Athlete, Coach

How To Hold Athletes Accountable After They Break Team Rules

As a coach, you have just had a brief confrontation with an athlete about breaking some team rules. He has stormed out of practice mad and upset. Soon you are to meet with the athlete and likely will have to confront him about his behavior and discuss consequences for his actions. How would you prepare for this meeting, and what principles would you use to make this confrontation a positive meeting?

PCA Response by Lead Trainer Ruben Nieves

In terms of making the meeting "positive," I would not go into it with the mindset of a "confrontation." Rather, the goals are to calmly, firmly, clearly hold the athlete accountable, and hopefully empower him to return to the team productively. There is no one "right" way to handle a situation like this.  Here are just some ideas.

  • If you have clearly outlined consequences for the behavior, simply enforce them.  However, most coaches don't paint themselves into a corner with team rules and consequences, so that they have options for a situation like this.

  • You may ask the rest of the team what they would like to see done and what consequence they think is appropriate.  (If they struggle, you might ask them if they would like their teammate to apologize to them as part of the consequences.)

  • Just as coaches don't want to paint themselves into a corner, it's preferable not to "corner" the athlete.  If at all possible, present choices to the athlete, even if one of them is to be released from the team.  Your goal is to uphold the team standards, but give the athlete a reasonable path forward to remain a team member.

  • Remember that "positive" can still mean being firm with consequences and clear with expectations moving forward.  But it also means communicating respectfully and continuing to treat the player with dignity.  It's a beautiful thing when coaches manage behavior in this way, without yelling or losing their cool!

  • How can you best communicate to the athlete that you care about them and value them as a person?  Getting this across gives the best chance for a positive outcome.

  • At the same time, it is important that the athlete understand that you owe it to the team to uphold team rules and standards. You have a high commitment to each individual and a slightly higher commitment to the team as a whole!

  • And, a disclosure...Over my 40 years of sports coaching, I occasionally dismissed players from a team.  It was the worst part of coaching.  In many cases, I would not do it differently with hindsight.  But in even more cases, I would go back and create a path for the athlete to remain on the team.  Whether they chose to follow that path would be up to them, but at least there would be a path.

  • And, anecdotally, a player on my 2001 USA World University Games Team stormed out of practice one day yelling that he was quitting the team.  With the input of a great staff, we followed some of the ideas mentioned above.  The player returned to the team a few days later, was eventually voted team captain, and played an integral role in our Gold Medal. We didn't give him an easy path, but we did give him a path back to the team. What a fond memory I have of that player celebrating our final victory on the court by pouring his water bottle over my head!
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