Developing Decision Makers Early and Often

I am not a product of my circumstances, I am a product of my decisions. ~ Stephen Covey

All three of our last three posts could have occurred in a different order. We started very heavy with the ultimate consequences of leaving the character development, as it pertains to our athletes in the arena of our influence, to someone else. I am not talking about going out of our way on a regular basis to be a surrogate parent. Yes, we do play a role, and many times coaches can be heroes to a family, when youngsters go astray. Parents many times struggle with difficult, powerful, unmotivated and special needs children. A coach many times can be the other reasonable and respected adult who can be the perfect influence, and affirm the values of the family.


Ultimately, when we use progressive discipline, the youngster has an opportunity to make a better choice at any point along the way. When we use progressive discipline, and we have not repeated steps, but move up in levels of action, we have a stronger basis with parents. Establishing trust with parents can be done more easily when we can prove that the call home is not part of a knee jerk reaction, but a measured strategy to intervene in the child’s decision making. When young participants choose wisely, then we have a chance to praise them for their good choice. If they continue to choose poorly, allowing the parents a moment to work their magic with their own child makes our job easier. After the parent has had a chance to talk with the player, we will quickly see if they intend to continue to make bad choices. From there, we can decide how much tolerance can be shown, or whether the student is too much of a disruptive influence. Using the progressive discipline template, making it work for you is vital to the overall effectiveness of your program. It’s completely up to you to decide how to escalate the consequences, or remain at a certain level.


In cases where players seem to lack self control to some degree and might be a mild distraction at times, we can help them to learn a better measure, but we might not need to go to the point of suspending them from the program. Other at-risk youth can be toxic to an entire program because of the extreme negativity, lack of self control, or danger they bring to the program. Players who are not safe with their racquets can injure other players easily. Explaining an injury to one of your best behaved players from your worst behaved player, is not something you want to have to do with that parent. If you have allowed the unsafe condition to persist, then you the coach would have to take responsibility for allowing that. Over 29 years of coaching, I have had a couple of instances where young participants uttered overt racial insults. We have zero tolerance for that, so we immediately suspended that player in lieu of a sincere apology, with the acknowledgement of how harmful that is to the other person, and the overall camp. At other times, we have had players who were so uncooperative, negative, or demeaning with others that we took them through every step of our progression, with the hope that they might change their choices, but when they proved that they would not over six steps, and many different interventions, then we gladly removed the player. In most cases there was a dramatic difference in the culture of the program with the subtraction of one negative influence.

Growth Not Loss

Now I know that some people may find that as harsh, and they may believe that we have lost a player and it may hurt the game. I counter with this, that perhaps the good kids in your program will leave, when you show that you don’t value good behavior. More often than not, parents who value good behavior may take their player to another program. Also, the middle of the road players may decide its ok to act up, and your program is negatively influenced by the inaction of dealing with the situation. So you have more to lose by being overly permissive, than you do in the short run of losing a player. The game also grows, and in a more healthy way. My general rule of thumb is that I see three more students joining the program, within a few weeks of letting a disruptive player go. A camp program I took over averaged about 25 kids per week with some serious dips under 20 in the summer before I arrived. In our first year, I called every parent from the previous summer to let them know what we were going to do in terms of a more disciplined and fun camp. We averaged over 32 players per camp. By the next summer, we had to cap our weekly attendance at 38 students per camp. The word got out, and kids really loved coming to our camp, many called it the highlight of their summer. This after we dealt with some hard issues.

Learn from Previous Years
I had heard that the previous camp director was not really directly involved with discipline. Camp counselors were known for yelling at the campers, and punishing them with running laps if they hit a ball over the fence. This, of course, functioned to give negative attention to those who did that, and they responded by hitting many balls over the fence.

Don’t Get Sucked Into the Vortex

In the first few minutes of the very first camp I ran at that club, a player known for being among the worst behaved, hit a ball over the fence. All eyes were on me. I pretended like I didn’t even see it.

Kids: “Aren’t you going to make him run a lap?”
Me: “Why would I do that?”
Kids: “Because that’s what they did last year!”
Me: “This isn’t last year.”

Flip the Script

At the end of the activity I took a moment with the player who had hit a ball over the fence and politely asked him, “Please don’t hit balls over the fence, yes it can happen accidentally, but let’s not do it on purpose. Balls are expensive.” Where the camp the year before had maybe hundreds of balls over the fence, we had only a few, and we never punished players for it, unless it was clearly intentional. We then used progressive discipline to snuff out that behavior, without granting negative attention to the player who was doing it. Players chose to play tennis, instead of seeking negative attention, and our tennis got better and better. Very little time was lost with players running laps, distracting their campmates, and retrieving balls. Much more time was spent hitting the ball, and doing it well. We gave players a lot of attention for their massive improvements over the week.


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