Coaching changes come in all shapes and sizes (see Part I). Changes on the bench inevitably have an emotional impact on individual players as well as team dynamics. Taking the necessary time to process the transition can be difficult, especially when the change is sudden or unexpected. But avoiding a formal and facilitated discussion with the players can have disastrous consequences, including the carry over of old problems, strained relationships, and overall ineffective team performance.
Here are a few recommendations/ considerations to processing a coaching change with the players:
1. Hold a meeting.
Make sure every player can attend and that plenty of time is allotted (an hour at the very least). Take into consideration who is allowed to attend this meeting and the impact it may have on the type of discussion that is going to take place. If staff members (either old or new) are in attendance, this my limit the amount of open discussion that actually takes place.
2. Consider who will run the meeting
As mentioned above, if an assistant coach, GM, or staff member facilitates the meeting, there are going to be limitations to how much the group is going to be willing to share and open up. Limiting their ability to process an emotional event can lead to negative team outcomes that can hinder a new coach's successful transition. A qualified member of the team support personnel (sport psychologist, athletic trainer, team doctor), unbiased to player opinions or comments can work very well in these situations. Another consideration would be reaching out to community mental health professionals who have rich experience in running group therapy sessions. This is not to say that the team is going to undergo therapy or has a significant mental health need, but counselors know how to structure insightful sessions that build off the emotional offerings of participants. In a good group session, the facilitator does very little talking, and rather draws comments from the audience.
3. What the meeting might look like
Here are a few recommendations a qualified and trained professional in facilitating group conversations may provide:
- Get the group to circle up (do not run the conversation as a lecture with everyone facing the same direction).
- Establish a clear purpose (report why the meeting is taking place, what is hoped to be accomplished, and how long it is expected to take)
- Set clear expectations and rules (this should be an open conversation in which individuals should feel comfortable sharing. All comments are valid and it is important to allow everyone their chance to speak)
- What is said in the room, stays in the room (to be a part of the group, everyone must verbally agree to protecting those who choose to share. This will help improve the depth of conversation achieved).
- Get everyone to share (opening "rounds" are a great way to open a group: "in a word of a phrase, describe what the past week has been like leading up to the coaching change for you")
- Build bridges (If a player makes an interesting comment, ask if anyone agrees/ disagrees. Ask them to elaborate further)
- Be the referee ! (The facilitator is responsible for controlling the conversation, especially when tensions get high. This does not mean halting a difficult topic of conversation, but rather directing it back to the original stated purpose).
- Avoid "hijackers" (Every team has loud and quiet players. Do not rely on the loudest voices to speak for everyone. Be sure to foster an inclusive environment even if that means avoiding a "loud voice" and seeking out the opinion of a quiet player).
- Stay neutral (The facilitator should remain unbiased and only concerned with helping the group achieve the goals of the meeting, set from the start)
- Avoid vague or close-ended questions (For example, "Raise your hand if you think this has been hard" provides much less information than an open-ended question such as "What is one word you would use to describe the recent coaching change".
Again, it is highly recommended that a trained professional be utilized to run this group session. While it may be possible for a coach or staff member to get the group talking (at length) about how they feel about the coaching change, redirecting the conversation (and the energy of the room) to a productive and collectively beneficial place can be extremely difficult, otherwise known as "sticking the landing". If the group is cracked open emotionally and not properly patched up, they may leave the meeting worse off than they started ! However, if done properly, a meeting discussing the emotional impact of a coaching change can be profound. Players can grieve. They can reestablish support in the room. And most important, they can clear space for the new coach to establish their leadership style on the room.
Overall, the player meeting following a coaching change is essential. There are many voices in a locker room, and it is very important that each is provided a supportive space to discuss an emotional experience. Trained and experienced professionals should be deployed to run the meeting, which may not include members of the coaching staff. Meetings should be organized, questions intentional, and the facilitator should continuously ground the session in the previously established "purpose" of the meeting. Hopefully, a team's goal for the meeting is to come together and enhance the common bond they share, while establishing new goals to embrace the changes. However, if left to their own devices, players may take a myriad of different routes through a coaching change which unfortunately can lead them away from the desired outcome. As will be discussed in my next post, each individual player may take the coaching change differently, and require unique forms of support to help them be successful under the new coach.