Keeping the Peace

When a student-athlete comes to you with a complaint about a coach, what’s your first reaction? What’s your plan of action? In this article, athletic directors give advice on how to mediate the conflict—and make it a teaching moment for athlete and coach.

By Shelly Wilson

Shelly Wilson is an Assistant Editor at Athletic Management.

Athletic Management, 13.2, February/March 2001,

In the history of coach vs. athlete confrontations, a few title bouts stand out: the string of Bobby Knight incidents, Latrell Sprewell’s “hands-on” approach to conflict resolution, and those repeated personality clashes between John Elway and Dan Reeves in Denver. But away from the public eye, athletic directors at the high school and college level face countless more conflicts that they must defuse—not so much to keep the disagreement off the front page of the sports section, but to restore a functional harmony to a team or program.

Some athlete complaints against coaches are valid. Some are not. But athletic directors agree that, either way, the complaint must be dealt with and the conflict resolved. In this article, athletic directors share their tips for successfully maneuvering through this process.

Do’s and Don’ts
One of the first things an athletic director must do when a complaint arises is understand his or her role in the process. While extreme cases, such as allegations of harassment or abuse, may require administrators to sit in judgment over the parties, the athletic director’s role in most conflict-resolution issues is that of negotiator and facilitator—not judge and jury.

“I don’t consider myself a judge and I don’t want to be a judge,” says Clyde Doughty, Jr., Director of Intercollegiate Athletics and Recreation at New York Institute of Technology, who has Master’s degrees in Human Resource Management and Human Relations. “I’m a mediator. I want to be that person who brings people together so they can work out their problems.”

In this role, the first rule is this: don’t react too hastily. “I’ve seen cases where athletic directors have made assumptions and didn’t try to get through preconceived notions they had about the particular athlete or coach,” says Gene Smith, Director of Athletics at Arizona State University. “And that’s not fair. So I learned a long time ago to step back and really get into the details of the issue, not the personalities.”

“Don’t jump to any conclusions,” agrees Doughty. “Sometimes new athletic directors have a tendency to believe the first thing they hear and then run with it. And by the time they discover the correct information, they’ve made a few mistakes along the way. Then they have to correct those.”

It’s also helpful to remain positive about the complaint, to view it as a learning opportunity. “A major downfall in the resolution process is that people don’t use conflict as a means of growth,” says Ryan Lipson, a dispute-negotiation expert and consultant with Communication Development Associates, Inc., in Woodland Hills, Calif. “An important part of the process is to look at complaints as opportunities to gain understanding.”

Athletic directors also advise taking each complaint seriously. “Every athlete who walks through the door does so because they feel they have something important to say,” says Greg Warzecka, Director of Athletics at the University of California-Davis. “And I feel that it’s our role to listen to student-athletes and try to understand their perspectives and their problems.”

“Often, athletes are hesitant to come to your office and complain in the first place because they feel that you are part of the coaching staff,” says Doughty. “So when they do come in, you know the problem has to be something monumental in their mind.”

And since athletes may be hesitant to come into your office, it helps to build a pattern of trust and communication with them before problems arise. “I try to get to know all my student-athletes,” says Doughty. “I’m constantly involved. I go to practices and I go on the road with my teams. I don’t know everyone’s family tree, but they can say, ‘Clyde Doughty is the athletic director, he has sat and spoken with me, and he knows my name.’ So when they come into my office, we’re not strangers to one another.”

Communication Strategies
When a student-athlete approaches you with a complaint, he or she is seeking to open a positive and productive dialogue that will lead to resolution. In order to assure the individual that you intend to help solve the problem, you need to demonstrate your concern and your desire to get to the heart of the conflict. Lipson recommends two communication techniques for showing your interest: “active listening” and “separating issues from interests.”

Active listening is just what it sounds like: using action to show attentiveness. It entails, for example, giving verbal acknowledgments like “Yes” and “Uh-huh,” periodically to show that you are tracking the conversation. “Don’t delay acknowledging that you’ve heard what the party has said,” Lipson explains. “It doesn’t matter if you disagree with what the person has said. Be fairly immediate with saying, ‘I’ve heard what you’ve said. Let me repeat back to you what I think you said so I can make sure I fully understand it.’ That way the student-athlete feels as though the athletic director at least understands his or her problem.”

Active listening also has a non-verbal component. For instance, be aware of your posture. Lean in rather than lean away from the athlete. Resist fidgeting with items on your desk. Make eye contact as the athlete explains his or her position. These are all small points, but according to Lipson, studies have shown that non-verbal behavior and that which isn’t said may have a greater impact than what is said.

The second component of effective communication is distinguishing the issue at hand from the athlete’s underlying concerns. Often an athlete’s complaint is really a mask for another dissatisfaction. By digging beyond the issue brought forth, you can get to the heart of the matter—which makes achieving an effective resolution that much more likely.

