Discipline That Builds (Not Breaks) Relationships

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Recently, I got an email from a coach with a question you may have pondered as well:

“How can I build relationships with my players, but still maintain high standards in the program? In the player-coach relationships at my school, the coaches who are liked let the players get away with a lot of negative behaviors. The coaches who are disliked hold everyone on the team to high standards.”

Oh, I have been there! And so have many other coaches who are struggling to use sports to build character. For years, I believed that I needed to sacrifice my relationships with my players if I wanted to be a coach who held his players to a high standard both on and off the court.

My belief came from my experience of parenting. “Good” parents who didn’t spoil their kids and didn’t let them do whatever they wanted would be hated. “Bad” parents who spoiled their kids and let them do whatever they wanted would be liked.

But there is another way, and, in fact, it’s a far better way. The answer is simple, but not easy to execute.


“Rules are meant to lead us to relationships, not to replace relationships.”

–Judah Smith

At the very core of transformational coaching are strong, meaningful, and connected player-coach relationships. These are relationships in which the coach sets boundaries and limits, and enforces those boundaries and limits in a way that doesn’t sacrifice the relationships or uses them simply to gain obedience from the players, but, instead, uses that connection as the first step to building character.

“A child’s developing brain is simply another reason we need to set clear boundaries and help her understand what’s acceptable. The fact that she doesn’t have a consistently working upstairs brain, which provides internal constraints that govern her behavior, means that she needs to be provided with external constraints. And guess where those external constraints need to come from: her parents and other caregivers, and the guidelines and expectations they communicate to her. We need to help develop our children’s upstairs brain—along with all of the skills it makes possible—and while doing so, we may need to act as an external upstairs brain along the way, working with them and helping them make decisions they’re not quite capable yet of making for themselves.”

—Dr. Daniel J. Siegel in No Drama Discipline

Obviously, having no boundaries, low expectations, and no behavioral standards is a poor way to coach, parent, and lead—especially for the underdeveloped brain (our brains aren’t fully developed until our mid-20s). I’m in my 30s and my wife claims I’m still 20 years behind when it comes to the development of my brain!

As coaches, we are responsible for intentionally creating experiences that develop connections in the brain which will enable athletes to become self-aware of their behaviors and the impact those behaviors have on their own lives and the lives of others. We can create these experiences in moments when they fail to meet our standards or live up to our expectations. These moments are opportunities to teach about effort, empathy, and respect. Sports provide many challenges, and within those challenges are the greatest opportunities to develop character.

To turn these challenges into opportunities, we need to maintain a connection with the individual. Without a connection, they will not be receptive to any message we try to send them. If we can maintain connection with the person in moments of conflict (by enforcing boundaries), then, as Dr. Siegel says, we can “create neural linkages and grow integrative fibers that literally change the brain and leave our kids more skilled at making good decisions, participating in relationships, and interacting successfully with their world.”

“I’m With You”

So, if we really want to develop character, empathy, respect, and all that good stuff, we need boundaries, but we also need a relationship. This can seem impossible during the times when we must choose between being the “hard-ass” coach that nobody likes or their buddy with the whistle.

But my problem—and the problem I see so many other coaches experience—is starting by imposing our standards.

The problem with this is we often ignore where people are in their journey. Jack Easterby, the Character Coach of the New England Patriots, says accountability is “just accounting for someone’s ability.” Just like a weight program accounts for an individual’s strength before mapping a training program, we should design our program relative to an individual’s character strengths.

Now, during the moments when we experience conflict or their failure to meet our standards, our response is critical to the transformational process. The transactional coach within me gets irritated and angry, and looks for an effective solution to gain compliance.

However, the transformational coach within me understands where they are as a person and responds intentionally with empathy by listening and supporting them. This doesn’t mean I let them off the hook; it means I enforce boundaries by walking alongside the person through their struggle. This says to them, “I’m with you,” even though they have made a mistake.

What Does This Look Like in Action?

Imagine you are running a very tough practice, and Kyle, your starting point guard and star player, has been having an off-day. He has been struggling with his focus and has been impatient with his teammates. Things come to a head as a few teammates make some mistakes, costing him the game. His body language falls apart, and he starts muttering things under his breath.

  1. Connect and Encourage: As the team gets water before the next game, you pull him to the side, put your arm on his shoulder, look him in the eyes, and say, “Kyle, I can sense your frustration with your teammates in today’s practice, but as a team, we have set a standard to encourage each other—not criticize each other. The next time you get frustrated, what can you do to encourage your teammates?” After Kyle and you identify one or two ways in which he can encourage his teammates, let him know, “I’m with you. I believe in you.”

  2. Connect and Remind: Now, sometimes, that will do the trick, but other times, encouragement won’t be enough. Maybe Kyle will continue to display poor body language and complain about fouls, and his effort will decline. This time, when you pull him from the game, you ask, “So, the coaches and I are seeing that you are too quick to criticize your teammates today. Is there something going on that we should know about?” Sometimes, a player will open up about getting an “F” on a test, having a fight with their girlfriend, or going through trouble at home. Don’t blow it off. Say, “Wow, sounds like you are having a tough day. Let’s talk more about it after practice. Right now, the team needs your positive energy, and you can lift this team up. If you choose to not bring the positive energy we expect, then you will lose the opportunity to practice today.”

  3. Connect and Enforce: The majority of the time, this will be enough intervention to help them correct their behavior. But what if Kyle doesn’t get any better? Or maybe he gets even worse? Then you will call him over and calmly say, “Kyle, I can see that you haven’t stopped criticizing others, and you are choosing to bring negative energy to the team today. You can sit and watch the rest of the practice from the stands, or you can go home. Your choice.”

  4. Connect and Reflect: Now, you may get an emotional response here, but you have made the difficult and important decision to remove that negative energy from the practice. A one-on-one chat after practice, or the next day, when they had some time to think, will be necessary to help them learn and grow from the experience.

Take Action

Check out some of the following links below to equip yourself with more ways to respond in these moments.

After moments of conflict, be sure to reflect on your response and consider how you might have responded differently and more beneficially for the player.

—J.P. Nerbun

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