This is the second part in a four part series on player-based bullying in youth sport.
“Wait ’til we get to the locker room!” He hissed, threateningly, into the back of “Joe’s” neck. “You’ll get your justice.” He put an exclamation point on his statement with a shoulder into “Joe’s” side as he passed him on the lap.
We were running sprints, the entire team, as punishment for Joe’s snide remarks to coach. He and coach never got along. They were oil and water, and Joe had spent the better part of the season creating a faction of players on the team who hated coach and were continually displaying disobedience. Coach had his share of loyal players too.
This was a constant battle during training, on the bench, at team meals, and especially in the locker room. Coach’s “golden boys” would try to force Joe’s traitors into submission. The message was always very clear.
“If you are against coach, you are against us. We will make you submit.”
Of course, this behavior was tearing the cultural fabric of our team into tattered pieces and it began to affect our game performance. We had hit a slump, upsetting coach even more, and setting the factions war. Coach’s loyalists were the bigger, stronger, popular players. The starters and the stars. Joe’s group were the kids who did not respond well to coach’s style and methods. They were the bench sitters. It had less to do with skill level, and more to do with their inability to adhere to the dominant cultural norm of the team.
The scenario would play out the same as it always did, especially because we all got punished for Joe’s mouth this time. We would finish our sprints, stumble into the locker room, and then “justice” would be served…all in the name of coach. “Submit or pay the price”.
This scenario is more common than many would think. Especially in the high pressure, wins matter arenas of elite level, high school, and even collegiate teams. Coaches have very unique personalities and methods. They tend to cause high emotional reactions in their players. Being a coach can be a love/hate world. Your players either love you or they hate you if you are pushing you to the edge of your comfort zone.
I don’t necessarily think it needs to be that way. I strongly believe you can elicit excellence from players without ever creating a hatred toward you as the coach. The fact remains, though, that on many playing fields the team splits in one of three unique ways:
- They all love coach
- They all dislike coach
- Half of them are unwaveringly loyal and the other half hold a deep disgust
The teams that are split, tend to give rise to a unique type of bullying. One that is typically led by the leaders themselves. The leaders charge into battle carrying the coach banner and take note of those who lag along behind, not wanting to support the cause.
I was on one side in my career. The leader who watched his fellow leaders exact swift retribution for disobedience. I was always too much of a rule follower to cross lines. I did, stand by idly, though, while the punishments were doled out on the non-loyalists. They were never terrible punishments, but enough for those being punished to know they were being bullied. As a “boys will be boys” 80s/90s kid, I assumed this was normal and “a rite of passage”. This is how teams function. Am I right?
This was until I was on the receiving end. This was until I played on a team where I did not click with coach’s methods. I did not resonate well with his style and, though not overtly disobedient (again, rule follower), I did make it clear I was not “team coach.” I refused to take part in loyalty displays, I refused to join in the “boys will be boys” behavior encouraged by coach. I also did not hang out with my teammates away from the field because I could not agree with them. I could not support the coaching style and I was failing miserably under it. I was in a backspin and wanted to get away from it all when I had down time.
This did not go unnoticed by my teammates and I experienced my own bullying hell. Mainly words. Sometimes my gear tossed in the showers. Sometimes items taken from my locker. I felt under an attack I couldn’t defend and couldn’t escape. I felt weak. Coach had no idea what I was going through. He had no idea that because I chose to be on the non-coach side I was being bullied by the loyalists. Some of my most painful sport memories come from that stretch in time, and it had nothing to do with bad coaching or bad parenting.
It had to do with a warped team culture that needed some guidance.
As I said, this usually occurs more in the crucible of elite level play, but it can also appear even in the youngest or non-competitive teams. If you see the skew of the team personality beginning to split into factions based on who loves coach and who doesn’t this is how you can prevent it from becoming the pervasive culture.
First off, if this is driven by the coach…a fear monger who pits player against player in irrational and wicked ways to “get them to respond”, find a new team. No results are worth it. There are coaches out there who build team culture and get the same, or better, results. Creating player on player bullying is not a coaching method. It is reprehensible.
