One of the most common questions I’ve been getting via direct message and email is some variant of this:
“What should I do if a coach / a parent / my gym owner refuses to change?”
“They are so stubborn and can’t see they are the problem. They won’t listen to feedback, try new ideas, or change their behaviors that are clearly not healthy.”
“Tons of our kids are injured or are leaving our gym, and everyone is miserable.”
“I’ve tried everything and feel hopeless, I’m about to quit. HELP”
First, I feel you. This is a brutal situation to work in, and it very quickly leads to high tensions and lots of stress. You have a right to feel upset about it. In the same light though, there are 2 sides to every issue and emotionally flipping your lid won’t solve anything. Also, don’t do the even worse thing I used to do which was stuff my frustrations down, be resentful, and take it out on those around me. I promise you, it does not end well.
1. Start With Empathy
Before you have an epic meltdown in the middle of practice, remember you never know what’s going on in someone’s life. Or, in their position (like running a gym or a whole team). There may be something going on behind closed doors you are unaware of. There are a million other things that go into people’s emotional states beyond just what you see.
I have had a few times in my coaching career that I have been upset with a coworker or my boss for dropping the ball, only to find out they have something massively tragic going on in their personal lives.
In one instance, I had a coworker who became unmotivated to change their stubborn training practices and was being really mean to the staff and gymnasts. I assumed she was just burnt out and needed to take responsibility for her issues. Come to find out, her mom had recently been diagnosed with an aggressive stage of cancer. I felt absolutely horrible and lived with a lot of regrets. Even after apologizing, I learned to never assume things.
A friend of mine had a similar story but with a different context. Her gym owner stopped coming to the gym as much and ‘clearly didn’t care about the coaches’. She felt like her boss was demanding more of them, but didn’t actually see what they were going through.
She later found out that the gym needed emergency construction work due to recent bad weather, and it was estimated at $100,000. The boss had been taking on extra consulting work and trying to do fundraising efforts so that the gym would stay open and the staff wouldn’t lose their jobs. The owner just wanted to have a plan in place before telling the staff so there wouldn’t be panic and they could just focus on the meet season.
This goes for parents too. I remember gossiping about a mom for bringing her kid late to practice and being delusional about their kid’s skill level with low attendance only to realize they are a single parent from their husband passing away, that they have 2 other kids to manage, and 3 other practices to drive to/pay for. Yeesh, very stressful for them and a facepalm moment for me.
The point is, you really have to consider multiple points of view, as you have no idea what’s going on in someone’s life.
2. Continue With You
In one of my favorite quotes from the podcast, Tom Farden said: “People are quick to point the finger when they really should be pulling the thumb”.
Rarely, and I mean rarely, is a problem completely one person’s fault. Sure they may make a mistake, but there are usually a lot of little moments and shared responsibility that leads to someone acting poorly.
Before you approach someone with a concern, you should always start with an hour journalling on these questions –
- Is there something I did to make this situation so bad?
- Are there bigger problems from an organization standpoint like poor communication, poor staffing, or people working too many hours?
- Am I not communicating honestly and regularly enough to people?
- Do the gymnasts have a role to play in this with poor attitudes, not showing focus to workout and not talk too much during practice, or not taking care of themselves outside the gym?
- Have I taken the time to actually ask this person why they are unhappy or not willing to change?
- Are there nightmare parents/coaches/athletes who actually are the problem and refuse to hear outside opinion or take accountability to change? Yes. There are.
But they are the minority, not the majority. Most people just want what’s best for their own lives and the lives of people they interact with. They are doing the best they can with what life throws at them. In my experiences, the questions above almost always reveal a two way street for the causes of culture issues, if you are willing to be honest with yourself.
3. Then Communicate
Under no circumstances should you call someone out in the middle of practice/meet or when your emotions are running hot. It will not be good. Take it from me, as a younger coach this was my default – yell at the kids, argue with coaches at practice, gossip about parents, talk crap about my boss, and so on. I am 0/100 with that working out well.
My advice is to have a private, professional discussion that leads with empathy.
Start the conversation with the points above. Lead from a position of empathy from #1 (“Listen, we all seem like we are miserable and I don’t want you to be unhappy either”) and also accountability from #2 (“Before asking to meet, I took a few days and really considered the things I need to work on as part of the problem. Here they are”).
I can’t tell you how many high tension meetings were diffused when someone had the courage and risked vulnerability to start like this. It sets the stage for a sense of social safety, and takes people’s guards down as it no longer feels like an attack.
From here, bring up the main points of concern with other people using logic, facts, and evidence. Not emotionally charged assumptions, gossip, or opinions.
Critique behaviors you see from people, not the people themselves.
For coaches, saying “When you refused to listen to my suggestions last Wednesday on Bars, my brain told me you don’t care about my ideas, and that sucks” is very different than “You never listen to my suggestions, you’re so stubborn and really suck sometimes”. One is the person’s behaviors, the other is the actual person. The second approach usually leads to defensiveness and no progress.
