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Problem Athletes

The goal is to turn problems into opportunities. 

Effective coaches understand, while the team is ultimately what's important, the team is made up of a group of individuals, with individual needs, individual personalities, and individual problems. 

The name is the game is flexibility. Being flexible doesn't mean changing the rules for different athletes, any more than fairness means treating everyone exactly alike. Team rules and standards must remain consistent. On the other hand, knowledge of and respect for the makeup of each individual can be key to reaching that athlete. 

Some athletes are fun to coach, while others create problems for themselves, or worse, for the team. Most coaches have had one or more athletes they have found difficult to handle. Others have known athletes whose psychological makeup limited their capacity to enjoy the sport experience or to perform up to their potential. 

Without attention, problems or emotional difficulties can negatively affect the success and enjoyment of coaches, players, and families alike. A sensitive and informed coach can promote a sports experience that helps the athlete learn new attitudes and problem-solving skills that improve personal adjustment. The demands of sport, coupled with a sensitive, caring coach can help build character in a manner that very few other settings can. 

"The most important part of Little League has nothing to do with baseball."

H.E. Pohlman, former Washington Little League District 8 administrator

"Problem athletes" fall into a number of different groups. Below we'll describe some of the common types, and proven methods in working with, and helping such athletes. 



One of the most frustrating problems to work with is the athlete who resists coaching. These athletes often will not listen to instructions or follow them, or they insist on doing things their way. Sometimes their resistance is expressed as open defiance and insistence that they know better than you how things should be done. In other cases, their resistance is never openly expressed but comes out indirectly. They may nod as if they're listening, then perform the action in opposition of your direction. 


The natural tendency is a "shape up or else" attitude on behalf of the coach. Sometimes this solves the problem, but it is best to do this only as a last resort, especially if you are concerned with helping the athlete, not just improving performance. In the long run, what will help the athlete the most will likely be the development of a positive relationship with the coach, as an authority figure; be caring and trustworthy. Early on, consider saying something like, "I have a hunch you've had some problems with people in authority in the past, and that these problems are coming out in this situation. I hope you'll find me to be a different person than the one(s) you had issues with, but that may take time. In the meantime, I expect you to do what you're supposed to do, just like everyone else, and the amount of playing time you'll get will depend on that. If you have a question about why we're doing something my way, feel free to ask me about it, but do so at a time and place that doesn't interfere with the practice or game." 


Then, the key is to follow up with heavy reinforcement when the desired behavior occurs. 



Often the biggest problem with these athletes is one, or both parents share the personality. These athletes are selfish and wrapped up in themselves, their performance, their stats, and what they've accomplished, often diminishing the accomplishments of teammates. The team concept is likely foreign to this athlete and he or she only cares about what he or she can get out of the event. Sometimes this athlete is manipulative, as well, coming across and nice and sincere early on to con teammates into giving into what he or she wants. They'll often pit people against one another to achieve their selfish goals. Such athletes often believe that the team rules or standards are for others, not for special people like themselves. 


These athletes either grew up being babied and pampered all their lives or in a home where they struggled to gain attention. 


Regardless of which background these athletes derive from, they must be told in no certain terms that there are definable limits and punishments for breaking the rules. The spoiled brat needs to learn that no individual is more important than the team, and that team goals take priority over individual goals. There are no special favors. Those who come from the pampered background can be told in a straightforward manner that the sport situation may be different than others they've been in. Those from the searching for attention background, who see life as a "dog-eat-dog" world, may need to be dealt with more sternly. The message must be that the only way they are going to get what they want out of the sport experience is to take others' needs into account as well as their own. 


The sport experience can be one in which self-centered athletes learn that life involves give as well as take, and that considerable satisfaction can come from being part of something larger than themselves. For the formerly deprived athlete, it can be a situation where mutual concern and caring are experienced for the first time. 




If you have a child who is a perfectionist there

are things you can do to help him

or her reduce the anxiety and do away with

perfectionism altogether.


1. Communicate honestly and openly with

the child during unemotional times. 


Address the symptoms with him or her and

define the problem. Let the child know

those behaviors are the result of perfectionism and that you want to help him or her cope with it. If your child is very young, you can call it the “voice in your head that says you have to be perfect or else”. Talk about the fact that perfectionism makes us overly critical of ourselves and sometimes others. Try to help him or her see it through other people’s eyes by asking “How do you think that makes your teammates/coaches feel when you …” Then come up with a mistake ritual, like the “Flush it” motion, or what the Positive Coaching Alliance calls the Way of Champions I.P.R.: Immediate Positive Response. Give them a path forward and something different to do when things go awry. Here are some suggested steps to take in order to help your child. You can also check out the Center for Positive Parenting for more tips.


