Ask The Experts
Dealing with disruptions
Q: I manage a coach pitch team for 6- to 8-year-old boys. One of the kids is in his second season with our team. Right off the bat last season he dropped f-bombs during team warm-ups. He doesn't pay attention during meetings or drills, no matter how small the group. He has on numerous occasions cursed, punched, shoved, been inattentive, not followed coaches’ instructions, etc. I have talked all this over with his parents and they don't understand what gets into him. They have told me they are humiliated and embarrassed by his behavior yet nothing changes. It has only gotten worse. Only as a last resort would I ask the parents to remove him from our team. Any suggestions?
A: There are three aspects to this situation that I think require action:
- The child is not behaving appropriately according to the expectations of the coach.
- The child is likely struggling with something emotional related to his participation on the team.
- The coach and parents would benefit from specific guidelines for preparing the child for further participation.
First, establish a common understanding of what the goal is for participation. What does he think is “fun” about baseball? Get to know his motives for playing. Work to match those motives with expectations for his behavior. Pay attention to the situation that immediately precedes any of these outbursts. There could be a pattern to his behavior that you have missed. Did he make a mistake? Is he being ignored? Is he bored?
Secondly, it is important to establish behavioral expectations and consequences on a team, even for 6- to 8-year-olds. They respond to stern communication that is balanced with compassion and flexibility. It is not uncommon to be able to elicit a desired behavior through negotiation with a 6- or 8-year-old. Coming to “agreements” is a great way to teach problem solving and the benefits of agreeableness. It also builds autonomy in the child and trust with the coach and parents.
It is important to communicate to the child at a time when he is calm and focused. Get down to his level (e.g. kneeling down so you are eye to eye with him or sitting together on a bench), and review what is expected of all players on the team. Ask him what he thinks it means to be a good teammate and a good sport. Connect what he shares with specific expectations. Let him know that if he cannot control his behavior he will not be able to play. Communicate with a very matter-of-fact tone. An immediate response to inappropriate behavior is crucial.
Be sure you judge the behavior and not the child. One approach is to establish a “one-warning policy” in which he will receive one warning followed by having to sit down, think about alternative responses that would have been more appropriate (I often call this “Fix it!” and use the prompt, “Next time I will… instead”) and rejoin the team after they have shared their “Fix it!” ideas with a coach. If apologies are required, they must also be taken care of before participation can resume. Make sure you communicate to the child what the consequence will be if the behavior recurs. Then, quickly refocus onto the goals of the practice, game or drill and having fun. (e.g. “Alright, let’s see your best fielding now!” or “Okay, let’s have some fun now!”)
There are myriad reasons for why this young boy could be acting out. Understanding the root of his outbursts would be helpful, but may not be realistic in the moment. If possible, and time allows, the coach or parent can pull the child aside, ask him to calm down (“Will you count to 10 with me?”) and then communicate what you observed (“When I see someone hit someone else, it makes me think they are upset about something. Can you tell me what has upset you?”) Another approach is to help the child connect his physical reaction to a verbal one by asking him, “When you just [shoved/punched/cursed], what was your hand/body/anger trying to say?” Sometimes providing response prompts can be helpful (“I am angry because…”). If we give the child an opportunity to express himself with words, when he would otherwise think no one is listening or the physical or aggressive response is simply easier, he very often will.
Lastly, it is important for coaches and parents to take an approach that is collaborative and authoritative with the child, rather than autocratic or authoritarian. Behavior modification techniques might also be appropriate with this child if the behaviors are frequent. Before each practice (or drill, if needed) and game set a goal with the child. If he achieves it, he may earn something. Remember that positive reinforcement is most effective for replicating a desired behavior. It’s important to catch him doing the right thing and give him a heartfelt positive response (“Great self-control, even though I could tell you were bummed you got out at first. That’s what it means to be tough! Keep it up!”). Negative punishment such as taking away a bat, or removing the child from the game, or even kicking him off the team should be reserved for unsafe situations, extreme behaviors and last resorts.
Dr. Kristina Moore is an educational sport and exercise psychology specialist in the Greater Boston area. She is a part-time professor at three different institutions. As a consultant she can help athletes, exercisers, teams, coaches, parents and administrators with various aspects of sport-based youth development and sport and exercise psychology. She has worked with high school and Division I athletic teams. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or find her on Twitter @DrKristyMoore.
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