in your locker room per se, it’s a threatening aspect of many teams’ cultures, and it can create rifts and discomfort between players that can have devastating effects on your team’s cohesion and your individual players’ performance.
Many institutions have some policies in place to prevent hazing, but some do not. And even when these policies are in place, surveys report that 80% of collegiate athletes are subjected to hazing. Hazing badly damages your players’ self-esteem and relationship to the team, as well as their trust in your institution. It can even be deadly in some situations.
Because hazing is so serious, it’s not something to be dealt with like other forms of conflict. Don’t bring it through a mediation process, which could give your players the impression that hazing is acceptable. You need to take disciplinary action, immediately.
Your Role in Conflict
Your role is not to pick sides in player disputes. Doing so will just create further resentment and bad feelings between your players, and will make them less likely to listen to or trust you in the future. In fact, unless one player is clearly acting inappropriately (for example, physically or emotionally bullying another player), it’s generally a bad idea to do anything that could be construed as picking a side in a dispute.
Instead, your role is to ensure that disagreements are patched over, and that interaction continues smoothly. You want to be sure that disagreements don’t become personal, or fester over time. Your goal is to become a mediator, who guides the process of finding common ground between disagreeing parties, and who keeps negotiations civil and on-track.
When you find out that there’s a conflict taking place between your players, it’s best to set some time to sort it out on neutral ground. Use classic conflict resolution techniques to try to find a solution to the situation. Start by making it clear that no one is in trouble. The power differential between you and your team may be intimidating, so handle it carefully.
Ask each side to present their case, calmly and carefully. Equally calmly, try to mirror back what each side is saying, rephrasing it to let them know that they were heard.
Try to find commonalities between the two sides. If your players disagree about a play that happened on the field, for instance, they may have some serious differences about strategy or experience, but they obviously all care about the team and the game. By finding that common ground, you’ll remind everyone present that they’re all literally and figuratively on the same team.
In some situations, finding that common ground may be enough to defuse the hostile energy in the situation, and the players may even volunteer solutions. If that doesn’t happen, start to brainstorm solutions on your own. Ideally, you want even-handed solutions that don’t overburden any one party, and that doesn’t feel punitive. You’ll see players accept or reject your proposals (or each others’), and they may volunteer their own options for resolving the situation. Negotiate with them, and let them negotiate with each other, to find an amicable solution. Guide the process back on track if you find a proposed solution to be unfair, or if you see tempers running hot.
Keep in mind that while it’s always best if your players are friends with one another, this may be impossible due to irreconcilable differences. Forcing everyone to get along may backfire badly. Instead, in situations where a conflict can’t be resolved, remind everyone that in the end, they have a job to do. They need to put aside their differences for the good of the team. If they’re unwilling to do that, they need to think seriously about their future with the team.
Tempers and passions can run hot in a locker room. Whether your players are stressed after a recent loss, they’re engaging in unacceptable hazing activities, they’re disagreeing about proper conduct on the field, or they’re engaging in the same interpersonal struggles that affect us all, your players may end up driving wedges between each other.
Resolving these conflicts is vital to good coaching techniques. Don’t pick a side or make players feel rejected, but instead work to resolve disagreements amicably and get everybody getting along again. Traditional conflict resolution techniques, with a focus toward the task-oriented work of being on a team together, can do wonders to get a team working smoothly with one another.
About Ohio University’s Online Master of Athletic Administration Program
Ohio University, a leader in athletic education, established the first specialized academic sports program in the United States in 1966.
The online Master of Athletic Administration program is designed for professionals looking to advance their careers in athletic administration. Graduates are eligible for the National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association (NIAAA) certification. On average, students can complete the program in two years and develop the skills to run a successful interscholastic athletic department that meets the needs of student-athletes.