The 10 Plagues of a Problematic Program

by Jeff Janssen, Janssen Sports Leadership Center

Does disappointment, drama, and dysfunction seem to characterize your program?

Do your athletes spend more time attacking each other and the coaching staff than they do your opponents?

Is the stuff hitting the fan with your program?

As we come full circle with our examination of the 5 Stages of Program Development, the fifth and final stage is the Problematic Program. Just as the name implies, the Problematic Program is one that is mired by a great deal of drama and dysfunction, the off court/field issues rear their ugly heads on the court/field, your program’s health and your job status are in serious jeopardy, and your chances of success are slim to none.

Coaches of Problematic Programs find themselves and their programs in a huge hole that is tough to climb out of. The hole could be because your program has suffered a long and demoralizing losing streak, been rocked by a scandal, has been slowly declining and decaying from within, and/or seems like it is about to implode. Whether you are the coach who was in charge of the program when it fell into the hole, or the one who has been brought in to try to bring it out of the ditch, remember the First Rule of Holes when you find yourself in one: “Stop digging.”

Like the biblical plagues of Egypt, Problematic Programs seem to be hit by wave after excruciating wave of drama and disaster. Sadly, much of it is brought on by their own doing. Here are 10 common plagues that can beset a Problematic Program. Have any of the 10 Plagues befallen your program? (After reading through these you might be praying for a plague of locusts instead!)

The 10 Plagues of a Problematic Program

1. The Plague of a Caustic Culture

Problematic Programs typically have a highly caustic culture. The negative values, attitudes, and standards of the program act like a corrosive acid incessantly eating away at it from within. There is a pervasive feeling of selfishness as people primarily look out for themselves. There is a tremendous amount of distrust and a lack of candid communication. The caustic culture obviously is not much fun nor does it support either short- or long-term success.

2. The Plague of Clueless Coaches

Problematic Programs are sometimes plagued by an incompetent coach at the helm. In some cases, the coach is completely clueless and doesn’t even recognize the pervasive problems going on under his nose. More often, the coach’s incompetence in the people skills area has significantly contributed to creating the problems within the program. Sadly, he neither has the wherewithal nor leadership skills necessary to effectively address the issues.

3. The Plague of Coercive Coaches

Coercive coaches are another cause of Problematic Programs. These prickly coaches use demands, criticism, and insults to try to light fires under their athletes rather than using credibility, confidence, and inspiration to light fires within them. Coercive coaches attempt to unmercilessly demand results from their athletes instead of credibly coaching great performances out of them. Further, coercive coaches often neglect to invest the time to develop effective relationships with their athletes and fail to fully connect with them as people. They forget that "rules without relationships equals rebellion" as Michigan men's basketball assistant coach Bacari Alexander says. This heavy-handed, coercive approach de-motivates many athletes and leads them to check out mentally and physically.

4. The Plague of Inconsistency and Double Standards

Other coaches create Problematic Programs through inconsistency. Their athletes (and staff) never know what to expect from them from one day to the next, or from one situation to the next. One day they might be a great mood and easy going in terms of their standards. The next day they might be an unbearable ogre and taskmaster. This Jekyll and Hyde approach makes it difficult on the team. Further, some coach’s problems stem from having inconsistent rules and standards for the team. They let their superstars get away with murder while their substitutes can’t as much as sneeze without incurring their wrath and punishment. Having double standards for your subs and superstars is an almost sure way to guarantee a Problematic Program.

5. The Plague of Ring Leaders

In Problematic Programs, you will often see that a powerful and negative Ring Leader has taken a strangle hold of the team. Rather than having positive team leaders who exemplify, encourage, and enforce the standards of behavior for the program, you will see a selfish Ring Leader who intimidates the team into doing things her way. The Ring Leader wreaks her reign of terror on the team and creates a highly toxic, negative, and fearful environment. The rest of the team has to either choose to be quiet or suffer the wrath of the Ring Leader.

6. The Plague of Resistance and Resentment

If the coaches and leaders of the team are not respected or considered credible, you will see a tremendous amount of resistance and resentment on the part of the athletes. Without respect, athletes grudgingly obey their leaders because they have to, not because they want to. Athletes in Problematic Programs will either be openly disrespectful to their coaches or, more likely, look to covertly sabotage the program behind the scenes. Both are obviously a major concern and a telltale sign of a Problematic Program.

7. The Plague of Apathetic Athletes

After a while of being resistant and resentful, many athletes will eventually become apathetic if changes aren’t made. They give up trying and basically resign themselves to endure the situation and look forward to it ending. They hang on out of necessity to preserve a scholarship - or their parents make them. They fall into what psychologists call “learned helplessness.” They go through the motions, give little discretionary effort, and become like Zombies just waiting for the whole experience to end.

8. The Plague of Cliques

Some Problematic Programs are the result of cliques, where the team spends more time competing with each other than they do their opponents. Keep in mind that sub-groups naturally develop on most teams based on common interests, year in school, similar backgrounds, etc. These sub-groups are normal on teams as long as they peacefully coexist with each other. Problematic cliques occur when one sub-group intentionally excludes, belittles, undermines, and/or becomes hostile toward another sub-group. Cliques destroy trust and team chemistry because they put their smaller sub-group’s interest ahead of the whole team’s interest. Many Problematic Programs are the result of corrosive cliques between the upperclass athletes and the younger athletes. Or divisions can form when the offense blames the defense for the team’s failures.

9. The Plague of Underperformance

Given all of the drama and dysfunction, there will likely be a lot of disappointment too as many athletes will underperform. With all the dysfunction, drama, and divisions going on within the program, many athletes will be highly stressed and very distracted causing poor performance. Further, many athletes lose motivation to work hard when they don’t respect their teammates or coaches. Even highly talented teams will eventually succumb to the negative environment and significantly underperform when they are in a Problematic Program.

10. The Plague of Mass Exodus

Understandably, because of the troublesome factors already listed, Problematic Programs usually are plagued by mass defections of staff, athletes, and fans. It’s no wonder that everyone tries to get out while they can like rats leaving a sinking ship. They realize that if drastic changes and improvements aren’t made soon the entire program will likely go under and they don’t want to be part of the carnage or fallout.

With the 10 Plagues listed above, Problematic Programs are definitely in need of a major transformation - and fast! In most cases, serious changes need to be made in order to salvage this situation. The quickest and usually easiest way for most administrators to deal with the headaches of Problematic Programs is to clean house of the current leadership and start all over again.

So whether you are the coach whose job is seriously on the line, or the one who has been hired to bail out and repair the sinking ship, check out our 10 Steps to Resuscitate and Resurrect a Problematic Program, available for our Championship Coaches Network members.


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