Over the past four years, you’ve studied film, trained your team relentlessly, boosted the egos of your best players, and shattered the dreams of the fringe players when you set the final roster.
Your team has knocked off a perennial powerhouse in the semi-final game and now you carry a nation’s hopes on your shoulders in the World Cup final.
Your team battles to a tie forcing the game into overtime and then your best player gets ejected from the game for an unthinkable act of unsportsmanlike conduct. You’re forced to play short-handed for the remaining minutes and head into the penalty kick phase without your best scorer.
Your players are looking to you for answers and as a coach, what do you do to handle the adversity that has just come your way?
This scenario is a real-life version of a worst-case scenario. Mostly what we face as coaches pales in comparison to the adversity that the French soccer coach faced in the 2006 final when Zidane head-butted Materazzi creating the most-talked about sporting event since the Magic Johnson announcement that he was HIV-positive.
Coaches need to handle adversity during a game, at practice, in dealing with injuries and illnesses, and at the high school, club, and recreation level, family issues and disciplining a player or supporting a parent’s disciplinary action.
What is going to be your reaction and the reaction of your players when your best player goes down with a season-ending injury? How are you going to handle your depleted roster when a virus ravages your starting team and half your bench players? How about when your star athlete demands a trade in search of a better opportunity or another whose family moves right before your season begins?
Discipline issues begin at an early age in sports and carry on even into the adult leagues.
A player that is verbally abusive to or refuses to share the ball with his teammates may need a “coach’s time out” and sit out a period or even a game so that he can re-evaluate his position on the team. A coach may have to step in and deal with a starter who is continually late to practice or games and take away his starting position, although kids under 16 can’t drive yet so to punish a player for his parents’ inability to get him there on time can create a whole different issue.
At the recreation and high school levels, coaches may be in a situation where they have to support the parent’s or school’s disciplinary action for a player’s sliding grades or unacceptable behavior in the classroom, even though the loss of his contributions may adversely affect the entire team.
Family issues can sneak their way into the sports arena as well. A young player experiencing a family break-up through her parents’ divorce may not come mentally prepared to practice or games and a coach needs to be aware of these external influences.
One of my “greatest” moments in coaching was asking one of my players what was wrong with him and questioning why his performance was down, only to be reminded later that he was dealing with the recent loss of his stepfather whose funeral was the next day.
There’s the player who struggles with the embarrassment of her father pacing the sidelines screaming out plays contrary to the coach’s instructions or the mother who constantly yells at the official’s calls whenever things don’t go her way.
In these cases, the player will not perform to her top level without the coach having an alternate plan that helps block out the sound from the sidelines and concentrate on the task at hand.
How your team handles adversity can make or break your season. One of my most rewarding seasons as a coach was when my girls soccer team suffered a rash of injuries that would have demoralized most teams.
We had broken bones, concussions, ACL tears, ankle sprains and countless other injuries yet in the spirit of “Next Man Up,” the girls that filled in for their injured teammates picked up that flag and carried it to the regional finals.
When we face adversity as coaches, it takes special skills to keep the team focused toward achieving its objectives. Goals should remain the same, we may just have to take a different route to reach them. We need to make the most of the conditions forced upon us.
If we do our job right, the players will automatically step up to fill the void when adversity happens.
If we have prepared them for any situation, our involvement during the time of “crisis” is minimal.
The next time you face adversity, accept the challenge and remember what American writer William Arthur Ward once wrote. “Adversity causes some men to break; others to break records.”