Conflict …

… is perceived as a scourge by many. Most of the time, a positive environment is critical to team performance. Nevertheless, seasons and balloons lose their attraction when one leaves the beach and enters the real world. Conflict is not a scourge but a force that is integral to improvement.

Playing together entails constant on-court communication. It is unlikely that a player will take issue with “screen left!”, “outlet!”, or “double down!” because those words are meant to contribute to team performance. However, cross words may be exchanged over events on the court and hard feelings have arisen between team-mates.

Is there a significant difference between the two types of communication? I don’t believe so. As a player and coach, I’ve exchanged some frank words with other players and coaches in the course of winning games. Players must feel free to let a teammate know when they are not meeting standards.

Many media pundits and team members feel that a seminal moment of Florida’s 2006 run to the Final Four was a fight during an off-season scrimmage. As a result of the scuffle between a perhaps underachieving upperclassman and a freshman yearning for a greater role, the team developed a new work ethic that enabled them to play hard and play together. Evidentially, fisticuffs are usually signs of severe problem but this specific example shows the galvanising power of conflict among those who remain.

Conflict exists in a spectrum, ranging from silent resentment to passive-aggressive behaviour to an all-out Itchy and Scratchy rivalry. In the short term, it can inspire people and create energy that promotes achievement. In the long term, it becomes an obstacle to progress. Conflict resolution is an essential skill ignored by the school system so coaches must often intervene to mitigate player interactions on the team.

Providing more than details would reveal the identity of the individuals involved but I’ve witnessed and heard about a number of cases where coaches have let ego and conflict get the best of them. Instead of mediating, they escalate and “team discipline” costs the team again. Patience, tolerance, and respect for others are key coaching tools. Tennessee coach Pat Summitt says that “coaching is all about human relationships.”

What can coaches do?

Modeling the Way

The first element of good leadership is setting the example. Coaches cannot control the team tightly if they do not have high personal standards themselves. Players are asked to commit to the team’s goals and they are encouraged when they see they coach commit to self-improvement goals too. Following a training routine convinces players to do likewise. Following a course or pursuing a hobby encourages team members to find balance in their lives.


Conflict occurs when there is a divergence of values or expectations. When setting norms, coaches should promote clear communication and teach student-athletes about leadership and compromise. Mike Krzyzewski pairs freshman and returning players to foster leadership and team values. The ability to compromise is a skill that is often neglected. Brinkmanship with at-risk youth makes a situation worse instead of finding solutions.


A lack of respect may result in conflict. Teammates are not required to like each other but they are required to respect each other. Coaches can acknowledge all contributions to the team and improve self-confidence with positive feedback. A bench player’s thirty seconds of defence should be valued as much as a starter’s thirty points.

Ask Questions

Sometimes, inner conflict drives external conflict. Helping players resolve their personal issues will improve their relationship with their teammates. Nevertheless, inner conflict is the most difficult conflict to resolve and may take an entire season. It’s worth the effort because that player will contribute to the team for the next three or four years. Coaches can aid players to perceive the information positively. The Choice Theorist would ask: “How to you feel about that?” or “What are you trying to tell me with your choices?”

Player Discipline

In the classroom and on the court, discipline is closely correlated with success. When some of a student-athlete’s energy is devoted to disruptive behaviour, they cannot perform at their best. When other players see a peer bending the rules, they feel resentful and entitled to the same benefits. These creative agreements aim to motivate players to take responsibility for their actions and encourage commitment to the team. When young people start to take responsibility for themselves and the team, success follows.

Co-operation First

My discipline philosophy is mostly co-operative, relying on the fact that student-athletes are young adults. They deserve the chance to demonstrate their maturity and coaches must provide opportunities for players to develop conflict resolution skills. In the real world, people are quick to anger, have difficulty making appropriate choices, or do not take responsibility for their actions rarely reach compromises that benefit all parties.

Escalation (If Necessary)

Discipline is always firm and fair. If necessary, it can escalate to more severe consequences. Dismissal from the team is always a last result, but it is a possible outcome for the player who consistently disrupts the group environment. Punishing the team for an individual’s transgressions is not the first choice because although peer pressure can prove effective, it can have long-term consequences. Resentment may brew towards the player for breaking the rules and hurting the entire squad or the coach may lose the locker room because of perceived unfairness towards an important figure within the team culture.

Discretion is the Better Part of Valour

In an Ideal Quality World, conflicts are resolved discreetly, following a measured decision making process. Coaches meet with players face-to-face, show understanding, and give them support; it could be a major family issue, personal troubles, a school dilemma, or something else.

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