2. Help the athlete to turn the perfectionist thoughts into process thoughts. Instead of looking at the outcome or product, the frame of view should be in the process. What did you do well in this process? How else could you have done it? Can you be a detective and find things you can adjust? Help your child understand two things with this reframe:


     There is no such thing as perfect - there is seeking excellence.


This is the idea that we can always be slightly better than we were the day before. We can always find some marginal gain to be more excellent and be a little better than we were the last time. There are beauty and fun in seeking new ways to get a little better. If we do our very best with the tools we are given at this exact moment, we are a success. So if we are willing to keep giving ourselves new tools, then we are constantly striving to do our very best in each new moment. No one should want to be perfect, everyone should want to be excellent.


Excellence requires mistakes.


Richie McCaw, one of the greatest rugby players of all time writes one phrase in his notebook to remind himself that excellence is a lifelong journey, “Start again”. Each day he has a chance to start again. Hit the reset button, hunt for mistakes, be a better version of the person you were the day before. We should teach our children to be mistake hunters. Athletes who are willing to take risks, to try new things, who want to mess up once in a while so they can hunt down the mistake and correct it are the kind of athletes every coach wants on her team. Excellence is a never-ending journey that lasts a lifetime and crosses over all we do. We can seek it in everything, not just sport.


3. Praise and encourage our children based on effort, not outcomes. If we only celebrate the wins or praise the outcomes, they begin to think that is what matters most. They think they are only valued when they do well, and that winning is what matters. Instead of saying “Nice goals today,” say “all that extra work you have been doing after practice on your shooting really paid off today, didn’t it?” That tells our athletes that hard work matters more than the goal. They can work hard every time they touch the ball, even if they only score once in a while. By encouraging a work ethic, we are developing a growth mindset, creating an internal locus of control (they can control how hard they work, but they cannot always control outcomes which rely on other players, weather, field conditions, and more), and setting them up to be process-oriented. Be very specific and make sure it is something they can repeat. A child focused on working hard and competing at her very best level is too busy climbing the excellence ladder to have a meltdown over one little mistake.


4. Use celebrities from their sport as examples

to give your child a different perspective.

Michael Jordan has openly talked about the

thousands of game-winning shots he missed.

How many strikeouts did Babe Ruth have?

How many shots did Abby Wambach take and

miss on the big stage? Every sport has numerous

athletes who have failed and learned from it or

recovered from it. As my dad used to always say,

“When you mess up, I don’t judge the mistake. I

wait to see how you react.” Teach your children that mistakes are just road destination signs. They either tell us to keep going or they tell us to alter our direction a bit. They never tell us to stop completely.


5. Be a model of excellence seeking for your athletes. Be willing to make your own mistakes. Then be willing to admit you made them and laugh them off so your child sees how to properly handle a mistake. Children learn so much more by watching us. This is a great chance to instill the right attitude without ever having to say a word. Julie Foudy, a 2x Olympic and World Cup champion soccer player, told us on our podcast that at dinner every night, she asks her kids to share one thing they struggled with that day, and she and her husband do the same. “It makes for some great conversation about adversity,” she says!




These athletes have an inferiority complex. Their poor self-image may be limited to one or a few areas (low self-efficacy) or they may feel generally inferior to others (low self-esteem). In sports, this comes across as a lack of confidence in their abilities, a reluctance to try to get better, or a lack of assertiveness. When they experience setbacks, they tend to see them as more evidence that they are inadequate. When they do well, on the other hand, they do not take credit for it, or psychologically diminish the accomplishment. They attribute success to outside factors such as luck or poor performance by their opponent. This pattern of taking personal credit for failures but not for successes helps perpetuate their low opinion of themselves. 












Those with low self-esteem, or self-efficacy, often get that way partly because they focus almost entirely on external outcomes over which they may have little control. They need to redefine success - focus on doing their best rather than being the best. The athlete should be trained to focus on individual goal-setting and improvement that they can take personal pride in, and on the communication of caring and the conviction that they are worthwhile people. 


The kind of climate created can help or hinder an athlete with low self-esteem. Using the Mastery Approach yourself (as the coach), and emphasizing to your athletes that you expect them to support and encourage their teammates, can promote a positive interpersonal environment that gives plenty of social support to everyone, from star to bench warmer. In this environment, the athlete who lacks confidence can get the support they need to begin to revise their inferior self-concept. 















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