Use these ideas to help manage players who challenge your team culture.

Most athletes do their best to avoid being disruptive, but every coach has encountered their fair share of challenging players. Next time this happens, consider using these tips to improve the situation.

Make sure everyone on the team is engaged

Kids, particularly younger ones, have a lot of energy and short attention spans. Keep your practices active and get every player involved. When running drills, aim to pair or group together players of similar skill levels. Every player will feel challenged, but not intimidated.

Also consider including small group work in your practices. This can bring shy players out of their shell while ensuring disruptive players are kept busy.

Every player is unique—your behavior expectations shouldn't be 

Getting to know your players is an important part of coaching. Everyone has different on-field and off-field strengths, motivations and unique personalities. But when it comes to behavior, your expectations should be standard across the board. 

“You have to be consistent in your messaging. If that is your core principle, your core value, then everything has to be in alignment with that,” Gabe Infante, head football coach at St. Joseph Prep (Pa.), said. “I think it’s very easy sometimes to lose focus. Sometimes you become emotional about things and you lose the consistency of the message. It takes practice.” 

It’s no secret good players sometimes feel like they can get away with subpar behavior because of their skill. At the same time, weaker players may take a lazier approach because they don’t feel like they’re contributing. It’s important everyone on the team understands how you expect them to behave. Be consistent, no matter who breaks the rules.

Reward good behavior with positive reinforcement

When players act out, it’s often because they want attention. So the best option might not be to call them out for it or make them run laps. Instead, pull them aside and have a one-on-one conversation to address their behavior. They won't be the focus of attention, but you're still addressing the situation.

You'll also want to avoid only scolding players, unless they’re putting themselves or others at risk. Try pairing compliments with constructive criticism. Encouragement is often more effective than doling out punishment. 

“A lot of young people can be resistant to coaching. They mistake coaching for criticism when in reality what the coach is trying to do is just help them get better. It’s really a partnership between the coach and the player,” Shaka Smart, head basketball coach at the University of Texas, said. Punishment has its place, just be sure players understand exactly what they did wrong so they know how to avoid it in the future.

"We’re the first time that a parent hears that their son isn’t good enough. How you deliver that and how you handle your players and how you develop respect and trust with your players is where it all starts.” Gabe Infante, head football coach at St. Joseph Prep (Pa.)

Don’t forget about the parents 

Make sure your players’ parents understand the rules and expectations you have for the team. While parents can help keep their kids in line, you might find difficult parents just as common as difficult players. 

Kids pick up a lot from the adults in their lives, so encourage the parents on your sideline to be good sports. Don’t be afraid to tactfully tell them if their behavior is a negative influence on your team. “A coach’s job, in my opinion, is very much the same as that of a parent—to prepare your children to live life without you,” Infante said. 

The other key to strong parent-coach relationships is open lines of communication. Set ground rules such as 'wait 24 hours after a contest to talk to me about it,’ but let them know you're available to address their concerns.

Keep your cool even when you’re frustrated

Staying calm is easier said than done, but it can go a long way when it comes to dealing with difficult players. You'll be able to make better decisions on behalf of your whole team.

Try to understand why the challenging players on your squad might be acting out without letting them monopolize your time. Listen to their concerns and consider the challenges they may be facing at home or at school. You may not be able to fix their problems, but they'll appreciate your effort to meet them halfway. 

And when it's time to focus on the team, they'll be ready. “We had a team meeting in the locker room and I said, ‘Guys, from this point forward we clear the mechanism,’” Steve Specht, head football coach at St. Xavier (Ohio), said. 

“I don’t want to worry about what your grade in biology is or the issues you’re having with your girlfriend or any problems. When we set foot on this field, for two hours we clear the mechanism and we have fun.”

Want more tips on how to ensure players buy in to your coaching philosophy? Check out our comprehensive guide to reaching full program alignment