The Importance of Tough Coaching Conversations with Athletes

In the world of sports, few topics are as sensitive and potentially contentious as playing time. Coaches face the challenge of balancing the needs of individual athletes with the goals of the team while navigating the delicate terrain of egos, emotions, and self-confidence. Having tough conversations about topics like playing time requires empathy first and clear and direct communication skills second.  Successful coaches must have both of these capabilities in order to build trust with their athletes.

If coaches are going to push their players every single day, the expectations must be clearly defined.  If hard work is the ultimate goal, then letting athletes know when their effort isn’t up to par is very important.

Basketball great Lebron James said, “You can’t control the decisions of the coach, but you can control how hard you work and how prepared you are when your number is called.”

Coaches are not just mentors; they’re leaders, motivators, and teachers. Yet one of the most challenging aspects of this role is having these tough conversations with athletes – especially around level-setting playing time. These complicated discussions that address performance issues or personal struggles can be overwhelming for everyone involved. While uncomfortable, they are absolutely critical for the growth and development of both the athlete and the team as a whole.

Furthermore, uncomfortable conversations challenge athletes to adopt a growth mindset. By addressing areas of weakness or mistakes in games, coaches can help athletes view setbacks as opportunities for learning and development. Without these conversations, athletes may become complacent or resigned to their current level of performance. After all, a coach’s job is to inspire, develop, and make their athletes better. This cannot be done without honest and direct feedback.

So many of the athletes that I work with are confused about their playing time (or lack thereof) and don’t understand what they need to do to be a bigger contributor on their team.  By not addressing expectations clearly, the entire team suffers and coaches can’t maximize the potential of an individual player.

Transparency is key when it comes to playing time and position on a team. Clearly outlining the criteria and expectations for earning playing time at the beginning of the season or during player evaluations is very important.  Regular feedback is also crucial for athlete development and can help manage expectations throughout the season. Avoiding these difficult conversations can create conflicts and significant frustration down the line.

If a coach is clear on expectations, his or her athletes can focus on improvement and how to make the team better.  Boston Celtics player Jayson Tatum believes, “You can’t control playing time, but you can control your attitude and effort.”

Tough conversations challenge athletes to push beyond their comfort zones and strive for excellence. By addressing areas of improvement, coaches help athletes realize their full potential in achieve their goals. Without these conversations, athletes may never reach the heights of which they are capable. This is where exceptional coaches make the biggest difference.

While it may be uncomfortable, honesty is crucial when discussing a player’s skill set. A coach should avoid vague or ambiguous language, and be direct about the reasons behind playing time decisions. Providing specific examples to support the feedback or suggestions for improvement can go a very long way.  Ultimately, these conversations are opportunities for growth and development, both on and off the field.

“Playing time isn’t something you’re entitled to, it’s something you earn through hard work and dedication.” – USA Soccer Player, Mia Hamm.

linda smiling<br />

Written by Linda Martindale

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