Problematic Teammates (Part II): How Coaches Can Improve Athlete Behavior

Gregg-Wilson-UCSB

In the April issue of Swimming World Magazine, Michael Stott presents the second part of his look at problematic teammates, and how coaches can improve poor or disruptive behavior.

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Personnel issues in the corporate world usually fall under the purview of a human resources professional, someone trained in the delicate art of human and appropriate behavior. In swim team environments, that responsibility often falls on the coach, who may or may not be so schooled.

Previously, Swimming World shared the thoughts of the Heidary brothers, Don and Ron, at Orinda Aquatics, widely considered among the foremost authorities on team culture and character. In this second article on problematic teammates, we take a deeper dive into how coaches navigate the behaviors of difficult teammates.

ON-THE-JOB TRAINING

George Kennedy swam for the University of North Carolina, was a seven-time NCAA Division III coach of the year and mentored 31 national champions in 31 years at Johns Hopkins. He now serves as an assistant at Loyola University-Maryland.

A physical education major at UNC, early on Kennedy was ill-equipped to address team culture and character issues: “Years ago when a problematic teammate would act out, I would take it personally, read the riot act to them, challenge them to be a better teammate and do so without strategies to improve,” he says. “As I started to lose athletes who questioned me or our program, I began to address their issues. I believe that most people act out because of some underlying cause not related to a practice or a meet,” he says.

“So, without a psych degree, I thought I could talk them into being a great teammate. During this time, I would do most of the talking and get limited results. Then, I started to listen and hear what they had to say, and also listen with ‘my eyes.’ I found the first 30 seconds of addressing the issue usually made the difference in getting improvement—or not.

“I also learned that I needed to provide opportunities for attitude improvement within a team setting. That meant giving opportunities to self-improve in ways that enhanced our team/coach/athlete philosophy of:

• Being honest (with self, coach, teammates)
• Improving as a person, student, athlete
• Having fun
• Doing your best—always!

“A hospital counselor taught me about narrative therapy, which places an emphasis on how one phrases a question to help someone work through an issue. Ask questions in a way that give a ‘glimmer of hope’ to self-correct. Based on experiences and mistakes I have made, I recommend this approach to any young coach,” says Kennedy.

“I always saved hard ball as a last resort, but always ensuring my approach was for the good. In the fall of 2009, we were a ‘drinking team with a swimming problem.’ The administration and I got tired of addressing off-deck team issues. As a result, we left 38 athletes home for our fall trip to powerhouse Kenyon, took only a roster of 13 and got humbled. It took time to heal, but from then on until I retired, my teams understood the “line in the sand”—cross this, and your season is in jeopardy. Thankfully, leaders emerged from within, and my final years at JHU were among my most enjoyable,” he says.

BUILDING A SUSTAINABLE PATH FORWARD

Following an All-American career at the University of Texas, Katie Robinson has been a college coach at Virginia, Rutgers and Tulane. She is now director of swimming and diving at Northwestern…and knows something about character and winning cultures.

“Whenever teammates have issues with each other,” she says that “it’s important to avoid triangulation that can trickle out to other teammates and cause more harm and turmoil. Coaches can provide empathy, but must avoid ‘taking sides,’” she cautions. “Moderated conversations can be useful if both team members are up for it and agree to using ‘I statements.’”

She cites Don Miguel Ruiz’s best-selling book, Four Agreements, as a terrific resource for dealing with uncomfortable matters. “Many times we skip communication and make assumptions when we see the behaviors of others,” she says. “Remember we cannot place intention on someone else’s behavior. That’s because we have our own lens of experiences and intentions that create our biases. So many times issues arise from our own biases ascribing behaviors of others when in fact it is simply miscommunication.

“On our team, we highlight the importance of owning mistakes and authentically apologizing so that forward movement is possible for all parties. We also talk about intent vs. impact. While some intentions are benign, the impact on another can be harmful and call for an apology and clear communication to minimize future harm.

“With any behavior that is outside the boundaries of what we expect on the team, we have conversations to figure out what’s really going on. So many times, it tends to be outside factors that are unsettling and stressful for the student-athlete. Listening to them and allowing them to speak freely is helpful to build a trusting relationship. From there, we’ve been able to build a sustainable path forward that has some compromises, but ultimately helps the team and the individual as well,” she says.

