Your action plan for when an athlete screws up

written by Erica Quam

The first time I kicked someone off my team, I yelled.

It wasn't the way I wanted to handle it and...I hadn't yet learned another way. Kicking her off the team was also partly my fault.

In my early days as a Head Coach, I resisted confronting my athletes to hold them accountable. I had a young woman on my team who clearly wasn't doing her part. She was on a totally different page than the rest of the team. 

The writing was on the wall during the first week of practice. Yet, I ignored little problems and minimized her mistakes. I basically did everything I could to avoid a confrontation.

I didn't give this athlete feedback on where she was falling short - until I clearly had to do something as the head coach to salvage my team. Her teammates had to endure my lack of action. I would get irritable with other athletes - when it was her I was frustrated with. I kept telling myself she’d figure it out somehow… until it was too late. 

Since shifting careers, I’ve spent thousands of dollars on my own coaching, taken countless seminars and continuing education classes, and read hundreds of books and articles. I really wish I knew then what I know now!

And while I can’t go back and change the way I coached back then, I can pass along simple strategies and a different perspective to the coaches I work with now.

I really hope that this will help spend less time avoiding and procrastinating having these hard conversations and more time doing what you love as a coach - connecting with your athletes. 

A person’s success in life can usually be measured by the number of uncomfortable conversations he or she is willing to have.
— Tim Ferris

Step 1) Separate the issue from the person

Deal with small issues right away. If you don't address issues that come up on your team early on, the issues will turn into problems with a person. 

Be proactive. Teach your athletes how you expect them to behave...and then hold them accountable. Don't allow small mistakes to slide by.

Of course! Your athletes may say things that trigger and ramp you up. That's what they do. Your athletes are there for you to learn from.

Your best response (while they yell back) is to breathe...and think through your response.

Step 2) What about you?

Mistakes are not the issue. How you deal with them is. When an athlete screws up, manage YOU before you try and manage anyone else. [Do NOT skip this step.]

1 – Vent.

Blow off some steam AND give yourself a time limit. I don't care if you write it all down, talk out loud to yourself, or call a coach or mentor you can trust...take 15 minutes. Get it all out.

(Head coaches, do not do this to your assistant coach all the time OR your partner. It gets really old, really fast!)

2 – Own.

Now, ask yourself: What could I have done differently? What role did I play?

Maybe you didn’t communicate your expectations clearly. Maybe you don’t even KNOW your expectations. 

Again, write it down.

3 – Clarify.

Giving feedback is not the time to vent and make someone else wrong. You're teaching someone. You're giving them an opportunity to do it better next time. Get clear on what feedback you will deliver that will be helpful - to you and your team too!

Clarify your feedback with 3 goals: 

a) communicate what they did wrong, 

b) know specifically what you'd like to see differently next time and 

c) let them know that your role is to help support them in their growth

Step 3. Follow this feedback formula

Let's walk through the steps together: 


Respect their time and your own by scheduling a specific amount of time that works for you both.

Do thisI’d like to find _____ minutes this week to chat about _____________. I want to make sure we're both on the same page. Let me know a few times that work for you.

Don’t do this: In my office...right after practice.


Set the stage for the conversation. Ask that they hear you out AND let them know they'll have a chance to talk when you're done talking.

Say thisI’m going to share something that didn’t go so well this week. I'm asking for you to listen first - and once I've talked, I'm going to give you a chance to do the same. And then I'll listen to you. Okay?

Don’t say thisLet’s talk about how you're screwing up…


Make your feedback more powerful by starting in a way where they will continue to listen - instead of putting them on the defensive and shutting them down. Begin with something you appreciate about them. Look for specifically for what they're teaching you (because like it or not, you're learning from them). This will shift the energy for both of you.

Say this:  First off, I want to you to know how much I appreciate __________________(ex: your honesty; ability to speak your mind; your enthusiasm; how you inspire your teammates.)


Challenge yourself to talk to them in behavior specifics. Separate the behavior from the person. To meet the expectations you've set for your team, they don't need to change who they are as a person...they simply need to change their behavior.

Become a better observer. Get great at people watching. Then talk to them using those behavior specifics you've seen from them.

Say this:  You finished the race, took the goggles off your head, threw them across the pool deck, and burst out crying. (UNEMOTIONAL DESCRIPTION OF THE EVENT). The rest of the team was getting up for the last relay to try and win the meet and you made that moment all about you. (THE IMPACT IT HAD ON ME/THE TEAM).

Don’t say thisYou totally screwed up, made us lose the final race, and now the whole team is pissed.


When we know better, we do better.

A big part of your role as a coach is to frequently address the small mistakes your athletes are making and let them know, specifically, what they need to do differently - not just that they're not doing it right. They'll respond better when you're specific. Teach them the why behind it. 

Say this:  It’s important to me that _______________________ (context). Which means that in the future, here’s what I need to happen: _________________________ (action steps).


Once you’ve talked, give them a chance to talk. And listen. 

Say this:  So, do you have anything you'd like to share here? How can I support you so you can make this change?

People want to feel understood. If you don't ever give the other person a chance to share what they're thinking and feeling (in a respectful way of course) they won't ever feel understood.

Listening leads to understanding. Help each athlete on your team to recognize the value you see in them as people - even when they've made a mistake.


Before you end the conversation....check in on two things:

  1. They fully understand your expectations, and 

  2. There's a specific time to follow up

Say this:  Thanks for taking time to talk today. Before you leave, tell me the one thing you are going to work on and when we will check back in.

Don’t say thisSo, you’ll let me know how it’s going, right?


Pay attention. When you see improvements - however small - bring it up. 

And for all of you who would rather share those kinds of things over text...research shows VERBAL appreciation matters much more than emails or texts. Go the extra mile to look them in the eye.


It's a coaches job to focus on fixing what's wrong...and it can be a game-changer for your athletes and your team when you start to notice what's right!

I’m curious: Which step is the hardest to imagine yourself doing? Is there anything I missed here? Leave a comment.