Coaching Difficult Players

Coaching Difficult Players

Unguarded, the ESPN documentary about former NBA player Chris Herren and his struggle with addiction, received tons of positive reviews this week. A powerful story of redemption and hope that with help, we can overcome the addictions that seek to destroy us.

I’d imagine that a number of Chris’ coaches along his tumultuous journey didn’t know what to do with him. Maybe you have players like that on your team. Perhaps they’re not addicted to cocaine like Chris was, but act out in ways that distract others and cause team drama that divides. Your role in these players’ lives is paramount. How you handle their hearts can make such an important difference in their future.


A few important reminders:


Be Consistent

Difficult players will test you every day, acting out just to see how you’ll respond. One key is to remain consistent in your discipline. Stay true to your principles and the team policies you’ve laid out. Hold them accountable for their actions.


Difficult players act out in an effort to take control. Your consistent discipline and accountability sends the message that you are in charge and in control of the team.


One high school volleyball coach had a star player (and powerhouse Div I signee) whose behavior caused constant team drama. When the player posted derogatory comments on Facebook, the coach held a meeting laying out consequences for disrespecting the team. The player’s poor behavior continued and the coach kept her word by suspending her for a game, which clearly re-asserted the coach’s authority and leadership of the team.


Be Respectful

Difficult players often act disrespectfully toward teammates and coaches. A recent Sports Illustrated article about the Clemson football team told how as a freshman, tight end Dwayne Allen butted heads with coach Dabo Swinney often, calling him Dabo “just to get under his skin.” He fought with other players and cursed at his coaches. Allen experienced a “total transformation” and is now a senior leader for the Tigers.


That kind of transformation doesn’t take place if Coach Swinney stoops to Allen’s level by retaliating with demeaning slurs. You are the professional. The adult. You cannot control how your players behave, but you can control your response. Treating others with respect is a core tenet of quality leadership. When you set the tone by responding respectfully to your athletes, your example will begin to rub off on them.


Be Loving

Coach Wooden said “The coach’s most powerful tool is love.” Love isn’t an emotion, but a decision. It’s looking in your player’s eyes and seeing what they could become and then  providing unconditional love to help them get there.


In my book, Leader of the Pack, former NC State player Lyschale Jones tells how she acted out during her freshman year after having lost her mother to breast cancer as a high school senior. Oftentimes her discipline was a 6 am workout with Coach Yow.


But after the discipline, Coach Yow joined LySchale for breakfast. She listened, mentored and challenged her, and in the process communicated that “LySchale’s growth as a person was just as important (if not more so) as LySchale’s growth as a basketball player.” Now, LySchale looks back on those moments and says “Coach Yow saw past my pain and hurt and through love, led me to a better life.”

Notice that Coach Yow extended love at the same time as discipline. When you discipline with respect, you show your athletes love. When you believe in your athletes potential and love them despite their poor decisions and behavior, you make your greatest impact.


How have you used consistency, respect or love to coach a difficult player? What difference did it make on your team?

2 Responses to Coaching Difficult Players

  • coachzonars

    Thank you for the difference you’re making, Jennifer! As your comment shows, these qualities are applicable in any leadership situation.

  • Jennifer_Hogan

    I’m a former coach and now an assistant principal for 9th graders at the high school where I work. Reading your post reminds me of the skills I learned as an athlete and as a coach and how I have to apply them to my work with the ninth graders who make it to my office for discipline issues. Consistency, respect, and love are the qualities I try to demonstrate, because like Coach Yow and LySchale Jones, I believe in them and hope the best for them, even when they make poor decisions and have bad behavior. 

    Thanks for sharing!