Dealing with the Difficult Athlete – The Series
As I go through my days at work, I think about all of the different things I deal with on a day-to-day basis. Any given day, I have 15 or more adults here of various abilities, cognition levels, diagnoses, and behavioral challenges. This made me think of all the times that I have seen a post of frustration for a teacher, coach, or parent about a youth that they are dealing with – a student, an athlete, or a child. The focus on difficult behaviors is very prevalent in this society today, but instead of trying to figure out how to adapt yourself to the situation or learn from it, so many are out to “fix” it.
In my field, fixing anything is not even in the scope of things. We help people “adapt”, and if that isn’t happening, we adapt. What do I mean? Heard the phrase “Choose your battles”? That is our mantra daily. There are some “behaviors” that you are never going to change or alter, so then you have to either learn to deal with them yourself or not deal with it and let it drive you insane!
I guess I need to step back and explain a few things. First off, I work with the developmentally disabled. I am the co-owner of an adult day service, where developmentally disabled adults can choose to come and be with us for the day. We go out into the community, volunteer around the area, do activities, learn about social “norms”, socialize with friends, and provide supervision in a setting that promotes individual independence. There are terms in my line of work that I throw out that are so normal to me that I don’t realize that some may not get what I speak of.
Every human on the face of the earth has “behaviors”. We do things for various reasons – seek attention, control situations, stop anxiety, avoid conflict, dodge responsibility – but we all do them. This is NOT something that is exclusive to the developmentally disabled community. It is just more prevalent there and dealt with a lot more. It is my job – and my staffs’ jobs – to help our members work through certain behaviors, as they are the ones that we can change or affect. This is the same in every human.
Think back to a toddler. If they don’t get something they want, they throw a temper-tantrum. This is a correctable behavior. Often one that is avoided by parents, but one that should – and has to – be corrected. Typically, if you analyze the behavior you realize that it is a command for attention – you ignored the request for the desired item, so now they are going to demonstrate how unhappy they are and make you see that. Tantrums are something most parents experience a few times with their toddlers. The best way to handle the situation so they learn? You ignore the behavior.
I know what some are thinking right now – What?! You want me to stand in the middle of the Super Walmart and IGNORE my screaming child? Yes, it is not easy, nor is it something that is welcome, but that IS how you change the behavior. See, behaviors are done for a reason, and if you GRATIFY that reason – child throws a tantrum over wanting a candy bar, so to quiet them down you give them the candy bar – and when you REWARD the behavior it will continue. It is how we reinforce positive behavior. Think about it – how many parenting books tell you to reward the good behavior? How many times do you see kids getting rewarded for good grades at school? No one is giving little Johnny a $1 for every “D” he gets; that is reserved for “A’s”. You reward this behavior, it will continue. This is the same for “negative behaviors”. If the child throws a tantrum over a candy bar, and you give her a candy bar, she will do it again the next time she is at the store and wants the candy bar. The first time dealing with it is the hardest time – this is the time you are stating your expectations and standing your ground. You are going to have a child that will scream and cry, and you have to handle the glares and stares from the strangers around you that are all so perfect that their children never behaved in such a way (I call bull. . .). Everyone that has children has gone through this. To what degree is very different for each child. My child is very stubborn, and her ONLY tantrum was in the middle of Walmart because she had wanted to go over to the toys and we did not because we knew that it would mean next wanting a toy. We told her “No” and continued to shop. Of course most know the next step – the begging and crying and then the full-blown drop to the floor and start screaming and crying as if we beat her. What our daughter learned early on in life – mom and dad both deal with things like that for a living, and have had numerous years of experience and training in it. She had her tantrum, and my husband and I stood there supervising said tantrum enduring the stares of other shoppers, and having a woman even say, “For the love of God, will you just control your child?” We stood there and talked to one another, not acknowledging her at all. She carried on like this for about three minutes (some of the longest in my life), and then looked up at us to see if we were paying attention. We weren’t (according to her). She went back into a tantrum, but not nearly as intense as before, but this time she was on her feet pulling at my leg and pushing me to go towards the toy section (this is the most evil creation of retail America – even more evil than the fluorescent lighting in the fitting rooms during bathing suit shopping season). We both stood our ground, and I asked her if she had been done because we had to finish shopping and then get home to see the new SpongeBob cartoon that was on.
She weighed her options, and SpongeBob won out. We had smaller fits while shopping, but nothing near that level ever again. As embarrassed as we were, we also knew that if we rewarded her with anything to stop that tantrum, we were going to be doomed to a life of them. This is an example of a changeable behavior. This is one that you can teach someone how to get the same results in a different manner – one not so embarrassing or traumatizing for parents and shoppers alike. Behaviors that are changeable are ones that you have to be a bit of a detective – remember what happens before, during and after – and the other circumstances surrounding the resulting behavior. After you do that, look at what can be gained from this very action. What is typically done that stops this behavior? There is your reason for the behavior and the thing you have to change.
