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Coaching a Difficult/Selfish Player – Part 2

The following article comes to us courtesy of Spencer Wood and ICEBOX Performance.

Don’t Miss Part 1

Almost every coach and athlete has at one time or another instructed and/or played with a selfish teammate. Even for individual sports (such as throwing events in track, non-relay running events, wrestling or singles tennis etc) a selfish teammate can ruin morale, poison the team culture, and make coaching a downright unpleasant experience at times.   In team sports, the negative effects of this type of selfish attitude can be even more devastating. Without knowing the personality of the individual or the circumstances involved in each individual situation, it is very difficult to discuss broad, sweeping solutions to coaching the selfish athlete that will fit every circumstance, however, I do believe there are some general thoughts on how to deal with the selfish athlete that can help with almost all situations.

First, lets create a scenario. Let’s pretend that you are a high school or college basketball coach, and your best player has an ego that ruined last season for the team by robbing the team of its full potential and hurting team morale. However, the situation is much more complicated than a ‘just cut him’ solution, because he is one of the most gifted and toughest athletes you have ever coached, and the team wins more games with him on the floor. Yet, he is all about public recognition and so always puts his stats, especially points per game, above the team and consistently makes selfish plays. He is also the team’s best rebounder and shot blocker, and though the team could have been so much better if he would have played each game with the right attitude, you believe the team would have been even worse without him. You have met with him on numerous occasions about this issue and he says the right things to your face and then does the opposite on the court. You have considered cutting him or sitting him, but again, you won more games with him on the court, and have a better win-loss record since he joined the team. How should we move forward with this athlete and look toward next season?

As mentioned in “Part 1 of Coaching a Difficult/Selfish Player”, I always divide an athlete’s inability to follow through on a coach’s request into two categories: ‘can’t do’ and ‘won’t do’. Can’t do activities just require knowledge, training and time, won’t do activities require attitude adjustments, and it sounds like a serious attitude adjustment is necessary! However, I do have to ask an important question before sharing some advice….How do you know for certain that the team will be worse off in the long run without this player? His selfish behavior may only build long-term resentment on the team (no one enjoys playing with a selfish player) and he is being enabled to set a poor example to the rest of the team that a selfish attitude that contributes to winning in the short term is more important than the morale and potential of the team in the long term.

Further, when this player graduates, you may be left with a team of players who are under-developed (because they have not been developed with enough game shots – shots that have been stolen by your ‘star’), and a team of one or two individuals who may attempt to play exactly how your selfish player has played this past season, because that is the example that was set for them, and they also know they will not be benched for this type of play. I believe that these questions really test the ‘ethos’ of our soul and challenge us to reflect on why we actually coach. This question becomes all the more troubling for a major college coach where winning often dictates job security. For most coaches I know, the reasons they coach typically include the satisfaction of developing young minds, teaching important life skills, molding character and teaching athletes how to compete and win (without compromising any of the first three goals).

In the event you do decide to keep this player on the team for next year, have you thought about tapping into his need for recognition to encourage a more selfless attitude? Let me explain. Athletes basic needs and drivers fall into one or more of the following four categories.

  1. The joy of just playing their game
  2. For the attention / public recognition it provides
  3. For the joy of mastering a task
  4. For the joy of striving to beat others at something.

Obviously we want athletes who are predominately motivated by the 1st, 3rd and 4th drivers vs. the 2nd driver. Your athlete does sound like a competitor (remember, he also leads the team in blocks and rebounds) so one thought would be to turn some of the unselfish intangibles in the sport into an actual competition (ie for basketball some obvious examples of unselfish tangibles would be taking a charge, hustle plays, finding the open man, encouraging a teammate etc etc), and have a team manager score practice with a point system for each of these plays. Almost every major sport has a set of unselfish intangibles that can also be scored in this way. At ¼ intervals throughout practice stop the play action and make a big deal of who the top 3 players were to ‘win’ that quarter. Post a chart in the locker room, and keep the same stats for games. Give out some fun, cool (but inexpensive) prizes for the ‘player of the week’ in this ‘toughness of character’ category.

Athletes who are true competitors and who love public recognition want to be #1 in everything. Be innovative and come up with additional ways to build a more selfless attitude in those key athletes on your team! Here’s wishing you the best of success!


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about rick torbett

Rick Torbett has taught thousands of coaches to win more games through his innovative approach to the game. He has created powerful training for coaches at any level so they can coach their best and win more games.

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Read & React 5-Player Coordination Drills

Enter your email address to get an inside look at teaching the Read & React Offense with the drills in this free video.