When You Want to Tear Your Hair Out: 20 Tips for Coaching Difficult Athletes

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Let’s face it. If you teach or coach long enough, inevitably you will have some students who you find irritating, abrasive or exasperating.

They might not just annoy you, but also other coaches and even their classmates or teammates. Or maybe it is just you. Either way, on the days that they aren’t there teaching is easier, more fun and maybe even more effective.

But the days they are there, they grate on you. They siphon your energy and test your patience. They might even make it so that you question if you want to carry on teaching or coaching.

Does this make you a bad coach or teacher? I don’t think so. I think it makes you human.

I do believe however, you owe it to the child, yourself as a professional and to the profession at large to find ways to rise above your feelings and find a way to positively work with these students.

Here are 20 actions that might help you make the transition from difficult to delightful student.

Ask yourself why you find this child difficult. Does she remind you of someone who you dislike? Is it really her that you find difficult or is it her parents?   Is it because she isn’t the kind of athlete you normally like to work with? Do you lack certain skills (i.e. how to motivate or deal with a fearful athlete) that make it difficult for you to teach her?

Check to see if it is just the age you find difficult. Ages and stages bring their own unique challenges. And as parents, teacher or coaches we all are better with some of those ages and stages than others. Some people thrive teaching preschoolers and cannot bare teenagers. Or vice versa. If it is a certain age that is hard for you, getting some education on what is happening with a young person at that stage might help you better relate to that age group.

Remember what it was like to be her age. Another good technique is to think about what your life was like at that child’s age. Go home and find a photo of yourself and try to recall what you were going through? What were the challenges? What did you think about your teachers and coaches? What was interaction like with your peers? What feedback made you feel good about yourself?

Think about how you can change your behavior. Stop thinking about how the child needs to change and instead focus on how you can adapt your behavior to make things better. In the last analysis, all we can control is ourselves and our reactions to things.

Fake it until you make it. Too often we wait to feel something to act a certain way. The truth is, when we begin to act a certain way, the feelings follow. Stop acting annoyed by the difficult child and instead act like you care about her.

Make sure you are at your best when you are going to be working with her. This is not the class to arrive at tired or hungry. Get plenty of rest and eat well so you can perform at an optimal level.

Re-label the child’s behaviors and motives. If a child is disrespectful or doesn’t try, it’s easy to think of them as being rude or lazy. Yet, if you think of the child as seeking attention, in pain or afraid, feelings of empathy may lead you to and find a way to support the child in working though her issues.

Use neutral language that describes the behavior, not the child. Watch the labeling and the backhanded name calling. A child is not a headcase, rather she is struggling with fear. She is not lazy, but she isn’t working to the level that you know she is capable.

Place your ego on hold. It’s frustrating when we feel that we cannot teach a child or when we feel a child is sabotaging our best efforts. Let those feelings go as they serve no purpose, because it’s not about you.

Find and focus on at least one positive trait or quality about the difficult athlete. Remind yourself before each workout what that quality is and find ways to praise the athlete for it. Make sure that you give genuine praise at least 5 times for every 1 time you say something negative or corrective.

Uncover the root cause of the behavior. While you still must discipline for negative behaviors and attitude, you also need to try to determine why the athlete is behaving this way. Talking to the parents might be useful to uncover if there is a medical issue (i.e. ADHD), a learning issue (i.e. a processing issue, a learning disability), a physical issue (i.e. hearing loss, poor vision), an emotional issue (i.e. anxiety) or a life circumstance (i.e. birth of new sibling, divorce, death of a loved one) that is influencing the behavior.

Work to become more familiar with the athlete. Learn about her as a person. Remember, the single most important thing an athlete needs to know to thrive is that her coach cares about her. What’s her favorite color? Does she have a pet? What does she like doing outside of gym? Does she have a favorite sports team? You might find that you both love green, have a cat and think the Lakers are the greatest thing ever.

Give the athlete some responsibly. Make that athlete your line leader, team greeter or special assistant. That extra boost of confidence might be just what she needs.

Have a heart to heart conversation. If the child is old enough, pull her aside after practice and explain to her that want to be the best possible coach to her. Let her know that you care about her and even when you are frustrated with her behavior that does not mean you don’t care about her.

Set clear rules and standards and reinforce them consistently. It might be tempting to ignore the difficult student. Please don’t. It does not benefit the athlete or the other athletes in the group to allow bad behavior to go unchecked.

Refrain from arguing, lecturing or yelling. If you argue with your athletes, you place yourself on the same level with them instead of retaining a position of authority. Lecturing and yelling makes all of the kids in the group like you less or feel distrustful of you and it seldom works.

Commit to keeping your cool. No matter what. Allowing a difficult athlete to get you to a point that you are not able to contain your own emotions is unprofessional. If you are getting to your boiling point, ask another coach to supervise your group so you can get yourself together.

Let go of grudges and bad feelings. Holding on to bad feelings from past interactions with this athlete serves no purpose except to keep you stuck in the past. Wipe the slate clean and start over. Every week, day or even rotation if that is what you need to do.

If all else fails, own that you might not be the right fit and have the courage to let the child move on. While I hope it does not come to this, you owe it to the child to let her move on if you simply are the wrong person to work with her.

In the last analysis, as it is true for most things in life, it comes down to this: relationships.

Working hard to establish a relationship that is safe, respectful and trustworthy and is based in affection and caring is the key to working with anyone successfully.

When you create that rapport then you are able to teach and coach. You are able to influence positive change. You are able to impact not just their education or athletic development but their life.

Remember: you might be the only person who takes the time to see past that difficult, sulky, stubborn, disrespectful, unmotivated person to find the goodness in her. You have the power to radically change the way she feels about herself and alter the course of her life as well as the lives of all those around her.

As Henry Brooks Adams said, “A teacher affects eternity. You can never tell where his influence stops.”