There are still other actions that no matter what the end-result is, you are not going to change. There are various reasons. You can’t change the behaviors of an athlete that is always wanting attention if mom and dad give in to this very behavior. You can change how YOU deal with it. You can state your expectations while the child is at practice, and how they are expected to behave when they are participating. What you have to do is seriously think about what the natural consequences are. See, the difference between “punishment” and “natural consequence” is very simple – one is negative reinforcement, and the other is a natural result of the behavior. Example – you walk out into the busy street without looking both ways. Punishment would be you being grounded or not being allowed to play outside. The natural consequence of this would be getting hit by the car or the police lecturing you and giving you a jay-walking ticket. Natural consequences are typically much easier to have around than punishments because natural consequences are not negotiable. If the athlete doesn’t do the drills during practice, they are not allowed to participate in the games during practice either. If an athlete doesn’t show up for practice as mandated, the athlete loses their spot on the team and is moved to another team. But the key with natural consequences is that you have to be willing to let them be experienced.
I am not by any means condoning allowing kids to be hit by cars! But what I am saying is that if you start out with “Well, you are making the choice. Either you do these drills so you can also be with the team when we do fun things, or you don’t do the drills and you go home for the night. It is your choice.” You have to allow the natural consequences befall the person. You will have to do that in order to make your point get across. You might have to move Suzie Rock Star from the Level 3 team to the Level 2 team and make her earn her spot back. When you do this, you will command the respect not only from your athletes but your coaches and parents as well. You will demonstrate that what comes first is holding up your end of the bargain. Too many times the “talented” athletes are allowed to have certain bad behaviors that other athletes that aren’t as talented are not. It is not right to allow Suzie Rock Star to bail out on conditioning because she is already so strong, and she really wants to go to the party that is scheduled to start before practice is over. What that does is send a message to your athletes – that if you aren’t good you don’t get favors or you are not liked as much – to your parents – if your child is very talented you have more control over how I run my team – and to your other coaches – if you have a talented athlete, give them favoritism over everyone else. This will – I guarantee – cause hostile feelings between athletes, and resentment everywhere. There will be no harmony, and your word will be crap in the gym. No one will listen to you because they will feel that if they talk to you, you will only allow things if their child is “one of the golden children”. One small action says a lot.
This technique overall can be used in any situation with any type of athlete. The attention seeker? Why are they seeking the attention, and then don’t give it to them. The bully? What has caused the opinion they have this right to push others around and then natural consequence is off the team if they can’t get along with team mates. But you have to be willing to carry out any consequence that is stated for the behavior. Threats are seen through very quickly. The best thing is to never threaten as a consequence something that you are not willing to carry out with everyone all of the time. This in the end gives you the most respect and the best way of managing your athletes and their behaviors.
There are also behaviors that you are not going to be able to change because they are more “personality characteristic” than an actual “behavior”. Typically you can adapt yourself to dealing with this more so than adapting their actions to things. Narcissism is a perfect example. Most have a bit of it, and there is a very fine line between confidence and narcissism, but there are people that have it to the point of it being a defined condition (yes folks – there is a name for that – “Narcissistic Personality Disorder”). Teens tend to be a bit more narcissistic than most, but that is the age and it is not 100% across the board. Teens will think of themselves more than anyone else around them. Teens think that everything happens to someone else and not to them. They also think that because they have a little more responsibility they also have a lot more say in things. Because of their new-found knowledge, they will typically be the ones that will challenge the coach first (“So? I don’t care if I don’t get to do the games at the end of practice.”). They are the ones that tend to need more of you making the statement, “Well, this is how things are going right now. If you don’t like it you do not have to be a part of this team and I can find you another team that will better suit your work ethic and social calendar if you like.” You state that and then it is done. No more arguing. No more debate. No negotiating. You say it and then do what you are doing. They tend to come around and fall in line, but if they don’t then so be it. You ultimately control what one person on this earth does – you. When you put into their laps what YOU are going to do, the same rules apply to them. They only control themselves; they can’t control what you or others do. Free will is at times a pain but overall is a wonderful thing for humans.
Going forward, I will try and think of the different types of behaviors and types of athletes that people will deal with. There will be just attitudes, there will be conditions, and there will be times when I am writing “pick your battles” because in the end that is what you are doing. Choose the fights you want to fight. If the behavior is merely annoying, but not truly disruptive, then why bother with it? Why try and deal with something that is going to be an additional fight if you don’t have to? Everyone has enough on their plate without looking for fights to take on. Don’t fight that fight unless you absolutely have to do it.
If you ever have a question about something that you are dealing with, tried different things and nothing seems to be working, or just want a sounding board, feel free to contact me via our website or my email: email@example.com. I would love to hear what you would like to hear addressed or help out if you are at wit’s end.