Oct 03

Managing Conflicts in Your Program & Developing Younger Staff Members

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Ready to Develop Your Leadership Skills?

The new season has started or is starting up for many sports teams. It is now a crucial time to examine your leadership skills to prevent, avoid, and/or manage potential conflicts in your program. Furthermore, it is also important to develop younger staff members to create a unified and cohesive coaching scenario. 

People tend to hold certain beliefs or perpetuated myths about conflicts: for example, they are always negative or it has to be a contest (win or lose the argument). This is incorrect as only results are either positive or negative! Conflict is a seemingly slow ‘simmering’ development. A given situation usually starts as an issue, evolves into a problem, and then can easily shift to conflict if matters cannot be resolved. Conflict can be defined as a ‘disagreement’ but it is really more than that. It usually arises from several sources, namely organizational, emotional and/or psychological factors.

Conflict can originate from- or over:

  • Lack of a cohesive program philosophy 
  • Perceived overall program aim 
  • Differences in short-term or long-term goals or expectations
  • Lack of communication among the coaching staff
  • Selecting a qualified coach and competent staff
  • Differences in training and conditioning methods for athletes  
  • The perceived or expected role of parents
  • Differences in leadership and/or management style
  • Lack of interaction between coaches, athletes, parents, and board of directors

A sports scenario can easily become complex because any situation on hand may be perceived as a challenge to the existing club philosophy, opinions, beliefs, needs, interests, or concerns of one or several parties. The difficulty lies in managing conflict whereby one has to deal with various personality types and behaviours. It is absolutely critical that coaches possess or acquire essential ‘people’ skills to manage conflict successfully. 

Experts suggest the assessment of personal capabilities and competency in order is essential to identify your personal management style to be better prepared for discussions and to maintain personal balance as well throughout. Such assessment can be achieved by selecting from a variety of tools and strategies because coaches have to be aware and cognizant of potential interfering or inhibiting factors. Foremost, they have to a) acquire or possess excellent communication skills; b) have the ability to understand and interpret body language correctly, and c) be or become a superb and attentive listener. Thus, a series of operational steps or guidelines are recommended to reach creative solutions, which are attained through facilitation – negotiation – arbitration – mediation – and conciliation. The more solutions the better in order to arrive at that agreement, which is beneficial and a positive one for all parties involved. In addition, creating preventive strategies to build more positive relationships within the club is critical to avoid future conflicts. Head coaches, therefore, need to provide valuable mentoring for younger staff members or volunteers because the group as a unit has to be seen as cohesive not divided! 

Developing Younger Staff Members 

I have always believed that it is critical to develop staff members within the club program to provide a unified coaching philosophy, quality of coaching, and demonstrate mutual respect for a positive teaching/coaching and learning environment. This includes accepting opinions, suggestions, and ideas of others without offering criticism or intimidation techniques.  

According to the Harvard Business Review, solid leaders can support the future success of young people through four important conversations: how to build resilience, how to influence others; how to job craft, and how to break the mental rut.

  • How to build resilience: the ability to bounce back from setbacks, or a project gone wrong or a bombed presentation/speech
  • How to influence others: the ability to win others’ trust and respect in order to more effectively execute a role
  • How to job craft: the ability to determine what constitutes a meaningful job and engineer a career for greater fulfillment
  • How to break the mental rut: the ability to challenge personal patterns of thinking in order to identify and solve problems through a different lens

Though all of these skills are vital, each requires a slightly different conversation. When fully and distinctly addressed, the skills can produce outcomes that refine short-term success, as well as long-term career satisfaction. The head-support staff relationship accounts for 70% of the variance in employee engagement. This means that head coaches, who invest time in addressing these issues, not only increase staff retention but also build connections that keep the teams inspired, innovative, and doing the best work (BTS, 2019, modified by Schloder).

#1: How to build resilience

When young staff members have a negative experience, they tend to beat themselves up. Their self-criticism is often loud, tanking their confidence and maybe their job performance too. This conversation, then, is about allowing them to voice this negative self-talk — but not dwell on it. It’s about helping them figure out how to balance their thinking, drop their judgments, and focus on one or two positive choices they can make to learn and move on.

In this conversation, ask questions that will help you figure out what your coaching member is experiencing:

  • How did you feel when your colleague said that?
  • What were you telling yourself at that moment?
  • What do you think this means about you?

