13 Tips (plus a bonus one) for Coaching the Emotionally Volatile Athlete

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Some kids are deeply emotional. It’s real. They feel the highs higher and lows lower.

And some of those deeply emotional kids by nature or through practice have learned to process those big feelings internally and appropriately. But there are others for whom crying, sulking or withdrawing are the techniques of choice.

At practice, these behaviors can be difficult enough to cope with; but when they are put on the plane of a gymnastics competition where the stakes are raised and the behavior is so public, it can make even the most patient coach lose their mind.

So what is a coach to do? Here are a some tips.

Don’t expect robots. Children get to have emotions. It’s our job to teach them coping strategies, not to shut them down. At different ages and stages what amount of display of emotions you allow may vary as you certainly can expect older children to have better mastery of this skill. But, mastering emotions is a skill and it is one that coaches have to teach, like it or not. It doesn’t mean that children are immune from the consequences of their behavior, but it does mean that their feelings are very real and it is unrealistic for coaches to expect them not to have them or to be angry that they are present.

Predict problems in advance and discuss before they are problems. The best way to not have a meet meltdown is to avoid meet meltdowns by discussing expectations and how to cope with disappointments in advance. (I know, I know, terrific advice: avoid the crash by not crashing. But it’s still valid!) Talk about possible scenarios in team meetings and how kids can deal with them.   How do you handle a disappointing score or performance?   What do you do if you end up in the same rotation as your former teammates? How do you get yourself together after a rough warm up? Avoid platitudes like “shake it off” and focus on actual things the kid can do (i.e. 10 deep breaths, journal, listen to music etc.).  Again, teaching emotional regulation is part of coaching.

Empathy first. In all things: empathy first. Seeing the perspective of the child, even if you don’t agree with the perspective or think that the child should be capable of better emotional control, is the first step in finding a common ground upon which to build.  Try to remember what it felt like to be scared, disappointed or nervous.

Assume good faith and re-label the behavior.   Assume the child is doing the best they can and instead of thinking of them as a “brat” or that they are having a “tantrum,” see them for what they are: a person in distress. Again, it still might mean that you have to follow through with an unpleasant consequence like removing them from the meet, but do so without anger or resentment.

In the moment, triage only. Think less about the lesson you want to impart and more about what the child and other stakeholders might need at this moment. Can the child get their emotions under control? If not, it might be that for the greatest good for the greatest number that means the child needs to be removed from the situation until he or she can handle the big feelings.  Lessons are important to be sure, but they do not necessarily have to happen in the very moment especially if they are going to cause a larger problem.

Agree to pause the conflict and proceed “as if.”   This technique needs to be taught in advance of the conflict. Using a code word that indicates what expectation needs to be met to continue (I use “really really”) sends the message that you understand that there is a problem and that problem can be sorted out later but in order to proceed you need the athlete to act “as if” nothing happened.

Give the athlete a concrete, positive correction.  Leave vagaries like “change your attitude” or stop doing behaviors like “stop crying” off your list of ways to gain cooperation from your child.  Instead go with things the child can actually do like breathing, making eye contact or performing a drill.

Find the best way to calm each athlete. Different approaches work with each gymnast. No two children are exactly alike. Obviously what is effective for one child may not be for another. You know your athletes best. Adapt accordingly.

Involve the parent (they might be part of the solution…or part of the problem). Talk with the parents about what works best for them. While occasionally you will see their advice is what is contributing to the problem (“Why make sure my precious Susie is catered to!”), more often than not you will glean great advice from them.

Talk to athlete directly. Avoid the dreaded and in direct “group lecture.” Well meaning coaches will lecture the whole group on the behavior of one child thinking that it is a gentler way to address the problem. It isn’t. It’s actually passive aggressive and ineffective. If the child (and everyone else) knows the lecture is addressed to them, it’s just embarrassing. Or, even less effective, sometimes the child is clueless that the conversation is about them and tunes it out assuming it is meant for someone else. Yes, kids, especially teens can be pretty clueless!

Help the child see the impact of their behavior (without shaming them) and brainstorm alternatives for the future. People make mistakes. When they are our friends we are kind to them about it. When they are children or people we have power over we tend to make them feel badly.   I am not sure why we do this as we all know that shame is not a useful emotion, yet I am as guilty as the next person. In any case, be compassionate about the misstep but help the child see how their behavior hurt themselves and others. Figure out how to avoid this the next time (see point 1).

If necessary, help the child come up with a way to apologize for and fix their behavior.  Learning to say sorry and to be accountable are two of the most important life skills we can give our athletes.

Catch them being good. We hear it over and over, but catch them doing it right and heap on the compliments. When a child recovers emotionally after a tough performance, celebrate that at the next practice as much as you would celebrate a kid getting a 9.7.   As we all know, for some of our emotionally charged kiddos, holding it together is an incredibly large accomplishment!

Bonus tip: Always check yourself.   If you are upset, your athlete has touched a raw nerve or you just aren’t emotionally prepared to get into the conflict, find a way to triage and defer until you are capable of handling it.  Coaching means always, always, always that you are the professional, mature party in every conversation and conflict.  You hold power and you must always be ready to exercise that power with respect and calmly.

I’d love to know how you deal with these volatile situations.  Do you have any tips to share?