Fostering Team Discipline Using a Progressive Approach.

Whoever is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city. King Solomon

It’s a great fantasy to think of ruling with an iron fist. Far better is it for we as coaches to rule our own spirit, and conduct ourselves in a way that create the strongest possible message of discipline for our players.

Life can be a very complicated tangled ball of string. Those that are less mature may trying pulling hard on a piece or two and actually tighten some of the knots. Others may consider cutting some strings, but the damage to the full length of string may be too high a cost to pay. Over time, we learn to find the end of the string and patiently learn to pull it through a loop there, and unwind it from a knot there. You can’t really hit it with a hammer, that won’t really accomplish anything. When frustration builds we can put down the ball of string, coming back at another time to take a few more actions, then before you know it the whole thing is undone.

As is fairly common with those who have a background in psychology, I like to straighten out paperclips. They never really come out completely straight, but very quickly you can get them into a crooked line.  The artistry comes in the form of gently smoothing the remaining curves. And so it is with working with our players.

Our teams need discipline and our players need discipline, some of which is very private and some of which is very public. We owe it to our players to provide them with the life lessons that come from sports. Teenagers are in a vulnerable station in life where at times they can be very mature and adult like, but are still prone to childish behavior and thinking.   They can also engage in adult behaviors that can get them in a tremendous amount of trouble and change the course of their lives forever.  My highest goal is to help mold the maturity, at least in the sporting arena, of a player so that by the end of their senior year, they are an adult.

We as the coaches need to have very clear expectations that do not waver, and we need to hold very closely to them, for every single player.  When we allow some players to have different rules, it affects the morale of the entire team. Or as a policeman taught me in a workshop, you are asking people to comply with the law, and when you pull them over you ask for voluntary compliance, but you can’t do that with the rule of law behind you. So make sure that your rules are exactly that, enforceable laws.

Molding the maturity of players is not an easy task and we as coaches need a full toolbox. From my time as a classroom teacher, I learned how to use ‘progressive discipline’ until I had created the best possible learning environment. One factor in students or players behavior that we don’t often take into account is that they want attention.  Some players will do almost anything for attention, and sadly they have learned to get negative attention from their peers and from adults.

Progressive discipline might look like this on a team: A player is doing something distracting or off task, and I call their name, or get their attention in another way.  They look at me. I make a motion which means stop that behavior. They stop. I say “Thank you”.  So, the player got positive attention for stopping a behavior, and the other players heard them being thanked.

If that behavior were repeated and/or another one were to pop up, then I would take that player aside and quietly talk with them. “For practice to go well, we need you to stop these behaviors. I trust that you will.”  If I make this public, then they get attention to a greater degree for bad behavior.  The quiet talk with me however is something they don’t usually want.”  I find that this solves at least 80% of all off track behavior.

If there were another episode with that player, I would then pull them out of the activity they are doing and make them sit out.  A time out becomes a very strong deterrent, because the other players can see the childish consequence for the childish behavior. Very rarely do any further behaviors happen after a time out, but if they do, it signals a fairly significant behavioral issue in the player.  I would then hold them after practice for a full discussion of:  What are your goals?  What do you hope to accomplish?  Do these behaviors fit with that?   Can you save these behaviors for an appropriate time?  Should I call your parents to gain insight, or do I trust you to do your best here on the team?  A handful of times I have called parents for valuable insight into what makes the player tick.

Now if we zoom out and look at the changing of a team’s culture, that might take a bit longer. Sometimes working with one player to change their behavior can change the whole team. In one case, I took over a team that had a reputation for being entitled, underperforming in playoff action, and for making bad calls in competition. It would have been easy to trumpet my intentions to fix all of that. In fact, a rival coach mocked me for taking the job and wondered out loud “How are you going to handle that team?”.  I told him “I feel a little uncomfortable with you rooting for me like that, since we are rivals.” To which he responded, “O.K. then, bring it on, we are going to beat you.”  It was on like Donkey Kong.

So I set about working with my new group. The first thing that happened was that players would arrive late to practice.  The former coach would wait until the players arrived to start, so of course the players got used to coming later and later. I started the very second my clock said it was time. When players showed up late, I did not punish them. I simply asked them, “Do you know when practice starts?”  They would respond “Yes”, and then I would ask rhetorically, “Then why did you come after that?”. Fewer players came late.  After a few days, I would have the group that came on time run laps and anyone who came late ran extra laps, and had to start the opening game on the lowest court.  I would then praise them for spending time with the players lower on the ladder.  Within a few more days no one came late, and many players would come running to be on site at least a minute early.  After another week, a player came late and I made a really loud big deal about it, “DO YOU STILL NOT KNOW WHEN PRACTICE STARTS?” It was fun for everyone but him. After a while, the discipline was good, and players might still come late, but they would come with a reasonable excuse, and know that they will start on the end court that day.