“What comes up on the surface is always an issue,” explains Lipson. “‘This happened to me. Coach did this.’ What needs to be discovered are interests, because there are ways to satisfy interests, even both parties’ interests, without it being a win/lose situation.”

Getting to an athlete’s interests or feelings takes a little more effort, but it can be achieved by asking open-ended questions during your discussion. In other words, rather than posing questions that can be answered with a simple “Yes” or “No,” ask “How?” “Why?” and “What?” so the athlete can expand his or her responses and reveal deeper concerns.

“For instance,” Lipson says, “an athlete might visit the athletic director and say, ‘My coach is always screaming at me in practice in front of the rest of the team.’ If the athletic director handles the situation the way most people do, he or she might tell the coach to stop doing that, or reprimand him or her. But the more productive method is to ask the student-athlete, ‘What would it mean if the coach didn’t yell at you anymore? How would you know you were satisfied with the solution?’ And the athlete might respond, ‘I wouldn’t feel disrespected anymore.’

“So what you’ve done is taken the problem away from the yelling and put it on the fact that the student-athlete feels disrespected,” Lipson continues. “And then it’s a much easier problem to work with, because there are many ways to show respect to a person. And you may discover that the coach didn’t mean to disrespect the player.”

Once the root concern has been identified, athletic directors agree that, in many cases, a quick word with the athlete will often resolve the problem. “Sometimes I can provide input to alleviate the feelings they have, because often they simply don’t understand what’s going on,” says Doughty. “They’re not privileged to a lot of information, and they’ll say ‘Oh, I didn’t understand that.’ Then you’ve narrowed some gaps right there.”

Warzecka agrees. “We hear complaints that are based on philosophical differences between the athlete and the coach,” he says. “And there are complaints over the direction of the program, or the type of offense or defense being used. Sometimes these are quite easily resolved.

But when dealing with more complicated complaints, those that can’t be explained with some discussion right there and then, you need to determine the next steps in the process and share that timeline with the student-athlete. “Student-athletes are like all other people,” says Barbara Hedges, Director of Athletics at the University of Washington. “They want you to get back to them. If you ignore their complaint or don’t get back to them for three months, they don’t feel that you valued their concern at all.”

“You have to set expectations,” says Smith, “because an athlete could walk out of the room and think something’s going to be done tomorrow. So you have to give a clear picture of the process and explain that the process takes time. In order to protect all the people involved, you need to be diligent, and that takes time.”

But before ending your initial meeting, be sure to ask some critical questions. Has the student-athlete met with the coach yet? If so, what was the outcome? Has he or she talked to anyone else about this? And most importantly, is there anything the athlete has been doing or not doing that may have negatively contributed to the conflict at hand?

“Sometimes I get stories where only partial truths are told,” says Doughty. “Then when I get to the coach, he or she starts laying all this other stuff on me. And when I call the student-athlete back into my office and say, ‘You didn’t tell me about X, Y, and Z,’ the claim is, ‘Oh, well I forgot about those things.’”

Addressing the Coach
As the object of the complaint, the coach also has to be a party to generating a solution. Alerting the coach to the complaint made is not a conversation most athletic directors relish, but if a good relationship with the coach has been established before conflicts arise, then interchange with the coach has a better chance of being productive.

“I hold monthly staff meetings and my door is always open,” says Doughty. “I’m also constantly in my coaches’ offices, not to badger them, but just to say, ‘Hello. How are you doing? Is everything okay?’ This way, they know they have my support and don’t see me only when there’s trouble.”

Just as important is that your coaches know you. “Because I’ve often hired them, my coaches know my philosophy,” says Smith. “Then, if an issue has been brought to my attention and I want to sit down and talk to them about it, they know where I’m coming from. It’s not a matter of being on somebody’s side; it’s a matter of correcting a problem.”

Athletic directors agree that the best way to deliver the news to a coach is to respect his or her professionalism by being direct rather than trying to soften the blow. “You just need to be honest, get to the point, make the coach aware of the situation, and ask, ‘How do we deal with it?’” says Mike Dinning, former Director of Intercollegiate Athletics and Recreation at Simon Fraser University and current Director of Campus Community Services.

If tension does mount, it can be reduced, in part, by focusing your disapproval on the alleged actions and not the coach. “If you form the discussion so you express your problem with what the coach is doing, rather than the coach as a person, then you can actually work as a team to reach resolution instead of working as adversaries,” says Lipson.

As touchy as the moment could be, the truth is that most coaches handle the news well. “I’ve found that most of them are receptive to the information,” says Dinning. “Because they are success-oriented people, they are willing to listen. They want things to run well, they want to be successful at what they do. And since usually these complaints are about communication and fair treatment of athletes, I have found few coaches who just say, ‘I’m not going to deal with this.’ In fact it’s usually the opposite.”

