Coach, neither you nor I will be someone’s total solution in life. But, how much effort we give in helping guide youth into making great decisions so that they can live a life that they will be proud of when they are old and gray, this is a tremendous privilege. The stakes can be high, or maybe not so high, but the impact we have on young people can be a strong value added equation.
In the case where a young athlete is troubled for whatever reason, it’s possible that we can come along at the perfect time to help redirect them. At other times we can be the rock upon which they crash and sink, so that they can realize what real danger is, rebuild and sail in a new direction. Maybe that same young pilot crashes their boat seven times before finally rebuilding on the eighth time to a successful course. How can we know? I believe in a hidden hand that orchestrates most everything, and free will in that people make choices to be more connected or more alienated from themselves, other people, and the hidden hand.
Now though let's talk about the very subtle redirects that can keep things sailing along nicely, and move along into more and more severe course corrections. Once you realize that you are in treacherous waters, there comes a time when you need to unload the ship to make it more buoyant. One would hope that you don’t see a player going through a Jonah and the Whale experience, but something similar can happen. Ultimately, we as coaches must be prepared to go all the way and follow through completely from our end, in order to give teeth to our authority.
Engaging in Early, Minor Course Corrections with Young Athletes
About 95% of all the problems I have faced as coach are solved in the first four steps, and we get back to smooth sailing right away. This system of progressive discipline is something I used as a template in my classroom as a high school teacher, as a camp director, and high school coach.
Principles to Guide Our Actions
All of the steps below are predicated on a few important principles:
1. Kids want and need attention, and some of them will do bad things to get attention. They might not even consciously know that this is their motive. Giving attention skillfully helps solve a lot of issues.
2. The children that will respond to you still have a bit of extrinsic motivation, and want to please you, be seen as good, and receive some type of reward.
3. The environment you are in may be new for them, and their anxiety level may play into their behavior.
4. Familiarity breeds contempt, and even good citizens might want to test out the boundaries now and then.
Step One: Non-Verbal Communication
Imagine a moment when a player is not behaving poorly, and you can call their name, “Styrling!”. They give you their attention for a moment, you wave your hand, or make some other easily interpreted motion to have them stop what they are doing. When they do, you say, “Thank you Styrling”. So, now he has been rewarded for stopping a behavior.
Step Two: The Little Private Talk
Diffuse negative attention, and make a strong one to one connection, by taking the student aside where no one else can listen in, asking that player to please stop this behavior or a group of behaviors, and think “is this helping or hurting? Can you do that?” If this becomes a display, then they get attention for being bad. If you come away from that thanking them for talking to you, then players may perceive that something good happened.
Step Three: Time Out
When a player now has continued in behaving poorly, after the first two steps, then things begin to ramp up quickly. By now, other players have noticed the bad behavior, and have been affected by it negatively. Having a player take a time out, sets the tone with the rest of the group that you are not simply going to talk and warn, but you will act. Anyone teasing the player who is getting a timeout, will also get a private talk. The time out should have an exact time, and one rule I have heard is that it should be no more minutes than the age of the student. When placing a child in time out, be sure to remove any play items, and give instructions about how to sit, etc. Also, be sure to express caring, and the reason for the time out. When its over, talk with them and ask if they ready to join and eliminate the problem? I also warn them at the beginning that if this happens again, I will call home to their parents, and keep trying until I reach them.
From here onward, I am demonstrating a sort of role play as to how I might inform parents of what is going on with their child.
Step Four: A longer time, and a call home to parents.
“Hello, this is Bill from XYZ School, I am the tennis camp director. How are you? Do you have a moment to talk about Stacy? No, ok, please call me back or let me know if I can call your spouse. We are having a situation with Stacy.” “Yes? OK, Stacy is a great kid, but we seem be having a problem with behavior, we already went through three steps, which were a non-verbal, a little talk, and a time out prior to me calling you. Now we have Stacy in Time out again, and calling you was something she knew could happen if she didn’t calm down. Would you like to talk with her?”
I want to let you know that if we keep having problems, or they get any worse, we might recommend suspending Stacy for the rest of the day, but we want to avoid that if we can. If the player has not changed their behavior after this moment, then their is a much higher likelihood that they will be suspended from camp.
Step Five: Suspension from Activity, Possible Early Pick Up from Program
I’m sorry to inform you that because of the nature of these behaviors camp has become less safe, and the level of disruption to our teaching has reached a point where Mikey is going to take the rest of camp suspended from activities. The best thing would be if you or someone you know can come pick him up from camp. We would expect Mikey to attend tomorrow, and hope that this is enough to get his attention about the severity of disruption and the negative outcomes of the safety of camp for the other campers. We welcome a full discussion and/or a meeting with you, Mikey and myself to see if we can gain a contract with Mikey on his behavior.
Step Six: Removal from Program for Near or Long Term
Unfortunately, all of our efforts have failed, and we do hope that even though we are removing Mikey from camp, that you understand we have done everything we can to express that we care about him, his outcomes, and we have worked with you in the preceding 5 steps over a number of days or weeks. We understand that children can go through difficult phases in life, and we look forward to the possibility that Mikey can return. We bear no ill will, since it is our mission to support families, and also to create the best possible learning environment and safe play place so that the entire camp can be a place of recreation and success.
When a student is gone from camp, or another program, having gone through these six steps, most likely you will experience a much better overall camp experience. While not many children will tell on another student, they do feel much better when they know the adults are paying attention, and working on the issues at hand. You will win many kudos with the great parents, who are generally the silent majority. My camps have been wildly popular for this very reason, the word gets out among the better families. Never forget that the purpose is to work hard to win that child over to a better path, but remember, we will never be their final solution, however doing the work of plowing the field in this young life and difficult situation, can help be the first event to steer them in a better direction. The secondary concern, but it is an important one, is protecting the atmosphere for the other students.
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