All Sports

5 Tips for Dealing with Difficult Players

Ideas to help you manage players that challenge your team culture.

Though most athletes do their best to avoid being disruptive, chances are you’ve encountered your fair share of challenging players. Next time this occurs consider implementing 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. Make sure your practices stay active and that every player gets involved. When running drills, aim to pair up 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. It can help bring shy players out of their shell, or ensure that disruptive players are kept busy doing something productive rather than distracting their teammates.

Every player is unique, but behavior expectations should be universal 

Getting to know your players is an important part of coaching. They all have different on-field and off-field strengths, are motivated by different things and have unique personalities. While your players are all different, 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 that 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 that everyone on the team understands how you expect them to behave. Rules must be consistently enforced, no matter who breaks them.

Use positive reinforcement by rewarding good behavior

When players act out, it’s often because they want attention. The best option isn’t to make them run, or call them out in front of everyone. Pull them aside and have a one on one conversation with them. That way, they aren’t the focus of attention, and you are still addressing the situation.

Also avoid simply scolding players, unless of course they’re putting themselves or others at risk. Instead, pair compliments with constructive criticism. Encouraging players is often a more effective way to connect with them 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. Still, punishment has its place. Just be sure that players understand exactly what they did wrong so they can avoid doing it again.

"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 that you have for your team. While parents can sometimes help keep their kids in line, the truth is that difficult parents are 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, and don’t be afraid to tactfully tell them if their behavior is hurting 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 for building strong relationships with parents is keeping an open line of communication. Set ground rules such as ‘wait 24 hours after a contest to talk to me about it,’ but let them know that you are there for any concerns they may have.

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. Some kids may be aiming to get a rise out of you, but keeping your cool will allow you to make better decisions on behalf of your whole team.

Don’t let the challenging players on your squad monopolize your time, but try to understand why they might be acting out. Listen to their concerns rather than simply dismissing them, and consider the challenges they may be facing at home or at school. Though you may not be able to fix all their problems, they may appreciate your effort to meet them halfway.

“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).  “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.”