Lending a Hand

January 29, 2015
Being a mediator and resolving conflicts between others probably isn't why you became an athletic trainer. But it's a valuable skill set that can help all parts of your department run more smoothly.
By Laura Ulrich

Laura Ulrich is a contributing writer for Training & Conditioning. She can be reached at: laura@MomentumMedia.com.


Julie Max, ATC, Head Ath-letic Trainer at California State University-Fullerton, was in the middle of a hectic day when a female student-athlete knocked on her office door. Close to tears, she told Max she'd been arguing with her coach, who told her she needed to lose weight to improve her performance. Max calmed her down and promised to work on resolving the situation. Then, as the athlete left for class, the phone rang. It was the coach: "I just had an episode with an athlete and I need your help."

For Jenny Moshak, LAT, ATC, CSCS, Associate Athletic Director for Sports Medicine at the University of Tennessee, conflict came in the form of two athletic training education students who couldn't see eye to eye on roles and responsibilities. After their simmering animosity boiled over into a shouting match in the athletic training room, Moshak was called on to negotiate a truce.

And for Joseph Iezzi, MS, ATC, PES, Head Athletic Trainer at Downingtown (Pa.) High School West, it was two coaches who couldn't get along. Both wanted a star student-athlete to focus exclusively on their sport, and the athlete was caught in the middle. He turned to Iezzi, whose level-headed discussions with each coach helped broker a peaceful solution.

Although you won't find "mediate and resolve conflicts" in your job description, if you're an athletic trainer, it's inevitably part of your job. "Athletic trainers have always been mediators," says Mike West, MS, ATC, President of the California Athletic Trainers' Association and Assistant Principal at Patriot High School in Riverside, Calif. "People see us as caregivers, good listeners, and problem solvers."

Athletic trainers are often in a position of neutrality, a key factor that lends itself to conflict mediation. "The coach can complain to us about the athletic director, and the athletic director can complain about the coach," Iezzi says. "We frequently end up in the middle."

At times, the middle is a tough place to be. While it's a rewarding and sometimes essential part of an athletic trainer's role, resolving conflicts takes wisdom, creativity, finesse, and perhaps most of all, experience. Fortunately, seasoned athletic trainers are more than willing to share theirs.

FIRST STEPS
Every conflict is different, shaped by the personalities and the situation involved. But whether it's between an athlete and a coach, two athletes, a parent and a team physician, or any other combination, there are a few universal steps that always help pave the road to resolution.

First, it's important to take the conflict seriously and reassure the person who comes to you that their concern is valid and you'll do your best to help. "This is especially critical when it's a student-athlete," Max says. "Even if it seems trivial to you, athletes are often under intense pressure and they're young and inexperienced, so everything seems big to them.

"I've seen cases where a student-athlete's conflict with a coach was not resolved and I ended up getting a call from the health center saying they had attempted suicide," she continues. "That's happened more often than you would believe. So when an upset person shows up in my office, I don't let them leave until they've calmed down."

The next step is to decide whether you are a neutral enough party to help resolve the matter. When one of Moshak's athletic training graduate assistants recently clashed with a coach over scheduling, she hesitated at first. "The graduate assistant works for me, so I could have been seen as biased," she says. "But the coach and I have had a very good relationship for many years, and that will likely continue long after the assistant is gone. After I thought it through, I felt they would both be equally comfortable accepting my help, and they were. Other times, though, I have declined to mediate a conflict when I felt like my neutrality could have been questioned."

Once you've decided you are able to help, start gathering as much information as you can. This usually means approaching the second party to get their perspective--a stage in the process that must be handled with care.

"When you go to the second person, your words are very important," explains Charles Upshaw, a program manager with CRU Institute of Seattle, an organization that teaches mediation skills at high schools and colleges nationwide. "You're not there to make accusations--you're simply trying to get the whole story. Don't take for granted that the person who came to you provided an unbiased account of events, and be careful not to sound like you're taking their side.

"For instance," continues Upshaw, who is also Head Track and Field and Cross Country Coach at Sammamish High School in Bellevue, Wash., "never say, 'This athlete was devastated. What the heck did you say to her?' That will just inflame the situation. Instead, use neutral language, such as, 'This athlete approached me with a problem. What can you tell me about it?'"

Timing is also key. "You don't want to approach someone about a conflict when they're under a lot of stress," Iezzi says. "If you say something at the wrong time, you could end up making the situation worse. Ask the person whether it's a good time to talk, and plan to come back later if they say no."

Once you have listened carefully to both sides, you can decide the best way to help the parties find a resolution. There are several ways to intervene, both formally and informally.

FORMAL MEDIATION
One of the best ways to resolve a conflict is getting the disputants to talk face-to-face with a neutral party present. This is what comes to mind when most people think of mediation, but it's not as simple as just getting people into the same room.

Formal mediation involves three phases. First, the mediator sets the tone and establishes rules to guide the discussion. The ground rules generally cover confidentiality: Nothing that's said should leave the room. Other common rules involve speaking with respect and not interrupting while others talk.

In the second phase, each party describes their view of the problem. Nancy Kaplan, MSW, Executive Director of the CRU Institute, suggests the mediator take notes while each person talks. "Then you restate what they said to make sure you understand," she says.

Each speaker must have an equal opportunity to present their perspective. "After the first person tells their story, don't turn to the second person and say, 'How do you respond to what she just told us?'" Kaplan says. "That sets up the second person to be on the defensive, and creates the impression you've sided with the first person. Simply thank the first person and ask the second person, 'What is your perspective on what happened?'"

Once each person has spoken, it's time to delve deeper and find out what's at the heart of the disagreement. "Most issues that bring people to mediation seem surprisingly trivial, because they're not the root of the problem," says Moshak, who is a trained university mediator at Tennessee. "The mediator's job is to help discover what the conflict is really about."

