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How to best manage conflict in your sports team

How to best manage conflict in your sports team

5 min read
  • Sport psychology

“Conflict can destroy a team which hasn’t spent time learning to deal with it.” – Thomas Isgar

Working with the same people constantly can be a challenge. If you grew up with siblings, you probably know what it’s like to become irritated by the people you spend the most time with – the same thing can happen in sports teams, especially when high stakes are part of the deal.

It’s only natural that teams go through little disputes from time to time. But if these are not dealt with, they can turn into huge disruptions to the team’s dynamic and how they perform.

So, how can you best manage conflict in your sports team?

How can conflict develop between players?

The first step in managing conflict is knowing how it arose in the first place. Here are some of the most common causes for disagreements in a sport environment…

Disruptions to goal achievement 

Goals can become the centre of conflict for many teams.

Sometimes, that is because athletes’ goals are too similar. When players of the same team have the same individual goal, some players might see others as an obstacle in the way of their success. For instance, say that two players both wanted to be scouted for a new team – each of them may think the other stands in the way of them getting scouted. Situations like this can create lots of tension amongst players and can even take away that supportive community amongst a group.

Other times, this is because athletes’ goals are too different. If team members cannot agree on a shared objective during training or competition and are all trying to achieve different things, it can become frustrating. They can end up feeling they don’t have their team’s full support.

Different perspectives 

Much like in everyday life, players will have different views on situations, such as how a game went or exactly what went down in training.

Not being able to see the problem from another athlete’s perspective can cause issues amongst teammates because it can be difficult to understand their side of the argument. When this happens, disputes can turn into enormous disruptions, simply because each party cannot see why they are wrong.

One “problematic” player

Sometimes, it will only take one player to cause conflict amongst a team. One study found that when a team member stands out for all the wrong reasons, they can become a distraction to the rest of the team, which in turn easily disrupts team cohesion.

The “problematic” player doesn’t always have to be the one who jokes around and doesn’t take the team seriously – they could actually be the most advanced player on the team. Some players will be more technically advanced than others, and whilst this is great for them in many ways, they might develop somewhat of a superiority complex and think that they are above what their team captain is telling them.

They might have differences in opinion, causing tension amongst them and the team, or this player might show less respect for the captain and set a poor example for the rest of the team, who probably look up to this star player.

How does conflict affect performance?

Negative thinking

Research shows that conflict amongst team members causes negative emotions and cognitions, such as feelings of doubt and assuming the worst. When athletes experience these negative thoughts, their motivation can take a hit, decreasing their performance. If they assume that the worst is going to happen, they will see little point in trying their best.

Poor team cohesion

Another perhaps obvious effect of conflict is reduced cohesion within the team. When problems arise, the athletes will feel less positive about their teammates and might not even want to be around them. This makes trying to work as a team quite difficult and unpleasant. Players will then communicate less with each other, which can only bring worse performance.

Competitive anxiety

Conflict also increases competitive anxiety in athletes. When a team are not getting along, it takes a lot of the enjoyment out of playing, leaving just the element of competition. Athletes need to feel happy whilst playing, otherwise the stress of competition can be too overwhelming. Much of this enjoyment comes from playing with people they like and communicate well with, so disruptions to this can leave athletes feeling alone and fearful of competition.

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What can you help do to manage conflict in your team?

As a coach, it’s important to know how to control your team when conflict arises. Here are some strategies that recent research has suggested will help…

Educate your team about the impact of conflict 

If your team know about the damage that conflict can do to their performance, they will be more inclined to be amicable towards their teammates.

Establish team values and acknowledge areas of conflict early on in the season to make them easier to resolve. You should also outline your expectations surrounding open communication and acting positively around each other.

Encourage communication

Athletes should feel comfortable and able to bring issues to you as the coach, but also to calmly discuss their issues with members of the team. If they allow their frustrations to build, tension can form amongst team members, and this can easily disrupt team unity.

Provide a common goal 

As well as focusing on each athlete’s individual goal, remind your team that they are all working together with the common goal of winning and being as successful as possible.

Whilst the team don’t all have to agree on everything, they need to remember that they are on the same side. Working collectively towards a common goal will help improve team cohesion and ultimately, their performance.

Be a role model for your team

Show your team that it is possible to debate and put your ideas forwards to people in a respectful way.

Whenever you disagree with another member of staff or with an athlete, set an example of honesty and keep calm – you want to demonstrate positive conflict resolution to your team.

Identify “problematic” players early in the season

It should be clear from the outset which athletes could become disruptive. It’s important that you foster a positive relationship with them as soon as possible, making sure they respect you as a coach as well as the people around them.

Set clear expectations with them at the start, letting them know that you have their best interest at heart.

Final thoughts

Conflict can shatter a team’s chances of success. Knowing how to manage these incidents quickly and effectively is key to ensure that disputes don’t affect the performance and overall functioning of your team.

We hope that these tips will help you keep conflict in your team at bay, allowing your athletes to develop positive relationships with each other and rise above altercations.


About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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