D Is for Discipline

One of the toughest parts of being a coach is finding positive ways to deal with negative behavior

Catherine Pearlman, PhD, LCSW

| 4 min read


On every team, there’s that one child who makes coaching more difficult. Maybe it’s the child with endless energy that simply cannot be focused. Maybe it’s the child with an attitude, who talks back and doesn’t follow directions. Or it could be the jokester. Or the bully. Misbehavior can come in many forms, but the result is the same: an unpleasant coaching experience and less focus and fun for the other players.

Dealing with misconduct can be tricky. The inclination of many coaches is to discipline verbally or to take away some privileges. In almost every case, these are the wrong approaches. Instead of improving behavior, they make matters worse. 

Let me explain.

Children misbehave for a variety of reasons, and it’s very important to consider why it is happening before trying to discipline a player. Matching the correct response to the misbehavior is vital to improving the conduct. 

A is for attention issues

If a player has been diagnosed with ADHD, a developmental disorder or another issue that makes listening difficult, lecturing or punishing will not improve the behavior. What it will do is hurt the player’s confidence and self-esteem.

The best course of action in this case would be to find more effective ways to keep the player engaged or work within the player’s capabilities. It might not make sense to have a child who struggles with attention in the outfield or spending long amounts of time on the bench. Find the right position or give the inattentive child jobs (collecting balls, keeping score, getting coach’s clipboard, etc.) to combat misbehavior.

A is also for attention-seeking behavior

If the player is constantly distracting the other children with attention-seeking behavior, don’t address it at all. In my book, Ignore It!: How Selectively Looking the Other Way Can Decrease Behavioral Problems and Increase Parental Satisfaction, I explain that behavior that has a reward will be repeated. Behavior that is ignored often wanes. Getting attention from the coach, receiving laughs from teammates or sometimes even getting kicked off the team is a reward. The more attention that is given to the attention-seeker, the more the behavior occurs. 

Instead of constantly admonishing the attention seeker for misbehavior, try to lavish attention and praise — both rewards — on any good behavior you see. This goes for all members of the team. Remember, behavior that has a reward will be repeated — so reward the good. Offer positive reinforcement often — verbal praise, points, pats on the back — and you will see a lot less misbehavior. 

E is for emotional issues 

If the child is angry, frustrated or exhibiting bullying behavior, I’d recommend spending time with the child away from the team to learn more about what’s going on. Ask the child if he or she is struggling at home, in school or socially. Find out if the child has any worries — then, if you can, address them. By all means, express your concerns as well. Listen carefully and offer as much support as you can. A child who feels supported and accepted, even if behavior is less than ideal, will try to improve.

I almost never recommend benching the child or expelling from the team. The exception is if the misbehavior is dangerous or so disruptive that it’s impossible — and I mean impossible — to work with the rest of the team. Remember, these are kids. They are still learning to deal with big feelings and life’s stresses. When in doubt, offer empathy, extra attention and a high five. That solves a great deal of behavior issues on — and off — the field.

Related articles

Why Empathy Is Your Coaching Superpower

What Can a Coach Do About a Bully

How to Reach the Reluctant Player

Catherine Pearlman, PhD, LCSW, is a therapist, avid youth sports parent and founder of The Family Coach.

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