However, if a complaint is quite serious and job security is at stake, the athletic director must be sure to follow all institutional and departmental policies. This may mean notifying outside departments that can assist in the resolution process.

The Meeting
Since the majority of athlete vs. coach conflicts result from failures in communication, the crux of the resolution process usually rests on restoring that faulty component. The athletic director must use his or her authority and persuasive powers to encourage the two disputing parties to come together, air their grievances, and brainstorm ways to prevent a recurrence of the problem in the future.

When possible, the coach and athlete should meet without the athletic director present. Although the task may seem daunting to young athletes, athletic directors insist that a one-on-one meeting has immense value.

“Problems develop because of a lack of communication,” says Warzecka, “so you try to encourage communication and dialogue between the student-athlete and the coach. And I’d say 80 percent of the time, these things can be resolved by the two sitting down and talking through things.”

“An athletic director has to be a facilitator of problem solving,” says Lipson. “You can’t just go in and solve the problem. If you solve people’s problems for them they don’t own the solution.”

“These are teaching moments,” adds Smith. “In the workplace, you have to communicate with your supervisor when you have a problem. If you don’t, and you go to his or her supervisor without their knowledge, that comes back and it jeopardizes the relationship. It’s all about relationship, and if things have not been broached with the coach, and the student-athlete wants to meet with me and then the coach, trust is already breached between the two.

“So when I meet with teams at the beginning of the year,” continues Smith, “I tell the athletes, ‘I know that periodically you’ll have issues that may be challenging, but you have to talk to your coach about them. If you really can’t deal with the coach’s response, then protocol is for you and the coach to meet with me, and hopefully I can resolve it. But you have to understand that you’re going to have these conflicts all through your life, and if you cannot effectively communicate in negative situations, then you’re not learning anything here.’”

But just because you’re not present at the meeting doesn’t mean you can’t provide both the athlete and the coach with some instructions to help it go more smoothly. For instance, you might consider encouraging the student-athlete to modify his or her delivery.

“The athletic director can do a lot to help the student-athlete refine his or her thoughts and put it all in perspective,” says Lipson. “This will allow the athlete to go to the coach with a less emotional and more measured message.”

“In the past, I’ve told coaches, ‘If the student-athlete is having difficulty communicating with you, feels intimidated, or feels that you’re not listening, how about allowing him to bring another student-athlete in the room with him?’” says Dinning. “Often this is a huge comfort to the player. And I always suggest letting the athlete pick the individual they want in the room. That’s just one small way to help encourage communication.”

Doughty also instructs his coaches to consider the location when organizing a meeting. “I encourage my coaches to handle the situation in a setting that is conducive for both of them,” says Doughty. “It might be in his or her office or it might be sitting on the bleachers. Wherever is an appropriate place for them to get these things off their chests.”

Serving As Moderator
In those instances when the one-on-one meeting between the athlete and coach proves fruitless, the athletic director must truly step up to the role of being a unifying force and functioning as a moderator. The three should meet as a group, with the goal being to get each party to understand and respect the other’s perspective.

According to Lipson, a good opening approach is to look for areas of agreement. As hard as it sounds, the idea is to create agreement momentum that will move both parties closer to some common ground. For instance, you might ask them, “Can you agree that you both want our program to be a success? Can you agree that the team and coaches are working really hard to achieve wins? That being part of a collegiate program demands a large time and emotional commitment?”

Next, Lipson recommends asking the athlete to explain how he or she feels about the problem, and when finished, ask the coach to restate what was just said. Then do the same for the coach.

“This really helps the people involved to gain some understanding,” says Lipson. “A lot of times when we’re engaged in things like this, as the other person is talking, instead of listening, we’re forming our own argument or response to what they’re saying. So the technique can help each party involved really hear what the other is saying. And, often, things are resolved when each party knows they’ve been heard.”

Although it’s always best to allow the two individuals to develop their own solution, an intuitive athletic director can suggest possible creative solutions for them to consider. “I may say to a coach, ‘With this student-athlete you have to be more precise. In your regular individual meetings from now on, you may want to write things down and hand it to him or her,’” says Smith. “Or I might suggest to the athlete, ‘When you meet with your coach, you might want to go in there with a typed agenda of issues you want to talk about.’”

When a potential solution is reached, whether through their one-on-one meeting or your moderated meeting, success is dependent on both parties following through with the solution—which means the athletic director has one more step to complete. “In any type of management scenario, the last step in every policy and procedure is follow-up,” says Doughty. “I can’t just take it for granted that ‘X’ is going to happen. I need to see the coach or player in the hall or at practice and ask, ‘Did you speak yet? Is everything okay?’ And I can look at their faces and body language to determine if things are better with them.”

