“It is only when team members are truly comfortable being exposed to one another that they begin to act without concern for protecting themselves.” – Patrick Lencioni, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team
“Confrontation is simply meeting the truth head on.” – Coach K
Confrontation is an important part of leadership. You need to be able to address problems head on if you want to be an elite team. And in an athletic setting we often need immediate feedback in an intense situation. So what does that look like? Sometimes it might not be pretty.
In an office or academic setting you might have time to call a meeting and think about the best way to address issues, with time to prepare the proper delivery. But on the court or the playing field we don’t have that luxury. We don’t have time with 5:00 to go in a tie game to explain to a player how much you appreciate his approach every day and how important he is to his team before telling him to get through the fu$#%@g ball screen. Sometimes the necessary confrontation is intense and emotional, and great teams have to know how to deal with it.
As coaches we have to give our players the freedom to do it. Sometimes we have to allow for a little bit of intense confrontation. Sure, you don’t want guys coming to blows or cursing at each other all of the time, but you are going to need them to communicate and settle some things in the heat of the action. So we have to give them some freedom and support to confront issues in practice, even if sometimes it might get a little heated. You might have to let it go for a little bit when two players are getting after each other, so they can learn to figure things out together.
How far you let it go is up to you. But if things get heated, inserting your own emotion into the situation isn’t always the best decision. Let it die down or stop it if you think it might get out of hand, but then discuss it with your guys rationally. Talk to them about what was said, how it was said and why it had to be said. And don’t be afraid to take sides. Let the team know what was really important in the dispute and who handled it the right way. Don’t just squash it, tell both guys to shut up and move forward. To be really good you have to be able to handle confrontation, not just squash it and act like it didn’t happen.
Ultimately it all comes down to trust. If confrontation always leads to a dispute, because one guy comes back at the other because he doesn’t like the way things were said, then your team doesn’t ultimately trust one another. The strength of real trust is when the person on the receiving end of the criticism, even though he may not like the message, recognizes that his teammate is trying to make him better, and if he’s yelling at him it’s probably because he really did screw up. Discussing these issues after they turn into disputes allows you to explore the depth of trust within your team, and what you can do to improve it.
Your players need to be able to check each other and confront behavior that hurts the team. You want to develop and internal intolerance for anything that gets in the way of winning. But you have to create an environment where your players are allowed to do that. And sometimes that means letting them get after each other, with things getting a little heated.
If you want them to make each other better, you have to give them the room to do so. And given the intensity of the environment we work in every day, that may not always be pretty. But learn to coach it and handle it the right way and it will make your team better.