Helping Dissenting Players Find Their Voice

Dissent Mostly Seems Ill Timed

One of the uncomfortable moments in coaching comes when players use their voice, and they do it in a dissenting way. However, this may be among the most important life lessons players can learn. Player’s gaining their voice, helps them quite a bit in life moving forward. The way these dissenting moments are handled can be the most pivotal in developing a deep and abiding trust between coach and players, helping or hindering the growth of players as citizens in the world. Handled well, players gain their voice and feel more comfortable in sharing their true thoughts, and also learn more skillful ways of presenting them. Handled poorly, coaches can do great damage to the trust levels of players to share the reality of their real wishes and desires for their personal outcomes and the outcomes of the team. When coaches shut down dialogue, especially when it runs counter to what the coach wants, many times players will publicly comply with what the coach wants, while privately and possibly create a subculture of passive dissent against the coach.
Of course, coaches cannot control dissent, and it usually comes at a time that is not ideal to the coach. Being ready for all things at all times is surely a sign of a highly skillful leader.

Players May End Their Own Dissent

Perhaps one of the great examples of dissent is the story of Bill Walton and John Wooden at UCLA. Walton came to practice with his beard intact. Wooden had a strict dress code. Walton said he was going to keep his beard. Wooden said, “Goodbye, we will miss you”. A few minutes later Walton emerged from the locker room freshly shaven, because he made a decision to stay with the team. Wooden affirmed Walton’s right to keep his beard, but also to play elsewhere. It wasn’t really fair of Walton to show up like that, knowing full well the dress code. Walton decided to end his dissent.

Inappropriate and Unfair Dissent

I began coaching at a school where the previous coach was very friendly to the players, and didn’t really believe in conditioning. At the beginning of the new season we did quite a bit of conditioning. I wanted to start with a very firm hand, and then slowly relax so that the program could be more fun. Initially, players were feeling a lot of negativity, and the culture on the team was tense. It was a very diverse team racially. One day, I came around the corner and caught a conversation going on about me, between two players. One said to the other, “Yeah, I hate white people too…”, then they turned and saw not only that it was me, but that I was close enough to hear every word. The priceless look of ‘caught’ on their faces was amazing, I will never forget. So then I said, “I hate white people too! Some of them are…”, they were shocked, and I went on, naming some of the things that are stereotypical about white people from their perspective. Then I said, ‘Don’t you hate it when people stereotype you because you are asian? I will never do that. Now, please don’t stereotype me. I will never stereotype you.” An amazing thing happened, they immediately began to see me differently, and we began to get along, because at that point there was nothing off limits to talk about.

Passive-Aggressive Dissent

Another example of dissent, which was unspoken, came when a player asked me if she could miss practice on Fridays to take a lesson with a local tennis professional. Because she was by no means head and shoulders above the rest of the team, or needy of any special work, and my policy is that everyone is to be at practice. I said no. The next Friday she missed practice ‘sick’. I did not want to make her get a doctor’s note. On another Friday she missed practice due to ‘a friend’s birthday party’, which she did not mention ahead of time. I later found out that she had indeed gone for lessons. So, nothing was really provable, and I was being made to look like an ogre for thinking about blocking a teenager from attending a birthday party. Don’t I care? During this time another player, and friend of the one who skipped Fridays, was also lying to me about their whereabouts. Soon I saw an increase of absences and players coming late to practice. I discussed this with the team captains, who also saw the trend going the wrong way. They suggested having a team only meeting, run by them. I agreed. At the end of a practice, I introduced the team only meeting, left 20 minutes early and let the captains work their magic. I hear that there was anger, crying, apologies, forgiveness, and a realization that those offending did not know how badly the others want to win. I never pried into the details of what happened there in that meeting. Later, one parent thanked me profusely for all the work I put into her daughter. After her daughter was in a near fatal car accident while in college, the mother said she reflected quite a bit on the successes we had as a team, and the messages I had delivered as a coach, and what that meant to her. That year we pulled some great upsets in playoff action, and the next year that team won a Sectional Championship among 145 schools here in Northern California, which is equivalent to a state championship in many states.

Well Voiced and Appropriate Dissent

Finally, I had a player who had just won our league’s title and was preparing for the singles event at sectionals. The player he had beaten and his father were gracious enough to tell us a weakness in my player’s game that he could easily fix to improve his chances. I was amazed by this act of great sportsmanship. My player had been a varsity player for four years, and knew he could say anything to me and that we could talk about it. The issue was that when he came to net, if he was lobbed he would simply run back to the baseline and reset the point, instead of leaping up to try to hit a somewhat difficult overhead. He had a good overhead, so it seemed like a simple fix.
The next day at practice I presented that we were going to spend 15 minutes on his overhead. He was angry and resistant. “Remember when you tried to work on Aaron’s serve right before a big match, then he didn’t serve very well and lost? Don’t do that to me.” His concerns were valid. I had made that mistake. “Yes, I understand what you are saying, that was a mistake, I own that one. This is different, it’s not as complicated, we aren’t going to change your technique. As soon as you feel like it’s not helping we can stop. I pledge not to mess you up.” Very reluctantly, he agreed, and also was having a bad attitude as we started working on his leaping overhead. In 15 minutes he improved and gained a lot of confidence, and we didn’t talk about it afterward. When he got to sectionals we noticed that his first round opponent was someone he had played very close matches with, splitting three set matches in USTA Junior play. This match certainly looked like it was going to be hotly contested, except that at least six times in the match my player hit leaping overheads for winners, and won solidly 6-4, 6-3 with the opponent acknowledging how well my player played. So, the fact that my player dissented, and I was forced to acknowledge an error, and had to make a case for spending a bit of time on this issue, helped him win. In the next round he beat a player 50 spots ahead of him in the rankings, and would play the future #1 player in NorCal, losing 7-5 in the third set, in a match he might have won.

So, you can see the positives of allowing players to use their voice, and the creativity that is necessary when players are passive aggressive in their approach. Great team captains have a strong positive influence on these outcomes. It can be a grave mistake to try to shut down dissent.

Bill Patton, Executive Director is the Author of The Art of Coaching High School Tennis and Visual Training for Tennis.

Styrling Strother’s  Book    7 On Court Strategies to Enter Your Play State was released July, 2017



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