- Never get between the players. This is their sport. We had our chance to lead teams, to be the center of attention, and to be a part of something special. Now is their turn and you should not be in the middle of it. Let them have their teammates as their own, and you remain the coach. We always say to parents “you can be there parent or their friend, but you can’t be both”. Well, you can be their coach or their teammate, but you cannot be both. Your players need a united cause, a shared mission, a mutual respect that cannot be achieved if you are driving wedges between them. Do not pit them against each other in ways that drives them apart. Competition is healthy and needed. Rankings have been shown to work in teams like Anson Dorrance’s UNC Women’s teams. Battling for a spot is common. Telling one player they are weaker than another. gossiping about players to teammates, controlling the relationships between players is not healthy. They are a unit. A team. They need to be on the same page. Let them have their team only activities. Let them have their team only conversations. Make it clear there is a line between you and them.
- Use WE language. Listen to coaches talk. Great coaches tend to say “they” or “we” when discussing players. They put the team first and foremost above themselves. The center of attention is on the participants and not the spectator during games. On the reverse side, notice some coaches use “I” when discussing wins, decisions, tactics. As if they were the sole reason for success. As if they sat on the sidelines with a joystick during that big game and manauvered each player to ensure success. This has nothing to do with the players, but everything to do with the coach. When you use “I” language, or take ownership of their experiences, and especially, their successes, you are driving that wedge between them. Some will be able to justify this and will see you as the savior. They will rely on you and not on their own abilities, because they are nothing without your greatness. They will also fiercely defend this position. Anyone not drinking the “coach is the greatest” Kool-aid must be punished into submission. We language promotes the team as a whole. It tells the players “this experience is yours”. It guides them to realize that their is excellence lies in the who.e. The greater good matters more than the individual needs and eclipses coach. We are merely guides, advisors, mentors. They need to own this process together. As an advisor provides knowledge, support, counsel to a company but does not run the day to day, so too must a coach. If they see it more s a “we” situation, the chances of factions popping up are much lower. It’s not about you, it’s about them.
- Avoid showing favorites. This is a tough one, because no matter how hard you try, you will show favorites. You will choose certain line ups. You will point to specific players during moments of need. You will call upon the superiority of some players for the sake of the team. They expect that to happen, but leave the favorites to the run of play. If you show favorites in training, in the locker room, at team meals, they notice and they adopt these behaviors. If you only praise a small group of players in training and ignore the efforts of others, they will do the same. If you only interact with and show humanity toward a few players and act as if you are too good for the rest, they will follow that cultural trigger. I see this all the time. I hear it too. Players confide in me “my coach only likes ‘so and so’ and only cares about her” is a very common conversation starter at my camps. If the player being marginalized it can see, you better believe so too can the players being put on pedestals and this drives a huge wedge between the team unit. When it comes to treating your players with respect, you treat them all the same. Play who you have to, and call on who you need to for penalty kicks, but when you communicate with your players make sure you are universal in your respect.
- Enforce team values. (again) We discussed this in the last article. I cannot stress the importance of an Unrivaled team culture and clear team values. Teams who have shared values and a strong culture that reflects those values do not have bullying. Values are the delivery mechanism for the culture of a team. You need them to ensure the culture is understood and adhered to by all on the team. Clearly articulate your values and provide players means for expressing them through habits of excellence and you will avoid factions arising. Look to enforce “you” and “us” values that focus on the interaction and collaboration between your players. Values such as gratitude, respect, empathy are “you” values that dictate the relationship between players. Values such as excellence, trust, accountability are the values players share in order to accomplish the greater goals of the club. If you are promoting these kind of values with your players, you are developing a strong team-based culture that is immune to the bullying that occurs when players splinter into factions. There is no faction in a culture with a shared mission and shared values driving that mission.
As coaches and parents, our focus needs to be on allowing players to create a unified culture, a shared mission. We have to ensure that the players are a “we” unit and not an “us” versus “them” unit by creating an environment that embraces the whole over individuals and removes the coach from the equation. This is their time to play. Let them have their team and you remain the guide to greatness.