Listen and repeat back what you hear. Once you gain an understanding of where the issue is arising from, follow up with questions that help them clear their head and reflect on what really happened. If an assistant or volunteer feels that they cannot make mistakes without losing credibility, for example, you might invite them to reconnect with a moment when they felt good, and ask questions like, “Is it true that a single mistake will cause people to write you off?” Stating aloud the person’s internal story often helps them see that it is, most likely, fiction.

The last step is to help your staff member to figure out what choices they can make to navigate future situations differently. Be sure your tone is considerate but free of both emotion (positive or negative) and judgment throughout. Your job isn’t to solve their problem or sympathize or to build them up with encouraging feedback. Rather, your goal is to ask questions that help them learn and become more resilient.

#2: How to influence others

When a staff member struggles with a relationship, a great career coach helps them see the situation from the other person’s perspective and find new ways to engage or build the relationship. An analysis of our data with Singapore Management University uncovered that 39% of coaching conversations with junior employees focused on helping them influence people, build networks, and create desired impacts (BTS, 2019).

In the conversation, ask staff members: What would it take to ensure the other person feels heard before you speak? Ask how they can communicate better in order to build trust. Try to avoid sympathizing (“Oh yes, that so and so is always like that”) or offering your own solutions. The key is to help the junior staff member discover how to relate differently to this individual.

#3: How to job craft

The point of this conversation is to help your employees reflect on what’s most important to them so that they can shape a compelling vision for their future. Doing meaningful work matters to most people. Those who do not feel a sense of purpose tend to burn out more easily (BTS, 2019).

To inspire your team members, ask what’s important to them and hone in on what they want:

  • What is going on right now?
  • How would you like it to be different?
  • What is one thing you could do to move toward this vision?

Avoid questions about what others think or expect, and try not to share your personal experiences. Instead, focus on helping the staff member to identify the situation they are currently facing, the situation they want to be in, and what steps they need to take to achieve that goal. If they don’t know what they want yet, try to help them find ways to explore avenues they are curious about.

#4: How to break the mental rut

Sometimes people just get stuck when trying to solve a problem. They try once and when it doesn’t work, they either give up or try again using the same method. So, you can help team members spot those ‘rivers of thinking’ and help them to ‘paddle their way out.’

Use the conversation to help identify their stuck thinking and seek out new avenues of inquiry. Start by asking:

  • What problem are you trying to solve?
  • What feelings do you notice about it?
  • What are you most concerned about?
  • What do you observe other people feeling frustrated about?

Your goal is to get the staff member to identify what problem they are actually trying to solve and why their efforts may not be working. Repeat their answers back to them. Once they seem to understand that their current plan of action is flawed, encourage them to think about alternative solutions by considering all of the information they have gathered.

Remember, your role is not to provide solutions. It is to help staff to clarify questions they are trying to answer, lead them to gather perspectives from diverse sources, and reflect on what they’ve learned in order to come up with a new and better strategy.

Building up younger staff into future leaders requires you to help them adopt mindsets that will shift their attitudes. If they can master those, they can find satisfaction, stay engaged, and fulfill their long-term potential. The first step is figuring out what they need from you so that you can have the right conversations.


Boyatzis, R.E., Smith, M., &Van Oosten, E. (2019). Coaching for change. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved September 26, 2019, from https://hbr.org/2019/09/coaching-for-change

BTS (2019) The world’s most innovative approach to leadership coaching. Retrieved September 26, 2019, from https://www.bts.com/leadership-coaching

Connor, J. (2019, September 9). To coach junior employees, start with 4 conversations. Harvard Business Review. Copyright © 2019 Harvard Business School Publishing. All rights reserved. Harvard Business Publishing is an affiliate of Harvard Business School. Retrieved September 26, 2019, from https://hbr.org/2019/09/to-coach-junior-employees-start-with-4-conversations

Schloder, M.E. (2019). Personal lecture notes. Module: Coaching and leading effectively. NCCP (Canadian National Coaching Certification Program). Ottawa, ON, Canada.

*Jerry Connor is head of “Coaching Practice” at BTS, an organization that works with leaders at all levels to help them make better decisions, convert those decisions to actions, and deliver results. With more than 26 years of experience in change management and leadership development, he has extensive experience working with a variety of top global organizations as well as in the public sector.  

*BTS is a global professional services firm headquartered in Stockholm, Sweden with some 600 professionals in 32 offices located on six continents. The company focuses on the people side of strategy working with leaders at all levels to help them make better decisions, convert those decisions to actions and deliver results.

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