“Follow-up is vital,” agrees Lipson. “In this situation, you have an ongoing relationship, so you need to check the progress of things. I would actually give it no more than a month before you talk to both parties again, because relationships are so fluid, they can change with one sentence. And you do need to follow up with both parties—because even though it may be the student-athlete who was the complaining party, the new arrangement might prove very difficult for the coach.”

The Unsatisfied
Inevitably, despite your best efforts, there will be instances where one of the parties will not be satisfied with the resolution. For example, when you determine an athlete’s complaint to be simply unjustified, the news can be difficult for the athlete to accept. To help aid the athlete’s understanding of the situation, some athletic directors rely on non-departmental resources to lend credibility to the decision.

“I tell the athlete, ‘Look, I understand your position. I’ve evaluated your position, and you need to accept that this is the way the program is going to run,’” says Smith. “‘I am objective here, and I know you may feel that is not the case because you don’t like my response. So why don’t you go see a couple more people and really talk this through.’ Then I will identify one or two more adults they can speak with—usually a faculty member or someone outside of the department. And that helps them face reality better, because their immediate reaction is that there was no objectivity in the assessment of the problem.”

Doughty has also found success satisfying disgruntled coaches and athletes by using on-campus counselors. “If I am not getting through to a coach or athlete, I use my counseling services,” he says. “Because sometimes there may be issues outside of athletics that are preventing them from understanding what I’m saying.

“For instance, when a student-athlete can’t comprehend why we’re doing things the way we are, and I feel like it’s no longer an athletic problem, I’ll say, ‘Maybe it’s time for you to talk to someone outside of this arena who can give you an unbiased opinion. Maybe there’s something outside of athletics that is creating these problems, but this is where it’s causing you the most anguish because you’re spending most of your time here.’ And that has worked tremendously well.”

In the end, conflict resolution is an in-depth process characterized by constant sensitivity, dialogue, and digging. But the most important piece of the process may be simply showing that you care. “We’re all interested in the welfare of student-athletes,” says Warzecka, “and things can go very well if athletic administrators and coaches demonstrate that concern. When that is put aside or ignored, that’s when problems start to occur.”

Hunting & Gathering
Sometimes, a conflict between a coach and a player cannot be resolved simply by the two parties airing their differences. Or, in some cases, facts and explanations are contradictory, making it unclear whose version of the situation is most accurate. This is when complaint management must take on an investigative phase. And according to Gene Smith, Director of Athletics at Arizona State University, determining the truth can be an arduous process.

“Each case is different,” he explains. “Sometimes it’s a case where behavior, language, or recruiting method is being criticized and those can only be assessed if you were there at practice and witnessed it happen. Other times the complaint involves a one-on-one conversation where something was said in the coach’s office, and sometimes those facts are never quantifiable.”

But in your quest to determine complaint credibility, there are numerous resources within your department that can prove useful. These include team members, former student-athletes, and other staff members.

Before you start investigating the complaint, however, Mike Dinning, former Director of Athletics at Simon Fraser University, warns that there are two things to keep in mind. “First, you want to protect, to the best of your ability, the confidentiality of the complaint,” he explains. “After all, why make it public on a team if you don’t have to? Second, you need to protect the rights of the coach and try not to undermine his or her authority to operate the team.”

When Clyde Doughty, Jr., Director of Intercollegiate Athletics and Recreation at the New York Institute of Technology, needs more facts, some of the first people he turns to are the athlete’s teammates. “I always seek out someone on the team who I feel is a mature individual and who understands the dynamics of the team,” says Doughty. “And I’ll ask him or her a couple of questions. Not anything pointed at one particular athlete, but some general questions about the program to see if things are going well, and if they’re not, what’s rocking the boat.”

To keep the conversation casual, Doughty looks for an informal environment. “I don’t call them into my office,” he continues, “but instead orchestrate a programmed ‘running into.’ I’ll know where they are going to be at a certain time and they think I’m running into them accidentally. Then you get them to talk without realizing that they’re giving you information.”

Looking beyond the current team roster can also prove productive. “Sometimes I’ll approach former student-athletes,” says Smith. “We have post-eligibility student-athletes here, and they are typically very comfortable with helping. They have the most recent experience on the team and are obviously not in a threatening environment. But you do have to frame things in a way so that they understand what you’re talking about is confidential. ”

Your best sources, however, are often your athletic trainers and strength and conditioning coaches. “They are very helpful,” says Doughty. “Since that’s where athletes get treated, people have a tremendous amount of conversation. It’s an open forum. Athletes don’t even realize they’re talking about certain things.”

“And staff members aren’t reluctant to tell you what they know,” assures Smith. “In 90 percent of the programs in the country, those people are genuinely concerned about the process of developing the total student-athlete and are genuinely concerned about their welfare and experience here. Everybody understands that big picture.”