A new coach is announced. The introductory meeting is set. Maybe there is fanfare involved (media roll-out, alumni support) to pump the new hire with credibility and sell them to the eager fanbase. Maybe the goal is for minimal disruption to team activities, and the presence of a new coach is treated as if they have been in charge all along. No matter the circumstance, each individual player is going to react differently to the presence of a new coach, and validating these unique, and personal experiences is essential in successfully managing this difficult period of transition. There are three basic categories that players may fall into, each reflecting different needs and warranting unique approaches from team support staff.
There is a category of players on every team experiencing a coaching change that will mourn, or display a negative emotional response, to the departure of that individual. Perhaps this was a beloved coach. A coach the player personally connected with, and felt supported by. This could also be a coach they have worked with, and developed their love for the game with for many years. There is a deep level of trust that is being replaced by a complete stranger, and can make the player feel unsteady, and guarded moving forward.
In a similar context, the coach may not have been a favorite, but the player may have benefited greatly playing under them. For example, a player who has established status, playing time, and opportunity with a specific coach may view playing for a new staff as a potential demotion, or at best, a lateral move in their career and development.
Lastly, individuals experiencing a negative reaction to a coaching change may simply disagree with the decision to replace the coach. While coaching changes are typically conducted with a sense of "majority support" (meaning the decision makers believe that most of the team is in support of change), there will always exist a group who quietly protests the logic behind a coaching change, and even the subsequent replacement. Because of their desire to "buy in" to team principles, they are rarely vocal about this dissent, and will likely only confide in their closest allies in the locker room.
How do you help "The Down"?
Accept the fact that not everyone will be happy, and that individuals are entitled to disagree with the decisions of their leaders. These are the forces that make democracy an efficient and effective system of government. These principles are no different in competitive team settings. What matters is to validate (by not assuming everyone will "buy in" right away), offer support (through discussion and follow-up), and offer a path forward to those who may have more to say on the topic (clear expectations under the new coaching staff). Except for in rare circumstances, players are not responsible for decisions related to coaching staff. However, the staff is responsible for clearly communicating (including listening) with all players, which starts by meeting them where they are (including those negatively affected). The last thing a team in transition needs is small band of dissenters, who consolidate their shared negativity into a real force of resistance.
Picture this scenario: a player is recently traded to a new team. They spend the first two weeks learning about the new environment, getting to know teammates, and making sure their performance is meeting the expectations made clear through their trade. They are beginning to understand the culture and norms with their new team, but still very much the "new player". Then a coaching change occurs. In this scenario, it is unlikely the player has a strong connection with the outgoing staff, and may not have strong feelings either way on how things are being handled. The overall goal for these individuals is to carry on and get on with the damn season. They may even be put out by how much emotion certain players are displaying, pushing everything to extremes and distracting from the real issue at hand; winning games.
How to help the "neutral":
Again, accept that not everyone will emotionally invested in the same way. Similarly, don't let the loudest voices receive all of the attention ! In a competitive culture where it is very common for the "squeaky wheel to get the grease", a statement letting players know that it's okay if they are in the middle and that you appreciate their patience in going through the process with everyone, can go a long way towards the desired successful transition. Healthy management of the team environment by support staff is most important for this group of "neutral" players, because they are watching closely and making impressions on their teammates, the organization, and the coaching staff. Make sure they do not come away from a coaching transition thinking less of an organization and its members.
Players happy with a coaching change greet the transition with a genuine sense of relief. A weight has been lifted. Optimism is once again in full bloom. For the players unhappy with their previous position on the team (playing time, status, or role), the transition period represents the very rare "clean slate" that can inspire, motivate, and activate players previously dormant under the old "regime".
BE CAREFUL OF GLOATING! It is a natural progression for team members to dissolve into petty gloating over a coach losing their job, and to align with a sense of "victory" over the change, but short-sided mode of coping can have a harmful effect on the team's transition process. While natural to expel frustration and vent emotionally, support staffs must encourage reasonable conversations on the topic, especially in private settings.
The Happy crowd also often finds themselves as the vocal majority in the team setting, as their views most closely align with the potential reasons for a coaching change. Players want to win. The coaching change (may have) occurred based on the desire to win more. Therefore players are in support of the coaching change. This is often the path of least emotional resistance when processing a coaching change, and is a common stance for players to adopt. However, as mentioned in the previous paragraphs, The Happy do not represent every member of the team, and there are multiple perspectives that require equitable attention.
"Singing For Your Supper":
No matter what category a player falls into during a coaching change, they face the challenge of establishing themselves in the eyes of a new leadership structure. No coaching change requires zero change from the participants of the team, and individuals best suited to adapt to the new environment will ultimately be the ones who thrive. Whether reacting to the change with fear (of loss of status or playing time) or excitement (at the potential to earn more), energy must be mobilized effectively in order to offer the player the best opportunity to be successful through and beyond the coaching transition.
- Get your "resume" in order (by being able to answer the following questions):
Who are you as a player?
Can you accurately describe your playing style in a 30 second "elevator speech"?
What are your strengths?
Can you describe your weaknesses and describe what you are doing to work on them?
What value do you add to the team?
Can you display your "body of work"? (Community outreach, academics, leadership, etc.)
New coaches must rapidly form impressions of every player now under their tutelage. They will do this whether or not you provide examples of your strengths and self-awareness. However, as a player beginning to work with a new coach, you do have the ability to shape the narrative and be an active participant in the role you will be eventually asked to play. The alternative? Doing nothing? You are leaving a lot up to chance.
Overall, every player reacts differently to a coaching change. Most important is the validation of those differences and the inclusion of all team voices in the planning and execution of the transition. A team that values individuality and inclusion fosters authenticity and self-actualization, which is the foundational goal of every team. A team that allows players to successfully be themselves, as the best potential for individuals to become the most successful versions of themselves.