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Sports coaching: The secrets to building a more productive relationship with problem players | Coaching Youth (age 13-18) | ConnectedCoaches

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Home » Groups » Coaching Youth (age 13-18) » blogs » Blake Richardson » The secrets to building a more productive relationship with problem players
Coaching Youth (age 13-18)

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The secrets to building a more productive relationship with problem players

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Gary Fowler

Gary Fowler (pictured) is frustrated that he cannot make the same developmental strides with every player he coaches. The attitude of one individual has further hampered his quest. Answering his plea for help, fellow ConnectedCoaches member Ceri Bowley claims no player is ‘uncoachable’, and offers some strategies that will help you manage your expectations and cultivate a healthy team dynamic.

  • Coaches are there to improve their players, and develop them all equally, both as performers and individuals.
  • This means having to develop a range of unique and sometimes very different relationships – which is not easy.
  • Take time to really get to know your players and develop a positive relationship.
  • In striving to develop the person before the player, you must understand the individual that you are trying to develop – their motivations and needs.
  • Once these have been established, you can begin to identify what you can do as a coach to help each individual get better. This may or may not be sport-specific, and each player will likely want/need something different.
  • You should not give up on anyone, regardless of what you perceive them to be like. Each player deserves an equal amount of your time.

Under-17 football coach Gary Fowler has been battling with a moral dilemma for much of the season.

It has left him querying what the integral ingredients are to becoming a good coach. There is some blurring of the lines, as far as he is concerned, when it comes to the interpretation of what effective coaching in older teens at grass-roots level looks like.

Gary is passionate about his own professional development, seeing it as fundamental to accomplishing his overriding goal of helping his players achieve a level they wouldn’t be able to reach on their own.

So, after tying himself up in knots, he requested some help from the ConnectedCoaches community to disentangle him from his dilemma.

Recognising unrealistic expectations and accepting that you cannot get the desired improvement from all of your players, all of the time, is at the root of his misgivings.

Simultaneously, he has been toying with how to manage situations when a lack of effort shown by certain individuals begins to have a detrimental effect on the team dynamic.

Or as a recent ConnectedCoaches thread asked: How do you determine who is a coachable (uncoachable) athlete?

Gary questions whether he is failing himself and his players if he makes a miscalculation over the time and effort he gives those who want to learn compared to those whose concentration and dedication do not match their potential. It is a careful balance, and he is forever teetering between the two.

‘You feel as if you should be able to make the same amount of difference, within reason, for every player. It’s very frustrating when it seems like you are restricted from doing that,’ says Gary.

‘It can be disappointing too as you can see the potential in them and know that, if they could change their mindset, then they could really go places.’

Coaching, as we all know, is complex and diverse, and the general consensus seems to be that the autonomous coach, rather than the automaton, inspires greater all-round development.

But what happens when you are an autonomous coach – independent-minded, emotionally intelligent, able to think on your feet, adapt your coaching to different situations, and put on consistently creative, fun and engaging sessions... and still hit problems?

Good eggs and bad apples

Gary reveals the timeline of events that has resulted in him questioning his belief ‘that we have it in us to make a similar impact on all athletes we work with’.

‘Earlier in the season, I benched our captain for two matches, explained why, and he took the challenge and came back stronger – determined to prove he could push on to another level.

‘Another player came to me more recently, frustrated after a poor match. We discussed at length what he could be doing, and like player one, he took ownership of his development, and it worked.

‘Player three is the opposite end of the spectrum. He was dropped and then didn’t bother turning up. He never seeks feedback and doesn’t do anything with it when it is offered. We’ve tried everything, but there is zero difference. His work rate is appalling, and it is clear to coaches, teammates and parents.

‘The child’s own parents are as bad and have disputed recorded facts on playing time, training attendance etc.

‘I want to know if other coaches have insight into the sport and non-sport factors that affect the individual and the coachee-coach relationship, and the effect this has on the team dynamic.’

The expectation is that coaches are there to improve their players, but is it realistic to expect coaches to develop them all equally, both as players and as individuals?

