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How Can You Resolve A Conflict Within Your Sports Team?



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When you have a group of individuals training in a highly competitive field like sports for any length of time, conflict is inevitable. Eventually, someone’s going to get on someone else’s nerves. Personalities and ideas are going to clash, mistakes are going to be made, and words are going to be said in anger.

As coach, it’s your job to work out these disputes before they become serious. And today, we’re going to walk you through exactly how to do that. Let’s begin.

First, Let Everyone Cool Off

Before you even think about talking through the conflict, you need to make sure everyone’s cooled off. If emotions are still running high when you come across a conflict, nothing’s going to get done – and you could well make things worse. Separate the people involved and give all of them a chance to calm down.

“If your feathers are ruffled, it’s best to take a moment to regroup before having a knee-jerk reaction you might regret later,” writes Psych Central’s Joyce Marter. “Breathe deeply to calm yourself. Check in with your body and recognize if there are any physical discomforts that are exacerbating your emotional agitation (i.e. hunger, fatigue, etc.) If possible and appropriate, address those needs—otherwise, raise a mental red flag so you are conscious that your emotions may be inflamed by these conditions. Stretching is a good way to quickly release tension and achieve physical comfort and neutral posture.”

Act As A Neutral Party In Order To Gain Perspective

Once everyone’s had a chance to gather themselves, it’s time for you to really step in. Don’t take sides here. Instead, talk to each involved party and witness one at a time, to get their sides of the story.

The key here is to form the most complete narrative of events possible. Avoid assigning blame.  See, every person likes to paint themselves as the hero of their own story, and – as noted by The Boston Globe’s Joe Keohane – nobody likes admitting they’re wrong.

“Most of us like to believe that our opinions have been formed over time by careful, rational consideration of facts and ideas, and that the decisions based on those opinions, therefore, have the ring of soundness and intelligence,” writes Keohane. “Rather than facts driving beliefs, our beliefs can dictate the facts we chose to accept. They can cause us to twist facts so they fit better with our preconceived notions.”

Act As A Mediator

With a complete picture of the situation at hand, it’s time to bring the sparring parties back together, and work with them to find a solution. Remember, though – your job as a coach isn’t to tell them exactly what they need to do in order to solve their problem. Your job, as always, is to guide them towards the solution; to assist them in working things out for themselves.

Again, avoid assigning blame here. Try to help each party understand the others’ perspective, and demonstrate that you understand them yourself. If you were yourself involved in this conflict in some fashion, own up to your own mistakes.

“The mediator is primarily a “process person,” helping the parties define the agenda, identify and reframe the issues, communicate more effectively, find areas of common ground, negotiate fairly, and hopefully, reach an agreement,” reads a piece on Beyond Intractability. “A successful mediation effort has an outcome that is accepted and owned by the parties themselves.”

“Make sure that nobody is hiding from the issue at hand,” adds a post on the Dale Carnegie Blog. “Keep everyone talking and expressing themselves honestly and openly. Sometimes, these dialogues can focus on complaints rather than developing situations. Determine what everyone needs, and strive for a solution where all needs are met.”

When All Else Fails, Put Your Foot Down

Now for the bad news. As a coach, you’re in a position of authority over your players. And like everyone in positions of power, sometimes you have to be the bad guy. Sometimes, you have to step in and mandate a resolution – for example, if one of your athletes is being particularly stubborn and refuses to admit their own mistakes.

It’s generally rare that you’ll have to do this, but you should be prepared all the same.

Remember That Conflict Can Be A Good Thing

Last but certainly not least, there’s one last thing worth mentioning about conflict – it’s not always terrible. It could serve as a learning or growth opportunity for your team, and managing it effectively could enrich the players’ relationships with one another and improve the overall team dynamic.

“Hidden within virtually every conflict is the potential for a tremendous teaching/learning opportunity,” says Mike Myatt of Forbes. “Where there is disagreement there is an inherent potential for growth and development. Divergent positions addressed properly can stimulate innovation and learning in ways like minds can’t even imagine. Smart leaders look for the upside in all differing opinions.”

Closing Thoughts

A coach is many things to their team. A leader. A mentor. A friend. And perhaps most importantly, a mediator. Athletics can be a highly-aggressive, highly competitive field; conflict is just about inevitable.

How you address it when it strikes your team could make or break its dynamic – keep that in mind, moving forward.

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