“Truth demands confrontation. It must be loving confrontation, but there must be confrontation nonetheless.”
– Francis Schaeffer
A lack of confrontation probably derails high-performing teams as much as anything else. There’s a misconception that confrontation within teams is a bad sign and something that needs to be avoided. I’d say most coaches handle their teams trying to avoid confrontation, rather than thinking about how to manage it. Great teams have a deep level of trust and share the truth with one another. It’s impossible to be elite without the truth. But, as Schaeffer points out in his quote above, truth demands confrontation.
The best teams I’ve coached have always had situations or specific players that needed to be confronted. Being great is not about avoiding confrontation. It’s about handling it. You can’t expect to get through an entire season, spending as much time as you do with one another, in an intense environment, without having to confront certain behaviors. The first thing as a coach is to understand that it’s okay. It’s an essential part of leadership. If you are trying to avoid confrontation you are putting a low ceiling on your team’s potential.
Learning to handle confrontation is the key. It starts with an atmosphere of trust, where you are going to be truth-tellers to one another at all times. A healthy respect for the truth is essential. The truth has to be something your program is willing to fight for, something you hold at the top of your list of core values. Somebody giving you some BS about why they were late for study hall is not acceptable. Making up a reason after you missed treatment needed to be addressed. It starts with the players knowing they can trust you at all times, and you are going to live your life with integrity. Trust is a part of atmosphere, part of the currency you trade as a unit. When there is great value in trust and the truth, confrontation becomes easier to deal with because it becomes necessary.
The approach to confrontation is really important. Confrontation to find the truth is about reconciliation and improvement, it’s not about judgement and blame. This is a difficult hurdle to get over, but when you have a culture that values the truth it becomes much easier. Tell your players you are always going to confront bad behavior, or anything that gets in the way of team success. Get them used to hearing the truth, whether they like it or not. Take ownership of your own mistakes as the head coach as well, so they see that you are vulnerable. Of course you want to talk to your players about doing it the right way, and not trying to start a fight. But it’s not always that easy. With four minutes to play in a tie game when your point guard won’t fight through a ball screen, you don’t have time to call a team meeting. He needs to hear it immediately, and it’s going to be intense. So as much as you want to deliver the message in a way that gives the receiver the best chance to understand it, that’s not the environment we work in. So you have to work on not only delivering the message, but also handling it.
I can think of probably a dozen times over my career as a head coach when a player was willing to confront me. They respectfully told me they didn’t like something we were doing or something about my approach. At first, it always knocks me back. But then I realize they are doing exactly what I’ve taught them to do with one another – confront something that they feel is hurting the team. Inevitably when one of my players is willing to confront me, it’s a sign that I’ve got them right where I want them. Comfortable enough to confront the head coach? We’ve created the right atmosphere for elite performance.
We spend too much time as coaches trying to avoid any confrontation. We want everything to go smoothly from start to finish, but that just isn’t realistic. Expect confrontation and talk to your kids about it. They can handle it, and once the realize it’s an essential part of high-performance, they’ll get comfortable with it. But you have to be comfortable with it first.