Occasionally, there will be players who don’t respond to your conventional, tried and trusted methods. To be blunt, they may come across as lazy and even disruptive. Not everyone can be as easily moulded.

‘If you’ve got half of your squad pushing themselves to the limit every week and who look for feedback, you’ve got to give that 50% more than 50% of your time and effort because they are searching for it from you. However, you can’t completely ignore the other half because they are part of the squad too. How do you balance that out?’

Prioritise person over player

Performance coach and ConnectedCoaches member Dr Ceri Bowley is a Regional Coach Mentor with The Football Association and a Coaching Science and Psychology Researcher and Practitioner. And while he sympathises with the difficulties coaches face in striving to achieve consistent improvement from their players and a universal buy-in to their training methods, he also has some words of encouragement for those who, at times, feel like tearing their hair out.

‘Coaching is without doubt a complex process, and Gary’s experiences highlight this,’ says Ceri.

‘What I will say is that, working with a squad of 16 players, you have to develop 16 unique and sometimes very different relationships – and that’s not easy.

‘One fundamental element of my philosophy is to develop the person before the player, and in order to do this, you must understand the individual that you are trying to develop. Take time to really get to know your players.’

Ceri suggests coaches ask themselves the following questions of each member of their team:

  • Why do they play football (or whichever sport it is you coach)?
  • Why do they play for your team and not another club?
  • What motivates them (competition or enjoyment)?
  • What are their ambitions?
  • What do they expect of you as the coach and of the team?

‘Similarly,’ he adds, ‘what do the parents expect of you, and why have they brought their sons or daughters to your club?

‘Once these have been established, you can begin to identify what you can do as a coach to help each individual get better. This may or may not be football-specific, and each player will likely want/need something different.’

Adopting and persevering with this ‘person before player’ development philosophy will help you tune in to their individual learning journeys as the season unfolds.

It is a strategy Arsene Wenger holds dear. Ceri recalls a quote from the Arsenal manager: ‘When a coach works with people, he must understand what makes them work – without this, you will never get the individual to be productive.’

He recommends coaches hold a session at the beginning of the season where players (and possibly parents too) focus on defining what the characteristics of the team are going to be.

‘This can serve a couple of purposes,’ says Ceri. ‘Firstly, players are more likely to reinforce what they have agreed – thus managing situations like a perceived lack of effort themselves; and, secondly, it provides a focus when it comes to planning your sessions.’

An all-round education

An important part of any coach’s job is to help their players better understand themselves and their relationship with others.

Coaches will come across many ‘player threes’ in their careers, who may not be as emotionally intelligent as others in the team, and lack self-awareness – they just don’t see in themselves what other people see in them.

The reasons for this are manifold. As Andrew Beavan states in the Coachable/Uncoachable thread linked to above, individual characteristics (age, personal experience, home life, performance level, personality, physical characteristics), coupled with psychological make-up, can all shape coaches’ perceptions of who is coachable.

In the case of individuals with fixed mindsets whose effort is proving a cause for concern, they may have become accustomed to being rewarded for doing well, but never praised for their resilience and commitment so have grown up not recognising these as valuable traits.

The upshot is a refusal to challenge themselves, it being an alien concept to them, having always believed they can get by on talent alone.

As Gary says of ‘player three’: ‘It’s almost as if he has accepted that this is the level in which he can stand out, that he’s happy being a better player in a small pond – happy playing at that level against okay players, and being a stand-out, rather than struggling against stronger players where he will have to put in more effort.’

With team morale slowly eroding, is it unreasonable for Gary to contemplate expelling the player?

Ceri is adamant that it is, and that you shouldn’t give up on anyone, regardless of what you perceive them to be like.

Gary says: ‘It’s not something I would ever like to do. It is a club environment so I want them to have that social interaction with their pals, and I want them to develop as young men, but it’s got to the stage now where the other players and the parents have said that it looks like he doesn’t care. I can’t play him in games and stunt somebody else’s playing time or development. It’s not fair on them.’

