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Athlete Centered Coach 19 Solving The Initial Problems

“Discipline is Remembering What you Want.” ~ David Campbell

Deftly Done, or Heavy Handed?

Quite often, what coaches think of as discipline, is really heavy handed punishment. As younger coaches, Styrling and I each had some bouts of not doing a great job disciplining our teams, either coming across in a heavy handed way, or not dealing with a smaller issue early enough. We want to use more of an educational tone in the way we help our teams learn self-control. If discipline, comes from the root disciple, really it’s about a coach teaching players to control themselves.

Encourage Self-Discipline

Some sports lend themselves to constant supervision, constant discipline moment to moment. Individual sports played as teams create more need for self discipline. The coach however, will also need to provide discipline when the self-discipline of the team or players is lacking. Where should we begin? Begin by setting the tone.

Early on, when facing the first problem of self discipline with a team or player, I may simply ask loud enough for everyone to hear, “What is better? Self-Discipline or Coach Discipline?” The answer is easy. So, then I ask them to discipline themselves so that I don’t have to. If a practice begins to break down, then I may call everyone together to ask the same question. A very large percentage of problems on a team are solved simply by encouraging self discipline. This is very empowering for your players and mine, the vast majority of tennis players will adjust their attitudes and behavior from the above encouragement.

Coach Intervention with Progressive Discipline

When exceptions happen, and you know they will, then it’s great to have a plan to deal with it. I use a progressive discipline plan, which changes based on the circumstances. With camps, clinics, and the like I go very slowly through it, on a team I am very fast.

Let’s say you are having a conflict between two players, and the relationship does not look like one that will quickly become a friendship. Initially, the players must resolve that conflict, but then they will also have to discipline themselves, to treat each other with mutual respect, so no matter their feelings toward the other, they will need to be civil. This is one of the greatest life skill opportunities for a coach to teach.

More commonly, players may have problems concentrating on the tasks at hand, and may act out because of that. First, it’s good to look at the practice schedule for the day and see if that segment was too long. Ask your captains, if it wasn’t too long, then that player needs to learn to discipline themselves. When we plan activities that go longer than player’s ability to pay attention or focus without a break, how can we blame the players for that?

Kids will be Kids or Putting Out a Match

Socializing during practice is something that can be trained to happen more at different times than others. I work very hard to have my players do the bulk of their socializing at break time. There are some games that we play that are quite social, and there are other times when we are in full competition mode, or concentrated practice mode where I don’t want them talking with each other at all, I need their full attention.

Now, as mentioned earlier I use progressive discipline. When things are going wrong for a player, I first observe. Is what they are doing, was it a one time thing and not harmful? Even so, my first step is to look at them and shake my head, It’s a very subtle communication, but they know I don’t approve, when they stop, I say ‘thank you’. So that player extinguished their behavior, and all the team really knows is that they were thanked for something. That player did not receive any negative attention. Many teenagers are starved for attention, and they will get it any way they can either by doing negative or positive things. Some develop a very strong habit of doing negative things to get attention, even though they might not really want to do those things.

The next stage, if I begin to see a pattern of disruptive or undisciplined play, is that I will pull the player aside. We will have a quiet talk. I will let them know I see this behavior and it needs to stop, many times its best to redirect them toward what they can do instead, and outline why its important for the team. An ominous warning of what will happen if they continue is also effective. With 95% of high school players this is all the discipline you will need, but with another 4% or so, you need to be ready for the next steps, and if you fail to deliver, your team will suffer.

Born to Test?

About one in twenty players are born to test you to find out where the limits are. They will want to know how far they can push the rules, or break them before you deal with them. If you have already taken those players through step one and step two, then when you get to step three, it’s not hard for you to reference that you have already given them opportunities to stop doing what they are doing. And they won’t be able to maintain an innocent and persecuted look. I remind them, “Remember when I looked at you, shook my head and you stopped? I thanked you. Remember our little talk? OK, that was for something else, but now you are testing me in a different way. So you are going to sit out the next game, but you still have to help with the ball pick up, and I will give you a certain number of balls you must pick up. Also, I expect that you will stop testing me, because the next stage is that I will send you home from practice. Do you understand?” You can then also discuss with them why their behavior is detrimental with the team, asking them that question. See if they understand the effects of what they are doing. If they don’t, you may have future problems. At the end, it’s good to wrap up with “I want to help you develop better self-discipline, which you will appreciate quite a bit, later.”, or something along those lines. When having a particularly frustrating time with a player, call the parents early in the game, and let them know the difficulty, and get their ideas of how to deal with their child.

Anger Rarely is Helpful, But Can be Effective When Done Right

Expressing anger is something you generally want to avoid, but I look back at times that I yelled at a player, or a team, or put them through an ordeal, so that they could remember forever what took place that day. One such player was hitting balls over the fence, and it was extremely difficult to retrieve the balls. He and his friend were doing that and laughing. I had already talked to him about a couple different things. I went to him and read him the riot act. When I saw tears welling up in his eyes, I stopped yelling. I then said, “Hey, I am here doing this because I want to get your attention. The reason I yelled at you is because I care a lot about you, and this team. You are a talented player, but you have been throwing your talent away.” There is a lot more to this story, but that was a seminal moment. Ultimately, if you yell, then you MUST explain why, you must get yourself under control, and then talk with the team about what it means. If you feel like you will lose control, or are losing control, then you must stop yelling. My rules for being emotional with my team are: 1. Is it for their own good, or am I selfishly looking to vent my own feelings of frustration? 2. Am I in control, ready with exactly want I want to say, and will proceed when I am ready to talk, and also not go on for more than a minute or two? 3. Am I ready to let them share their thoughts afterward and debrief them on what just happened?

About 1% or hopefully much less, you will have a player who does something that calls for their immediate dismissal from practice, and suspension from the team, and you will know what that is… Then you will need to talk with parents, etc.


Ultimately, be watchful for the small matches that can begin a forest fire, and put them out quickly. On the other hand be sure not to overreact, and realize that kids will be kids and sometimes they just need a little teasing, so keep your sense of humor about you at all times, and do everything with a spirit of love for each player and the team, and you will be fine. It bears repeating, nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.


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