A SHARED SET OF EXPECTATIONS REGARDING BEHAVIOR

Two-time NISCA president and Hall of Fame member Dana Abbott continues to coach, currently at St. John XXIII College Preparatory in Katy, Texas. Like Robinson, he spent time on the deck at the University of Texas, in his case, absorbing the wisdom and insight of Edwin Charles Reese.

“When swimmers walk into practice, we have absolutely no idea what has gone on in their lives since we last saw them,” he says. “Their mood or attitude may have been affected by something that happened at home, on the bus, in the hallway, at lunch, in another class. These days, events, attitudes and emotions can get triggered by the mere mention of a few words or a photograph on any of the various social media platforms to which kids are addicted. We coaches just don’t know, except when we are alerted by another swimmer who is concerned and who cares. That’s what happens on a day-by-day basis.

“But sometimes there is an overarching theme, a persistent display of attitude or behavior that may stem from a variety of reasons. We will sometimes have a team member who is egocentric or more concerned with their personal success or attention than putting the team first. We encounter team members who break training or other team rules or expectations. We have emotional flare-ups or simmering disenchantment between those with love issues. I personally have had more experience and trouble with boyfriend-girlfriend events than others, and although that doesn’t make me an expert, it does seem to have more high emotion attached to it.

“I’ve learned there needs to be a shared set of expectations regarding behavior, and clear consequences for infractions or problems. Many teams have worked hard to develop a code of conduct for the swimmers and parents in club situations. (See last month’s article, ‘Problematic Teammates-Part 1,’ for the quintessential exploration regarding character and team culture.)

“In professional and amateur team sports, there are often provisions for incidental, intentional, flagrant fouls. The need to have a sliding scale—or discretion—in categorizing and dealing with such fouls can go a long way in maintaining fairness regarding consequences, as well as contributing to the prevention of violations in the first place.

“Years ago, I had a sophomore who was ‘high-spirited.’ His energy translated into mischief at times—sometimes typical horseplay and kidding around, but sometimes out of bounds. Two incidents led him to be put on a behavior contract. When he failed to comply, we dismissed him from the team and did not allow him to compete as a junior.

“At the beginning of his senior year—with more than 365 days to reflect upon his actions and the consequences—he had done some maturing. He requested a meeting, and we had one of the deepest, most contrite and character-revealing conversations in my coaching career.

“The boy really wanted to swim and contribute, be a leader and atone for his past transgressions. We allowed him back on probationary status and let his actions speak for themselves. He was a model citizen. He had grown up, worked as hard or harder than anyone else on the team, and displayed true positive leadership. At the district meet he was so focused, he won the 200 free in school-record time—from Lane 8.”

IT’S ABOUT THE TEAM

Gregg Wilson coached at the University of California, Santa Barbara from 1975 to 2016. In that time, like Abbott, he had an athlete who liked to go his own way.

In Wilson’s case, the young man (Jason Lezak) ultimately became a four-time Olympian and eight-time medalist. “With Jason, when things were good with him, he was fine. When they weren’t, he just shut down,” says Wilson. “We went two years dealing with him, trying to make the most of it. My coaches and I recognized he was potentially our best swimmer, yet he just did his own thing. We tried everything, and when that didn’t work, we pulled the plug on him.

“Twice we turned him down when he wanted to come back. We finally accepted him when he presented a signed contract. After he came back, he never lost a dual meet race. He qualified for NCAAs and was an All-American his junior and senior years. What he and I learned was that no one was above the program. As good as Jason was, his presence wasn’t worth it because he was tearing down a significant part of the team. Jason, the best relay swimmer the U.S. has ever had, helped me as a coach. You’ve got to go out on a limb sometimes. It was a tough decision, but letting him go turned out to be the right one,” says Wilson.

“At UCSB, I learned a lot,” says Lezak—“that it is not about me, but about the team. I wasn’t doing what it took to be on that team, so Gregg removed me. I wanted to be a part of it; those were my friends, and I had to show I deserved it, that I cared enough about those people to do certain things asked of me. And when I did that, I took my swimming to another level,” he says.

Epiphanies come in many forms. Sometimes from a gentle hand, a concerned voice, a kick in the rear. All three can be life changing and a path to better character and contribution to positive team culture.

Michael J. Stott is an ASCA Level 5 coach, golf and swimming writer. His critically acclaimed coming-of-age golf novel, “Too Much Loft,” was published in June 2021, and is available from store.Bookbaby.com, Amazon, B&N and book distributors worldwide.

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