Sometimes as coaches we hit a wall. I had hit my own personal wall. Having come back from an amazing vacation that included more than 52 miles of walking over 10 days, I expected to be on a bit of a high. However, the fatigue from the walking and some 13 hour plane flights left me a bit susceptible to a problem. I picked up a strong cold that bordered on Bronchitis, and to top it off, I had eaten some food that had been recalled. I was having the symptoms of Listeria. So I was a bit wiped out. So now I have all the excuse making out of the way for having written this:
Players Off the Rails
We are certainly never ever alone when it comes to adversity. Every coach has had to deal with players who go off the rails. Human nature dictates that because of free will, there will always be a small percentage of the people we meet who simply will not cooperate with the program. No amount of discussion, explaining, listening, or any other type of intervention will ever work with these people. While it’s always worth trying to the bitter end, sometimes we as coaches are going to face the challenge of having players, or even coaches who are not working for us, and may even be working against us.
Attitudes and Teachability
One such player seemed to complain about everything. He would blame his doubles partner for losses, and had very negative body language and a lack of poise on court, especially when his partner missed a shot. Between the two, they maddeningly had enough talent to win a set here or there, and prove that they did have the ability to actually compete and possibly win matches. Many times they could come very close to winning, but almost always they played down to the level of the opponent or lower, coming out on the losing end. After matches, when asked to analyze what had happened, they would pretend to be positive with each other, finding positives in each others performance. When I would point out the negativity going on during the match with lots of back body language, and critical comments when mistake were made these two shifted into pure denial. It was either ‘It didn’t happen’, or ‘We were just kidding around’, neither of which were true.
In terms of techniques and strategies, both players had weaknesses in their technique and in shot selection. The one player would go for very big shots at the wrong times, making many needless errors, as though he felt he could make the other team explode and would win automatically if he made one of his ‘bomb’ shots. The other player had many odd little ‘trick shots’, and felt like he could make up new ways to hit shots from time to time, also contributing needless errors. They would intellectually accept that they needed to practice better decision making and technique, but when the matches were on, they simply returned to what had made them unsuccessful.
The Downtrodden and the The Coddled
One of these players had parents who were constantly critical of him, and I got the sense that he had become immune to any kind of kindness, because he had been brow beaten so much, that he just waited for extreme criticism before performing. I had decided not to contribute to that. The other young man had a mother that would advocate for him, and so he let his mother speak for him. Later, she came to me to discuss her sons experience on the team, and that he felt I was not coaching him enough, that I had my favorites, and he was not one of them. I told her to have her son come to talk to me on this. I gave him a few days, and he did not. At the end of the season we had other problems that were indicative of not being a team player. After each match I had taken some time to discuss with each player how they could be better, but they were just words. At various times I would structure practice specifically to work on the weaknesses of that particular doubles team, since they were the weakest position in our lineup, and never once was there a return on the investment of time into that team. Additionally, the overall negative attitudes brought by these two had an effect on the teams and players playing on either side of them. Their general attitudes also affected the general team feeling, and numerous players voiced their frustration at the lack of work put in by this team to improve themselves. As a team we had our worst finish in the standings during my six years at the helm.
At another school, I had team captains that had a hidden agenda. No matter how much we talked about it, they never really seemed to understand how we could work together to make the team a better experience for everyone. It was my first year at the school, and there had always been a splintered, clique based division on this team. These two captains not only were determined to keep that in place, but were happy to enforce the social structure of the team on those not in the clique. When I expressed that I am more of a process oriented coach, and that I am looking for the improvement of performance, they latched onto the phrase, “I don’t care if you win or lose”, completely missing the point about going all out to compete to win. So, they parroted back “Coach, you don’t care if we lose?!”, which no level of argument could now defeat that in the minds of their closest friends, that was now our team’s truth, because the captains were hell bent on perpetuating it.
I pulled the two aside to clarify, they simply nodded and smiled, and nothing was really done to clear up the agenda. At the point that one of these captains threatened a player from another school with physical harm, she was removed as a captain. The athletic director then also pulled her aside to get her story on the matter. Clearly, the athletic director at this exclusive private school was not 100% supportive of me, his new coach. After a few incidents where these two treated our number one player with extreme disrespect, I knew that I could not wait for these two to graduate, so that we could have a good team culture. It didn’t happen. After the season, the school offered my job in a ‘want ad’, I saw that, resigned immediately, writing a full page letter to the head of school about the incredibly poor culture of respect at their school.
Not Everything is Inside Our Control
These things are completely outside of our control as coaches. People have the free will to run a school this way, as principal, and/or athletic director. Parents can raise their children to be elite snobs, or passive aggressive twerps. We can only do the best we can in the situation, and hope for good outcomes. Sometimes, we need to find a different situation, and a better fit for the program we want to insert.