Taking the Bad with the Good: How to Handle Criticism

Coaching, as in life, is a compilation of both good and bad. Good intentions, bad outcomes. Good feelings, bad breaks. Good chemistry, bad games.

To ignore the bad is to miss a large and meaningful part of the experience. For every decision made with honest, intentional logic, there will be unintended, sometimes devastating results for some people involved.

Coaching is about making the decisions that, after careful consideration, bring the most value to the program. But to hide behind that flimsy shield of reasoning, as if it can deflect any culpability on your part, is to cheapen your position as a leader, a teacher, and a coach.

Coach’s decisions, no matter how well-founded, will without question hurt some of the players…and their parents.

So what do you do with that?

You own it. All of it. The good and the bad.

If a player or parent (in an appropriate manner) opens their heart to you, and pours out their hurts, don’t dismiss it. Their pain is real and has value. It deserves your attention no matter how uncomfortable it may be for you. Because, in that moment, it’s not about you, your intentions, your program, or your pride…it’s about that person needing space to give words to their frustrations.

At its conclusion, there may not be anything to say other than…

“I understand what you’re saying.”

“We can do better.”

“I’m sorry.”

On the other side of this very uncomfortable process lies a critical decision on your part. Will you change the course of your program in light of this new information? Must you disregard their feelings and press on because the present course has value beyond this one player’s needs? Or will you buckle under the weight of the moment, ignoring the needs of the whole for the needs of the one?

If you’re not prepared for the intensity of this very brief and quiet moment, you’ll find yourself saying things you normally wouldn’t say. The work of evaluating your program, its values, its procedures, and its end goal must be done ahead of time. You must know where you’re taking your kids and their families. If you’re convicted that where you’re going and how you plan to get there has merit, you can defend your methods. If not, you don’t have a foundation to stand on. You’re simple floating along, hoping a strong current will take you somewhere better than where you are.

Very simply, follow these three steps when faced with an emotional challenge to your program’s integrity:

  1. Really listen. Don’t assume you know where they’re coming from or where they’re going. Let them talk without interruption and try to nail down what they’re trying to say. Often there are things beneath the things they’re saying. It can be difficult to find these without being present within the conversation. Especially difficult considering that the first few minutes may consist of a hurricane of emotion entirely aimed at you. That will pass, and on the other side you’ll find a couple of very simple, very real concerns. Be looking for these jewels. When you find them, pick them up, dust them off, and try to gain a clearer understanding of the issue at hand.
  2. Evaluate what they say and weigh it against your goals and procedures. If a concern can be addressed without negatively effecting the program then address it, without delay. If they’re request calls for you to make a significant change to your operation, which will destabilize and ultimately hurt the program as a whole, then tuck their complaint away. Don’t disregard it, simply store it away. Many times, a solution to a problem will not be immediately apparent. However, if your mind has time to dissect the issue, it may provide you with a broader understanding of the issue as well as a solution to the problem.
  3. Check yourself. If you only talk with people who support your view of life, politics, religion, or sports, you will not be forced to defend your viewpoint. If you can learn to embrace these moments of resistance in order to fine tune how you operate, you’ll find a tremendous opportunity for growth. Find people who care about you and your program, and who will be honest with you. It might be a spouse, a coworker, or a mentor. Allow them access to your business, and let them check you in areas where they feel you’re deficient. Absorb their criticism, and let it attack your beliefs. On the other side you’ll find a more precise, more pure, and more just way of doing things.

Player and parent complaints are one of the most common headaches of being a coach. It’s no surprise that the coaches who dismiss these attacks have more of them to deal with in the long run. Those coaches who are strong enough to listen, comprehend, and evaluate these interactions are the ones who are constantly evolving to make their programs better. They’re the coaches who truly care about the development of their players, their program, and their own integrity.

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