Managing Player Behaviour

“Behaviour is the mirror in which everyone shows their image.” – Johann Von Goethe

If you are a regular listener to our podcast you will know that we often ask coaches to let us know if there are any topics that they would like us to cover. The one that comes up more often than any other is “how do we manage poor behaviour?”

This is a tricky topic as managing poor behaviour can be one of the most challenging elements of being a coach. Poor behaviour can be low level, where a player’s action causes some limited distraction or it can be high level where the action has a greater effect on the session. These actions can also be isolated and only occur occasionally, or they can be frequent and occur often or even all the time. The actions themselves can include such things as arguing, fighting, swearing, rudeness, not listening, lack of effort, not having the correct equipment/clothes, lateness or just generally having a poor attitude to instruction, participation or learning. We’ve all experienced at least some of these and regardless of the level or frequency, these actions not only undermine the learning and overall session enjoyment but in extreme situations they can also impact on safety.

As coaches we are all different and deal with behaviour in different ways. Behaviour is very subjective and how we respond is influenced by many factors including our own personal values, experiences, age and upbringing.  As coaches we may have very different ideas on what is considered acceptable behaviour, therefore it is essential that we recognise this and agree a common understating of what is regarded as acceptable and unacceptable behaviour within our own coaching environment so everyone knows the expectation. We must also recognise that behaviour is learnt, just like a skill and it can take time for certain players to learn or change their behavioural habits to what we deem as appropriate or expected behaviour.

I know from my own experience that poor behaviour from a player can on occasion catch me off-guard or unprepared and my reaction can sometimes exacerbate the problem. How we react to these situations is fundamental to preventing them or other behavioural problems occurring again.  Here are some tips that have helped me when dealing with inappropriate behaviour `in the moment`;

  • Take a breath before responding and stay calm
  • Give yourself some time to think before you react
  • Choose your words carefully
  • Be aware of your body language
  • Be Consistent – Respond in the agreed manner
  • Be Brief – Short and concise response, don’t get into a debate
  • Be Respectful – Polite response, free of sarcasm, given in private where possible
  • Be Specific – Identify the behaviour (not the person) that was inappropriate

Why do some players behave poorly?

We’ve probably all coached players where we find it difficult to understand why they choose to act in certain ways at particular times. This can be incredibly frustrating and sometimes leave us at a loss as to what to do. Before looking at possible solutions let’s consider what factors might be causing the poor behaviour…these are known as the triggers. If we recognise that often the behaviour we see has a route cause, then the more we understand the triggers the better we will be able to support a change in the player’s behaviour moving forward.

Here are just some of these triggers that may cause poor behaviour;

  1. Physical (hunger, tiredness, illness, injury)
  2. Fear (confidence, stress, new surroundings, new people, new challenge)
  3. Wanting Attention
  4. Previous experience and/or trauma
  5. Lack of Engagement (boredom)
  6. Ability (too easy or too hard)
  7. Unaware of the expectations (or doesn’t `buy-in` to them)
  8. Inadequate Supervision

It might not always be possible to know for sure why a player is acting a certain way and it could even be that they don’t know themselves.  A player’s upbringing and life outside of football will have a huge impact on their behaviour and attitude to learning and playing. This is where building rapport with the players and having a strong player/coach relationship can really help. It will allow for a more effective dialogue and should mean a better understanding of the player and the person and hopefully allow for a quicker resolution.

How do we deal with behaviour?

Any approach to behaviour is best achieved as part of an overarching club philosophy, where all members are clear from the outset on the expectations of all those connected with the club. This should be highlighted in the club philosophy and values and underpinned with a code of conduct or behaviour contract.

At our club, our values are Respect, Effort and Fun (in that order) and we ensure parents, coaches and players all understand what we mean by these and how they should and shouldn’t be demonstrated during training and matches. The most important part of this approach for us, is that the expectations on behaviour are clear, consistent and effectively communicated. It is also essential that the rewards and consequences of exceeding or falling below these expectations are clearly defined and are consistently followed. By setting these expectations early and by ensuring we are consistent with the message and that we practice what we preach, we have found that players are clear about the expectations and quickly adjust to them.

However, when it comes to our own individual methods of managing behaviour we must consider how we currently approach this. Often our natural coaching style will mirror how we approach dealing with behaviour. Once we have reflected on our own approach we can then decide what changes we may (or may not) need to make to be more proactive and effective in creating and maintaining a positive behavioural environment. It’s important to recognise that the way in which we manage behaviour will have a direct impact not only on the specific action in that moment but also on the subsequent actions and behaviours of the players in the future.

It’s also important to remember that managing behaviour is not just about responding to inappropriate behaviour. It is also about being proactive and creating conditions that encourage a positive behavioural environment. If we as coaches work hard to create a positive training and match environment with engaging sessions, consistent routines, lots of player ownership and clear boundaries and expectations…where we lead by example, then this may help prevent the issues arising in the first place.

For me, I have also found highlighting and praising good behaviour works well as players quickly realise that I am more likely to give recognition to positive behaviour than I am to poor behaviour. This does require some judgement as I will on occasion `ignore` some low level poor behaviour if I can counter this by highlighting something a player has done well. I also firmly believe in setting a high bar on behaviour and keeping it there. From my experience, players (even very young ones) will raise their level of behaviour considerably to meet the expectations set and for most players they appreciate a consistent and positive behavioural enviroment.

In summary

Poor behaviour can present itself in many different forms and for many different reasons. If we can understand the triggers and manage how we react, we will be in a better position to deal with these situations when they arise. The best approach to creating a positive behavioural environment for training and matches is by ensuring there is a philosophy and clear values in place that highlight the importance of appropriate behaviour. This then needs to be lived and breathed consistently with us as coaches leading by example and reinforced constantly until appropriate behaviour is the norm. Set a high bar and don’t compromise. Focus as much as possible on positive behaviour and actions…and remember, ultimately…the only persons behaviour we can truly control is our own!

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