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  • Writer's pictureGold Medal Squared

Why Athletes Disengage

My first overseas volleyball experience was bitter-sweet. The sweet parts for me were the opportunities to get to know a new culture, the chance to learn a new language, and the chance to get to make some amazing friends. Even better was getting paid to improve at the sport that I loved. In contrast to these sweet memories, it is hard to forget the bitter aspects that pervaded my time there. My team didn’t respect the coach and the club was poorly managed. As a result, that season my team was an incredible waste of talent. We had the talent to win the league. Unfortunately, these bitter aspects ultimately led my teammates to disengage from the team and none of us performed anywhere near our potential.

Our team started out full of promise and hope. We had a very skilled group of guys that were willing to work hard and had a burning desire to win. Every team has its bumps and bruises, but our bumps were such that they derailed our hopes of winning. One of the big bumps was that our coach was inexperienced and lacked volleyball knowledge. Although he had been successful in lower divisions, this was his first year of coaching in the country’s first division. Practices were often a waste of time. He repeatedly ran drills that lacked clear purpose or had any element of competition. Some of the drills were downright dangerous. In one particularly dangerous drill, there were two volleyballs in play at the same time in a six-on-six environment. Not surprisingly, someone got hurt. Unfortunately for the team, it was our leading point scorer. This event and others led the team to not trust our coach.

Another one of the bumps that affected the team was the fact that our starting setter was the son of the club director. Nepotism isn’t always a bad thing. Arnie Ball clearly made the right choice when he started Lloy Ball in matches at IPFW in the early 90’s. Unfortunately for my team, our setter didn’t have an ounce of Lloy’s work ethic or ability. Our setter got so nervous in close matches that he would start to tremble and sweat profusely. Throughout the first half of the season we lost seven out of eight matches that went to the fifth set. In contrast, our back-up setter was good in the clutch and the team respected him. He was small, but he was a hard worker. The preferential treatment for the starting setter sent a clear message to the team: playing time does not have to be earned. What was the result for me and my teammates? I did not give 100%. The team didn’t give 100%. My heart and mind were not fully invested in my team. Looking back, regardless of the challenges of that season, I wish I would have been more mature and given 100% effort.

So what does this mean for your team? Research on employee performance in businesses has found that engaged workers give an additional 30% in discretionary effort compared to disengaged counterparts. We often talk about the difference that 1% makes. Clearly, we can’t afford to have disengaged athletes in our volleyball programs.

There are many reasons WHY athletes disengage from their teams. Here are a few reasons for athlete disengagement and what you can do to prevent it.

1. Athletes feel that playing time is either guaranteed or never going to happen. Many superstars feel that their playing time is guaranteed. Many non-starters think that unless a starter gets hurt, they are never going to step on the court. Both groups are at risk of not giving their all. Worse still is the risk of an athlete’s negative attitude affecting the rest of the team.

What to do about it: Design practices to be competitive and fun for everyone. Let the superstars know that how they play in practice will affect their playing time. Don’t show preferential treatment. Praise everyone for their effort, hard work and good sportsmanship. Play the benchwarmers when you can. Remember that you can’t play all players equally, but you can give great coaching to each athlete.

2. Coach made promises that have not been kept. Many coaches feel that they have to make promises of playing time and stardom to get the best recruits. When everything does not go according to plan, athletes often become bitter and give less effort.

What to do about it: Avoid making promises that are contingent upon the athletes performance. When recruiting, give recruits a realistic preview of what your program is like. Let athletes know that they will have the opportunity to work hard and compete in practices, but playing time is not guaranteed. Another important step is to be true to your word. Coaches must maintain integrity with their team and with parents. If you make a commitment to an individual or the whole team, make sure that you keep it. Honesty and fairness can prevent a multitude of management headaches.

3. Athletes feel that they are playing the wrong position. Especially with younger athletes, it is very difficult to know which individual will do well or develop at a position. When parents chime in and let you know what position their child SHOULD be playing, the pressure of playing the right player in the right position becomes more intense.

What to do about it: The best teams have players that are well rounded. Spend a portion of each practice in drills where all players get to pass, set, hit and play defense. If you have an athlete that wants to change positions and you can spare the time, let athlete know that you can work with them before or after practice to help them develop the skills for the desired position. Because of hard work and good coaching, I have seen an average outside hitter become an all-American middle blocker and an average middle blocker become an all-American setter.

4. Poor conflict resolution between teammates or between coach and athlete (or parents). Conflict is inevitable when you have a group of athletes competing for playing time and positions. Athletes can clash outside of the gym as well. How a team handles conflict has a huge effect on winning games.

What to do about it. Teach your athletes how to handle confrontation. Let parents know when and where they can address any issues. As the coach, be open to the idea that you may be the problem that is keeping an individual or the team from improving. Create an environment where issues can be discussed and resolved.

When teams are able to discuss WHY there are issues and then move to ACTION to resolve problems, athletes stay engaged. The book Crucial Conversations goes through several steps that are helpful to make it “safe” for everyone to share their side of the story and move through conflict resolution. To learn more on this topic, here is a link to a summary of the book…

These four reasons WHY athletes disengage is by no means a comprehensive list. Every team and every athlete has their own challenges. Often players have troubles off the court that get them off their game. Helping athletes resolve challenges is one of the biggest hurdles in coaching. If handled properly, it can also be a very rewarding experiences for coach and player. Be attentive to your athletes. If you see one of your players giving less than their best, take the time to properly address any concerns and help them get back to giving their all. It will be worth the discretionary effort that they give.

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