Three Ways To Close the Perception Gap On Your Team

written by Erica Quam


Carol's team was struggling. Her team had returned to campus after a long training camp. Classes had started back. It's always been an odd time for her team, yet this year felt especially strange. Her team felt disconnected.

Yet, when she talked to her team captains about it, they totally brushed it off. They assured her that everything was going 'just fine'. "You're making things up...we're all good coach," said one of her senior athletes convincingly. After practice, she pulled one of her freshmen aside to ask her how things were going and got a totally different story.

When "something's up" on your know it. You may not know the WHAT or the WHY...and if you're a more intuitive coach, you definitely know the 'feeling' you get.

One of the hardest things to deal with as a coach is when you know something's wrong and your team denies it...until it's too late and then everything blows the most un-opportune time.

What can you do?

1. REVIEW the team structure you outlined in the fall

January is a great time to revisit things your team committed to early in the fall. That was when your team was in the forming stage. Everyone (for the most part) was happy, excited, and undefeated. The structure you and your team established at the beginning of the season is the foundation to your team. If things aren't clear or your athletes forget this structure...things can easily go downhill. The structure I encourage the coaches I work with to talk about fall into 4 key areas: values, roles, rules, & expectations.

  • VALUES: What are your team values? How are they showing up? Do these need to change?
  • ROLES: What are the roles people are playing on the team? Are these the same as they were in the fall? Are freshmen stepping into a leadership role? Are seniors checking out?
  • RULES: Review your team rules and the consequences for not following them. 
  • EXPECTATIONS: What are your expectations as a coach? Are they being met? What are your athletes' expectations of you...have these changed and are they realistic?

What may seem like a team issue or a personal issue may be more of a structural issue - which shouldn't be a one and done conversation. Your team values, roles, and expectations may fluctuate over time. When you involve your athletes in this discussion, they may feel more empowered and willing to get real - now that you're well into the season.

2. CHECK-IN regularly with different groups of athletes on your team


Jeff Janssen's blog about the 8 kinds of team culture can be a great resource to spark a team discussion. Print it out and talk about it.

  1. Pick which one you think your team is in right now. 
  2. Write 3 specific ways your culture can be improved.
  3. Repeat this same exercise with your 1) Coaching Staff 2) SAAC Leaders 3) Team Captains and finally your 4) Team 

The teams who have a perception gap are most likely struggling the most. It doesn't matter as much which culture you have. As long as the majority of your team is on the same page. Teams who have their freshmen thinking one thing, the captains another, the SAAC reps something totally different...then watch out. You've got some work to do!

The most important thing to do is to talk about it. Keep it simple. Come up with 1 or 2 positive steps you and your athletes can try and see how that impacts your culture.

3. COMMIT to diffuse the word conflict with your team

Conflict is a scary word for most coaches and teams. Yet, storming is THE most important phase in the stages of team development. Without conflict, your team will never have the opportunity to tap into their highest potential and perform at their best.

When it comes to teaching your team how to handle conflict, you need to snorkel before you scuba. (aka. start in shallow water before taking things too deep.) Teach them how to communicate directly with one another. Help them practice active listening. Show them the value of checking in with each other to make sure that the message that someone said is the same message that was received.

Give your athletes several scenarios to talk through. This simple exercise can help give them the words to have honest and direct communication with one another. You can even have them come up with these examples themselves. Keep it light, fun, and low risk at first. Then go into a few harder examples - that may have actually come up earlier in the season. 

There are lots of conflict resolution models and frameworks you can use as examples. Help your athletes walk them through this language when things are "going well" so that you're not having this conversation during your first major team blow up.

REMEMBER: if your team doesn't trust one another, they won't be able to engage in healthy conflict. If people don't feel safe, they won't share what they're really thinking, feeling, and wanting. You can be doing things to work on trust with your team all season long.

Be open to asking your team what they think instead of always telling them what they should do. Allow yourself to digest the feedback they're sharing with you before reacting to it. To close the perception gap on your team and get everyone back on the same page, review the structure you outlined at the beginning of the season, check-in with different groups on your team, and be proactive in teaching your team to manage conflict in a healthy way. 

Are you at a point with your team where you're not sure what to do...are you walking on eggshells...hoping things will just turn out okay?

Give me a call and let's talk. An outside perspective may be the game-changer you need.