Top 6 Mistakes Sports Teams Make at the Start of the Season.
1. Not paying attention to building new relationships.
By this I don’t mean failing to have a team building dinner, go on a hike or bowling. I mean using intentionality to establish opportunities for new team members to get to know one another. Assigning seats in the locker room, using icebreakers during every practice to share stories and organizing car pools that mix people up and break up established cliques are all good strategies. Veteran hockey coach AJ Sander believes this to be one of the most important aspects of team-building to pay attention when team-forming at the start of the season. He has bench assignments for his players and meticulously plans who bunks together in hotel rooms on travel tournaments with this very purpose in mind. Strong teams are made up of members with strong relationships not between a few but with everyone.
2. Not being clear about each athlete’s role.
This common pitfall can be combated by having honest and sometimes difficult face to face conversations about starting line ups and playing time well in advance of the game. Announcing the starting roster as players are about to take the court/field/ice can leads athletes to process surprise, disappointment, elation and other emotions at the exact time you don’t want them to be focused on anything other than the game at hand. Have a team meeting to share your decision about roles well in advance of the actual game to allow athletes time to digest the information. Explain how the decision was made. Explain that roles are not static and how players can move between them (eg moving from back up setter to starting setter). Explain how playing time can be earned. Explain when decisions for shifts will be made and when players can discuss decisions with you. This is a tricky conversation and it is imperative it happens face to face. Basketball Coach Nate Sanderson and author JP Nerbun believe this is a powerful way to reduce confusion and mitigate conflict. I agree with them!
3. Not prioritizing time for weekly off the court/field/ice face to face team meetings to discuss arising issues or problems.
There’s no question that regular forums are a concrete way to establish healthy communication among your team. Taking a proactive approach to conflict creates opportunities for your team to function at a much higher level. Remember, the goal is not to eliminate conflict altogether—this is unrealistic (and not what you want, anyway)—but to convert conflict from something destructive to something that makes your team stronger.
It’s important to share ownership of team challenges. When this kind of teamwork occurs, trust is built, and the improvement is easily identifiable in competition. When your teammates trust one another, they take risks in their play that pay off. When they don’t, they take fewer risks and their level of play is limited. Think about it from your athletes’ perspective: It’s hard to take a shot if you are worried about a missed shot being judged, or are concerned about facing scorn from a teammate or coach.
The system I have seen that works best is based on communication and transparency. It is a structured process called team planning meetings where teams use a structured predictable conversation once a week to provide the opportunity for dialogue about the good the bad and the ugly! Download your free guide to learn how to implement them from the beginning of the season.
4. Not normalizing conflict through developing and enforcing guidelines around how it will be managed.
Guidelines establish a baseline for behaviour and set group norms. They should be developed by the group that is agreeing to them, not created as a solo exercise by the coach, the association or the school. They are not effectively established by e-mailing a code of conduct to the team nor is an on-line club policy adequate. These types of formal rules are necessary but are different from what we are looking at here. You need your whole team’s buy-in for this to work. Once established the pressure of policing behaviour and conflict avoidance is taken away from the team’s leadership and the entire group can hold each other accountable by referring back to the agreed upon list if necessary. It is also so handy for team members to refer back to in order to have a reminder of their owns agreement when lapses occur (for example if they are communicating by text rather than face to face conversations to resolve difficulties or are distracted by their phones at practice). Guidelines are a great way to normalize conflict by expressly creating a tool to anticipate it and manage it. More on the how, when, why and what of guidelines in last month’s blog found here.
5. Not developing a shared purpose through consideration of both team and individual goals.
Your goal as coach may be to win the championship. One athlete’s goal may be to have social opportunities at practices, another’s may be to have an outlet to stay in shape while having fun, another’s still may be to have exposure to university recruiters. Every team member will have a different goal. The trick is to consider each individual’s goals and develop opportunities for them to meet their goals while at the same time establishing a broader team goal. This is a conversation and activity that should happen at the beginning of the season. Goal setting should not be done by coaches in isolation and each team member’s individual goal is just as important as the next.
6. Not establishing primary communication pathways through face to face interaction.
The number one biggest source of unmanaged conflict that I have seen on any team is when members try to navigate a conflict through the use of e-mail or text. Let me be blunt here - It just doesn’t work. Ever. Conflict is an escalation of emotion around a disagreement that takes active work to resolve. A face to face conversation is your best plan. It can be scary and something you want to avoid but it is the only way. Here is my free ultimate e-mail survival guide to help you with tips and tricks to master the fine art of conflict management and e-mail.
Good luck team! By avoiding the above pitfalls and establishing some of these systems I know you are bound for an outstanding season!