By Robby Duncan
Team discipline is one of the most important elements of structure and organization when setting up a team. It starts and ends with the head coach. It sets the tone for the team over the course of an entire season and even a coach’s career. It determines how practices are set up and run and it determines the success or lack thereof in competition. It can make solving problems easy and it can help you avoid other problems altogether. Coaches all desire strong team discipline, but do we really understand what that means? Are we willing to do what it takes?
Athletes crave discipline. They crave rules and boundaries regardless of how they may rail against them. Structure and a set of team rules lets them know exactly what is acceptable and what is not for all aspects of team membership. Imagine the personal discipline shown in the careers of NBA players like Larry Bird and Karl Malone for example. Would either of those players have risen to the heights they did without the tremendous discipline they showed both in and out of organized team practices? How many hours a day did Bird spend shooting outside of practice? How was Malone able to work as hard as he did in the off season so he could show up at camp in such great shape? They did it because of the discipline instilled in them by their coaches at every level of play. They did it because of the rules and philosophies of the coaches they played for and coaches have the same responsibility to their athletes today.
Team discipline starts on day one. It can start with little things. It can start with something simple like no talking during team meetings. If the athletes know this policy up front, coaches can do something about it the first time it happens. When an athlete speaks out of turn at a meeting, send them out of the room.
The team meeting is an important time to discuss problems, issues and situations regarding the day-to-day operations of the team and they need to listen. If somebody is kicked out of a meeting on the first or second day of practice, they will get the hint and it will not be a problem later in the season. By setting the tone early, it establishes respect and credibility.
Other small types of discipline can include monitoring and tracking the required paperwork and denying practice or competition until it is completed, daily stretching and warm-up routines, pre-game warm-up routines, or even certain articles of clothing worn at every practice like a team shirt or armband. Any little thing that can help draw the players together and realize they are all expected to do the same thing as part of the team is a good thing. This type of issue can typically be resolved by one quick action or comment and will not require any sustained or significant punishment.
Now move to something tougher like mandatory attendance. Most teams have an expectation and a requirement for daily attendance at practice. Imagine the chaos created if this is not a strict team policy. How difficult is it for the track coach to set up relays and work on handoffs if a different athlete is missing each day? How can the basketball team run the right plays when the point guard decides to go home and play video games? Does the quarterback have the chance to skip the walkthrough the day before a big game? Those things just don’t happen on the successful teams. It may seem that saying practice is required is a bit over the top, but with today’s athletic climate, it is becoming more of a reality. It is important to have a set of guidelines and requirements regarding attendance so both the athletes and the parents know exactly what is expected of them and they can schedule accordingly.
If these rules are broken, follow team policies strictly and evenly for each athlete. Do not make exceptions for favorite athletes or it will create problems down the road. The willingness to bench a team’s best player for a big game due to missing practice goes a long way to showing a team how serious a coach is about discipline.
Other medium-level discipline issues can include normal and game-day class attendance, grade expectations or any conduct disrespectful to the team. This type of issue can be resolved by a denial of competition of varying length from a quarter to a full game to a team suspension of one day to one week.
A serious issue can create such a problem with a team that it could result in problems that will completely derail a season. This type of problem typically forces a decision of whether or not the athletes involved remain on the team. It can be anything from a hazing incident, theft from a teammate, drug or alcohol use or an arrest. Obviously, when dealing with something this serious, there cannot be one single answer and each situation must be evaluated individually even if they all end in the same result.
For example, an athlete allegedly takes money from a teammates backpack in the locker room during a competition. After an investigation of the situation, it proves that the athlete is guilty. After examining the facts and considering the welfare of the program, the coach decides to kick the athlete off the team. It is never easy to remove an athlete from a roster, but sometimes, it is necessary and is the only course of action. Realize that once the athlete is removed from the team, there is no going back regardless of how important that athlete is to the team. That athlete cannot come back later in the season even if it looks as if that athlete can help the team bring home a championship. Then the thought will arise that winning is all that matters.
Team discipline is even important for a coaching staff. Never ask a team to do something that the coaches shouldn’t be willing to do. It is tough to have a mandatory practice requirement for athletes when coaches are not required to be there each day. Work with the assistant coaches and get their input on discipline issues, or ask the athletic director. Make sure the assistant coaches know and support the team policies because they will hear the bulk of the complaints against them as the athletes go to them for support and a shoulder to lean on. Coaches can help support each other by letting the athletes know how much they support the team rules. If there is a unified answer to problems that arise with team policies it makes the job of the head coach markedly easier. It is difficult when an assistant coach doesn’t agree with the head coach on how things are done and acts as a lone wolf.
Try not to argue with each other in front of the athletes. If they see that kind of disunity among the coaches, it can have a very negative effect on them in the long run.
There are many more issues – large and small – that coaches deal with each day. But how they deal with them will make or break a program. Coaches need to be strong for the team and make the best decision possible each and every day regardless of the situation. One good rule of thumb is this; imagine yourself in the principal’s office defending your decision. Would your principal support you? If the answer is “yes,” then the right decision has been made.
About the Author: Robby Duncan is an English teacher and cross country/wrestling coach at Bingham High School in Salt Lake City, Utah. He was the head coach at Taylorsville High School in Taylorsville, Utah, for two years. Duncan was an accomplished athlete at Weber State University, where he competed in the steeplechase and qualified for the NCAA Track and Field Championships and Olympic trials.