I recently spotted a tweet on my timeline that reinforced the view that, if at first you don’t succeed, try and try again. It read: ‘When a child is learning to walk and falls down 50 times, they never think to themselves: Maybe this isn’t for me,’ complete with cute picture of a beaming, air-bound toddler a split second before the palms of their hands hit the living room floor.

The same principle can surely be applied to coaching.

Time is your enemy

Ceri goes on to offer some more strategies to help coaches work round the difficulties highlighted.

He admits that the problems are exacerbated when you factor in the brief time grass-roots coaches get to spend with their players.

It is unrealistic, he agrees, to expect them to be able to radically change an individual’s mentality and behaviour over the course of a few sessions when you see that player for perhaps one hour a week, and in a group environment where everyone is competing for the coach’s attention.

But solutions do exist.

‘Grass-roots coaching is constrained by many things, none more so than time,’ he says.

‘In reference to Gary’s point about wondering where he should invest his time and should more attention be given to those perceived as wanting to learn – for me, any player who attends training/matches, and pays the same membership, deserves an equal amount of your time.

‘I agree, this can be very challenging, particularly within a session of maybe an hour or hour and a half.

‘One strategy I encourage is to set a learning outcome for the whole group, something that every player can benefit from and have the opportunity to learn within the session, and then focus your efforts on supporting maybe four players within the session.

‘This will allow you to manage and support the group through practices that will challenge them as individuals and a collective, while allowing you to be more specific in your observations, challenges and support of the four individuals (on rotation from session to session).’

Ceri also recommends communicating with your players on the telephone – although he recognises this may be difficult for some coaches due to work and family commitments.

The nature of his job means he spends a lot of time in the car, and he uses these hours productively.

‘I spend a lot of time on the phone to individual players in terms of reinforcing key points, getting the players’ perspective on things, and always seeking their feedback as a way to develop our relationship. I like to think that, because of that, I am getting a better idea of the players I work with.’

Parental support

Condoned and unchecked, any fixed traits become more established and more onerous to reverse, the older the player gets.

And the challenge multiplies if the parents aren’t onside.

‘If children are being told at home they are one of the strongest players, and should start every week, then how is the kid meant to know that they have to put the effort in at training to warrant selection?’ says Gary.

‘You can’t keep validating that behaviour as that’s telling 15 other kids that it’s okay to behave like this.’

Ceri admits that parents can be ‘a difficult bunch’, but he has an antidote.

‘I always ask the question of myself and other coaches that I work with, “What do you do to develop that relationship?” Is it just a “hello” on match days, or do you actually share with them what you want to do? Quite often, the response I get is, “no”.

‘One club I work with in Bristol have started giving their debrief after the game in front of the parents so that there is no breakdown in communication and they don’t get a different version from the players at home.

‘Parents coaching from the touchline can be an issue. What has happened in Bristol is that, even when they do get vocal from the sidelines, it is at least consistent with the coach’s message.’

Calling all coaches

The moral of the story: there is a solution to every problem.

Perhaps you can offer some of your own tips to help other frustrated coaches find ways of building players’ understanding of what effort looks like.

Have you benefited, for example, from asking players to give themselves an effort grade after a session?

Rather than singling anyone out, make it a squad self-assessment task. You can discuss the results with the players individually before the next session, and encourage them to beat their last score.

Have you tried videoing your sessions so you have clear evidence to show those who aren’t pulling their weight?

Have you tried modifying your language so you compliment rather than criticise during drills? So, ‘Poor penalty. Do it again but better’ becomes ‘That’s a great penalty. If it wasn’t for John being the best keeper in the league, that would have burst the net.’

Or perhaps you disagree with Ceri’s philosophy and have a different take on how to deal with problem players.

You can leave your thoughts in the comment box below.

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Comments (1)


Excellent article, highlighting the importance of knowing motivators and inherent values of your athletes, as well as the importance of developing individualised coach-athlete relationships. Nicely links to the complexity of the coaching process and points to the fact that different athletes respond differently to coaching practice, both within and across sessions, and coaches should aim to be receptive to this...

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