I’m sure, like me, you’ve had many challenging conversations in your lifetime. Some that have gone well and others that have gone as badly as kicking a behind… from the top of the goal square. As a coach, your job is to help develop players to become the best they can be. The process of aiding players’ growth and development rarely comes without some correction; challenge; and, sometimes, rebuke. As a supportive (and hopefully wiser) guide, there are some things that you can do to help these challenging conversations go as smoothly as possible. You can prepare yourselves mentally and practically, you can practice the message with others (or ourselves), and you can promote an environment in which these conversations can occur easily. Let’s start with how you can prepare for challenging conversations.
Practical Preparation – There is never a perfect time or place
The first step in preparing for a challenging conversation is knowing that there will never be a perfect time or place. Waiting for the “right time” will inevitably lead to the conversation dropping off your radar and not happening, or, when it does happen, it will occur at a bad time (e.g., when you have little capacity to hear the player’s response), or bad place (e.g., in ear shot of a bunch of other players or parents)!
In local footy there are often fewer opportunities than the professional level to catch players individually and have a good chat. Time around training and game day can be tight; more often than not, you and your players have commitments outside of footy that you have to get on with! Given these constraints, the key is to pick a time and place where you can be present, that is, tuned into the player (what they are saying, showing) and give them your full attention. Likewise, choosing a time or place in which the player will be able to focus and hear your message and be able to respond without worrying too much about what others are thinking or doing around them is central to a good opportunity for a challenging chat. That could be as simple as having a quick chat in the car park before or after training, when other players aren’t around.
Practical Preparation – Cultivate a good opportunity
With the myth of the perfect time and place put aside, here are some questions to consider to help you cultivate a good opportunity for a challenging conversation:
- Environment – Who else will be around? And will the presence of others hinder the conversation? When having a challenging conversation with a junior or youth player, it’s likely to be necessary to have another adult present or for them to be able to see your conversation (in line with child safe-guarding procedures), but for adults, it may be worthwhile finding a time and place in which you can talk away from other ears.
How will the player feel in this environment? If you choose to talk with the player on the side of the oval, during training, how would you feel if you were the player in the conversation and were being watched by others? Consider how you would feel being spoken to in the place you choose.
How familiar is the environment for the player? If you pull a player into your club’s office for a private conversation, how normal is that? Consider that players will likely respond better if they are in familiar surroundings.
- Timing – would before or after training or a game work? If a player is likely to have a strong emotional reaction to your conversation, it is worth considering whether a player is going to have enough time to process the conversation and their reaction to it before they are expected to play, or train, or that they leave your duty of care. Sometimes a conversation before training (before others arrive) can be a good time, because players have the opportunity to see that you have played the ball (i.e., you have addressed the issue, for example, deselection or their attitude) and not the man (i.e., that you are able to leave your frustration aside and not continue to assassinate their character).
- Tempo – Have you carved out enough time so that you don’t have to rush the conversation and the player has enough time to think and respond? You could need anywhere from one minute to one hour. In any case, have you considered how much time you will need to say what you need to say, as well as giving the player time to raise their questions or responses (remember, challenging conversations are not monologues, they are dialogues!).
- Tee-ing up – Going to the effort to organise a time and be intentional about making space for conversations often works well. Sometimes these challenging conversations can emerge naturally on game day or around a training session, walking to or from the rooms or between exercises at training, but other times we need to schedule, arrange, or block out some time to talk. Sending a message, calling a head, or flagging a time to talk with a player can be useful if you think you won’t catch them easily. Also, don’t be afraid to ask someone to talk at a later time or take the conversation to a different location (away from the rooms to the oval or car park) if you feel like the timing or the environment on the day isn’t quite right.
It’s worth considering if you are in a good headspace to have the conversation with the player. Sometimes players can annoy us and the message we are wanting to get across to the player is blurred by our own personal reaction. Reflecting on what you are bringing to the conversation is useful before you have it (if you have time to prepare in this way) – what are your thoughts, feelings and behaviours towards the player? Is there anything you can do before the conversation starts that might help you be in a better place? That might be some relaxation exercises, thinking through your message, or just having an awareness that you are having a reaction to the player before you start! Try and keep in mind the aim of the conversation is to help the player learn – more about themselves, how to play better, or how to behave in a different way to help them be a better person or player. Keep the learning at the centre of the conversation and this will help you play the ball and not the man in the conversation.
It is also worth being prepared to ask questions. Often we jump to conclusions about why someone has acted in a particular way, and sometimes we can get this wrong. Open questions, (what was going on for you that you made that decision? Or why did you behave that way?) can help us understand and assist in player in learning.
Practice your delivery and message
You may have had plenty of challenging conversations in your coaching career, as well as in life in general, but often we can make some improvements somewhere! Practicing what you want to say, and how you might deliver the message (even if it is in the car on the way to training, or with another coach, or someone you trust), is a good way for us to get feedback and make sure what we are saying and how we are saying it is considered and clear. Remember, the delivery is the message – how we say things is often as important (if not more important) than what we say.
In your club or squad, you can cultivate an environment in which difficult conversations are welcomed (they are signals to players that you care). You can make this happen when we lead by example we welcome the opportunities that these challenging conversations can bring, because they can lead to better understanding of players, solutions that can help the team, and better paths of communication for the future.
These tips should assist you in building opportunities to tackle those challenging conversations that need to happen at your club.
Guy Little is the Tackle Your Feelings Program Psychologist.
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