As for the cheating, I said on the day before our first match. “I have seen some tight calls from this team, and I want you to know I take playing fairly very seriously, because teams that cheat feel guilty and then don’t win big matches.”  End of speech. During our first match my number one player made a very suspect call.  On the changeover, matter of fact and nonchalantly I said, “Oh, by the way you blew that call at 15-30, so be sure to play two in balls until the opponent wins two points at your expense. And be sure to build your points crosscourt… blah blah blah.”  He was stunned! No coach had ever told him that before. I can’t remember whether he actually played an out ball, but this scenario repeated itself with various players over the course of the season. It all ended with me being very confident that my players would not embarrass me with bad calls.  Every once in a while I would see a bad call, and immediately approach my player, and that was enough for them to play fair. I could have been very heavy handed and punitive, but simply I took each player and gently corrected them. They also began to feel better about themselves, because as we started, I felt like each player was making at least one bad call per match.

As for underachieving in the playoffs, we made sure everyone conditioned themselves properly and that we would build up our energy stores to peak at the best time. At the beginning of our conditioning there seemed to be players who would take one repetition off, on vacation, and not give their best. I would call my attention first to everyone giving 100% and leave their name off the list, then look at them. If after a few days of that there were still players taking a repetition off, then I would call them out and let them know ‘I have eyes in the back of my head’.  Along with the use of wonderful motivational phrases like ‘Legs feed the wolf.’ In time nearly 100% of our repetitions were performed at 100% effort. After were were fully conditioned, we simply didn’t lose long matches. When we went to play our rival at their courts with bad cracks and crazy wind, they brought 100 people out to watch and heckle my team. That team came out on fire and won four of the first seven sets out of the seven matches, which put them on track to beat us. Our guys won two matches in three sets, and we won going away 5-2 from what might have been a 4-3 loss. In the next matchup we beat our rival 7-0 and never looked back. I did not breath a word to the rival coach, as the results speak for themselves.  I needed to model the kind of discipline I wanted to see in my team.

We also then garnered commitments to play the playoff matches instead of taking SAT or AP tests, that can be scheduled for other times.  Players previously would miss the playoffs with an academic test?  Crazy, right?

Sometimes our best efforts to discipline players or teams are not 100% successful. We need buy in from our players in regard to the need for some discipline. When I am getting a little desperate to get things under control, I sometimes ask my players, “What is better, self discipline, or the discipline that comes from outside you?” Perhaps most crucial to a team is the discipline shown by captains and the #1 player on the team. The examples they give to other players serves as a model. My most difficult and frustrating years of coaching have been when captains or #1 players don’t give their best efforts, or make excuses for not being fully committed to the team. Maybe three or four times in 28 seasons, I have even given up on my Seniors, and had quiet conversations with Juniors about how it will be next year.

When one of these key players is not performing as a great example, its best to start with a quiet talk off to the side. It can be a grave error to call out one of these players without understanding what is going on in their world. Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care. 20 years ago I had a very talented number one player who often gave less than 100% effort early on, and the other players began to give less effort in following her example. After more than one private conversation about this with little permanent change, it was time to talk with the other players to not look to her as a leader, and then I called her out and the others for not giving their best efforts, while praising those who did.  Some players began to look to the strong efforts given by some girls on the team, but overall there were not enough girls on the team who really wanted to do extremely well. There were other interesting issues that showed a fairly deep lack of interest in doing their best for the current year and in future years, so at seasons end, I let that team go, to only coach the boy’s team.

With another girls team, all the same issues were in play, but the main difference being that we had very strong captains, even though they played lower in the ladder, they had the full respect of their teammates.  I asked the captains if they would hold a team only meeting, which they did. They discussed with the team their desire to do very well in playoff action for once, and how many of the girls wanted to win, but a few of the undisciplined players were holding the team back. I am told that there was crying, bonding, and promises made to one another. What had been unsuccessful attempts at discipline by me, created an opportunity for captains to show great leadership, and the players to develop self-discipline, which carried us to two upset wins in playoffs that year, then that team won the section title the following year, having been perennial first round losers in years past.

It must also be said that over the years I have taken a moment to really explode in anger over the behavior of my team. In my book The Art of Coaching High School Tennis, I have a chapter about, “Do you really want to be angry?” A word of caution, it should be pre-mediated, the coach should know exactly what they want to say and their motives should be to provide a wake up call. Coaches who yell at their players more than one time run a serious risk of losing their team.  It is far better if you can use all the above tactics to full effect rather than yelling.  In fact, going silent, completely silent and just looking at your team might be more scary for them.  Each time I had an outburst, it was followed up with explaining how much I care.  I DID NOT YELL AT MY TEAM A SECOND TIME!

In conclusion, we certainly need some iron clad standards, but we ought not to try to rule with an iron fist. Most of the work of discipline should be easy and done quietly one player at a time. Gentle corrections and making a game of it makes it easier on the players to comply. Sometimes drastic measures need to happen, and its best to ramp those up quickly at the beginning of a season so that they can be solved with much more than half the season to go. You then can enjoy the benefit of disciplined squad. Every once in a while a captain needs to be stripped of their captaincy, or a player needs to be removed from the team. If you go through a progressive discipline approach, you will know when that is. In my twenty eight years, somewhere around four of five players have left the team or were removed by me over the rules. The rest of the team will be blessed when that happens.

Enjoy!

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