For parents, saying “when you make comments about my coaching decisions behind our backs with the parents, my brain tells me you don’t trust us, and it makes me feel terrible. It’s really hard to coach all these kids and keep everyone safe and happy, and I’m just doing the best I can” is very different than “all you do is gossip about me with the other parents, why don’t you try coaching all these kids every day”.
For trying to update training methods, again go with facts, logic, and science-based ideas. Don’t go with random drills offline, the argument of “well this coach does it and they have a National Team Member so we should do it”, or the argument of “well that’s the way my coach taught me”. It won’t be received well.
4. Listen. A LOT
Even if it’s uncomfortable to hear. And don’t just wait to speak. Actually listen.
Shut your phone off. Take notes. Be fully present. Make eye contact. Say things like “okay” or “right” as someone speaks to let them know you are engaged.
It’s amazing how fast a meeting or conversation can derail when the person gets the vibe that you are not listening with your nonverbal body language. Checking your phone, gazing off out the window, or slouching over in your chair send the signal of “okay whatever” and will make things fall apart fast. If you actually care about what’s being said, about making change, and about being happier in the gym, be engaged and listen to what the person has to say.
If they voice a concern during a time when you can’t fully engage or it’s not appropriate (the middle of practice) simply say “Hey I really care about what you want to tell me, and do want to listen, but right now I’m in the middle of something and can’t give you my full attention you deserve. Can we talk after practice, or schedule a time to sit down together for 15 minutes?”
Then, make sure you actually follow through and schedule the time to meet. Don’t flake out or avoid the uncomfortable conversation, because that is a fast way to erode trust.
5. Air Everything Out
I can’t stress enough how important it is to actually air out concerns and complaints people have. One of the biggest drivers of a terrible culture is when someone feels like they are not heard, and that their voice or opinion doesn’t matter. This goes for anyone, coaches or parents.
As Miss Val taught me on this podcast – “anyone can tell you anything as long as it’s respectful and honest”.
The keyword in that sentence above is respectful. Respectful means professional and calm. Not gossip fueled and attacking.
Now during these meetings or discussions, it’s important to set some boundaries. Voicing concerns is very different than making it an hour-long complaining session, which usually just takes conversations in circles. It’s all a problem and no solutions.
It’s very easy for one small issue to turn into a complete drama fest where people are calling each other out, attacking each other, and blaming. Make it very clear from the beginning that the meeting is about being allowed to vent, but not stir the pot of anger just for the sake of it. Anyone who voices a concern should also offer a solution, and just like we were taught in grade school, one person talking at a time.
6. Implement Small Change
It’s very easy to be all talk and no action with people trying to embrace change.
I strongly suggest that you don’t make a list of 50 things that need to change and require them all the next day. Get a consensus among the group about the top 3 things that need to change.
- We need better candid and honest communication at practice. Come 15 minutes early to touch base with coaches or parents, read the weekly email update, and commit to more honest discussions with each other.
- We need monthly meetings for staff, and 6 monthly meetings for parents. The second Tuesday of every month at practice, we will have one coach do a structured conditioning with the girls while the rest of us meet for 30 minutes.
- The first Tuesday every 6 months, _____ will host an open parent meeting to talk about concerns.
- The coaching staff each needs to dedicate 2 hours per week outside the gym for learning. We will all read this book (or watch this lecture, or listen to this podcast) and then talk about it in our monthly meeting.
7. If All Else Fails, ask “Is This A Good Fit?”
Things don’t work out. It’s not always a good fit, and there are times people really just refuse to change. Sometimes it isn’t you, sometimes it just is.
Again, treat this situation with empathy. Approach another conversation along the tone of “Listen, all I want is for you, me, and the people in our community to be happy and healthy. Clearly we are not. Maybe we need to start discussing if this is a good fit, or if we need to start exploring other options to help everyone out”.
If you don’t have this hard conversation, a “say-do gap” will become evident which is toxic. This is when people chronically say one thing but do another.
If despite a few months of work nothing still changes, start considering alternate options for yourself and your career, or the other person.
Life is too short to spend 1/3 of your life miserable at work. There are plenty of great coaches and gyms out there that have people with shared healthy values.
If you are a gym owner talking to an employee, it might be trying to help them find another gym in the area that they would be happier at or fit in more at.
From a coach to coach, maybe it’s raising the question if they actually enjoy coaching this level, this type of gymnastics (competitive vs not), or think this gym is good for them.
If it’s from a coach to parent, maybe it’s about bringing the concern to your boss if the gym is a good fit for this family, and consider telling the parent they should consider other gyms that are a better environment for them.
Again, these situations are usually rarer than you think and all starts and ends with empathy and trying to be a good human. Lashing out at people, making accusations, and getting emotional never ends well. It’s messy, always ends with people hurt, and tends to come back to haunt you when you almost always interact with that person down the road.
In all these situations, remember my life motto – “Do the harder thing when it’s the right thing to do.”
Also by Dave Tilley:
Published in collaboration with Shift: Movement Science and Gymnastics Education