Moshak's aforementioned two students are a prime example. "They blew up at each other about who was mixing the sports drinks and who was cleaning the whirlpools," she says. "We could have created schedules for who would do what and left it at that, but I knew we needed to dig deeper. As they talked, they ended up realizing neither of them felt respected. The underlying issue was about the need to feel valued in the department."

To bring hidden issues forth, Moshak asked open-ended questions and worked to keep the dialogue going. "I asked things like, 'How did you feel about that?' 'What would have made you feel better?' and 'What do you think is really going on here?'" she says.

After the parties have fully discussed the problem, you can enter the solution phase. It's important to let the disputants generate their own solutions, rather than simply telling them what you think they should do.

"My first instinct was to say, 'This is simple! Just do X and Y,'" recalls Moshak. "But when the people involved come up with a solution themselves, they buy into it and you get a much better result."

"Ask each party what they think a good solution would be," Upshaw says. "But be careful--once the first person answers, don't turn to the second and say, 'What do you think of that?' They each deserve an equal opportunity to voice their suggestions. It sounds formal, but it's essential for keeping the process fair."

What if the sides can't agree on a solution? "In that case, I ask them whether they are both willing to keep working at it," says Moshak. "If they are, we set a time to meet again."

Kaplan and Upshaw use a technique they call Batman. "It stands for, 'Your best alternative to mediating a solution now,'" explains Kaplan. "We ask, 'If you don't come up with a solution today, what do you think will happen?' This is a powerful tool, because it helps both parties realize they don't want things to go on as they are and they need to get serious about reaching a solution."

Formal mediation can be time consuming, but it works because it gets people to communicate in ways they otherwise might not. "During most mediations, you hear a lot of, 'I never knew you felt that way,' and 'I had no idea about that aspect of what happened,'" Moshak says. "It's easy to get caught up in day-to-day work and end up never talking face to face--that can lead to serious miscommunication. Once people actually talk, many problems work themselves out."

That was the case for her two athletic training students. "The underclassman realized this was an opportunity to learn from the senior, and the senior realized it wasn't about status and pecking order," Moshak says. "They agreed to divide up tasks based on interest and ability. They left with a newfound respect for each other and were able to work together without any more problems."

BEHIND THE SCENES
In an athletic trainer's world, many conflicts don't lend themselves to structured mediation. They often involve more than two parties, time-sensitive situations, or decisions that need to be made on the fly. "Conflict resolution is a huge part of my job," says Iezzi, "but it doesn't usually involve sit-down meetings."

One effective but less formal approach involves speaking separately to each party, helping them understand the other person's perspective without actually getting them together. In mediation parlance, this approach is called shuttle mediation.

West took this tack when an athlete came to him with a problem involving a coach. "A football player confided in me that he was thinking of quitting the team because he felt like the coach was constantly yelling at him," he recalls.

West got the player's permission to talk to the coach. "The coach told me he was frustrated because he saw the athlete's potential but felt he wasn't fulfilling it," West says. "I explained how the athlete was feeling and mentioned that I'd found success with him in rehab by taking a more positive motivational approach.

"Then I went back to the athlete and explained why the coach was being hard on him--that it was because he thought he had a lot of talent," West continues. "Both sides compromised after that. The athlete continued playing and the coach softened his approach a bit, and they had a successful season."

Shuttle mediation also worked for Max this fall when a baseball player challenged the team physician over his rehab plan. The athlete has aspirations of going pro, but after a shoulder injury, the physician recommended rest and rehab for six to 12 weeks. "The athlete said, 'I don't have six to 12 weeks--I need to fix this now,'" she says. "He was thinking about finding another physician and scheduling surgery."

Max met with the team physician. "I explained the student-athlete's situation and future plans," she says. "He offered a compromise where the athlete would take three weeks off with strong rehab and then he'd re-evaluate the situation."

Max went back to the athlete with the physician's proposal. "He decided he could live with that," she says. "This was a loaded situation for the athlete, but by clarifying each person's perspective for the other, I helped them both walk away happy."

Sometimes, you can help parties resolve an issue without even telling them you're helping. Iezzi did this with the two coaches squabbling over one athlete. "Each time the issue came up with one of them, I worked on getting them to see the other's perspective," he says. "I kept reminding them this wasn't about either of them--it was about what's best for the athlete. I also talked about the benefits of multi-sport participation."

Iezzi's subtle approach paid off. "The first year they fought over him, the athlete only played one sport," he says. "The next year, he played both, and they both won championships--in part because of this athlete's leadership."

There are also times when the party who brings you the conflict would rather keep their complaint confidential. This situation came up for Max when an athlete who had a concussion was pressured by his coach to return before his injury had healed. "He was concerned that he would end up being put back on the field, and he knew he wasn't ready," Max says. "I assured him I wouldn't let that happen."

Max immediately called the team physician. "We asked the coach to meet with us to discuss the athlete's case," she says. "I never told the coach that the athlete had come to me. We simply used the meeting to clarify the athlete's diagnosis and the fact that he wouldn't be ready to play for another three weeks. The athlete didn't know how we handled it, but he told me there were no more problems."

According to Kaplan, one challenge of behind-the-scenes conflict resolution is remaining neutral. "When you're talking with one party alone, it's easy to create the impression you're taking that person's side," she says. "You can end up saying things you wouldn't say if you were talking to the other party, and when you do that, you've moved from mediating to something more like gossiping. It's important to keep your comments neutral and professional."

In some cases, an indirect approach also misses out on the benefits of face-to-face communication. "Face-to-face mediation tends to shape the way both parties handle similar situations in the future," Upshaw says. "Behind-the-scenes resolutions can work, but it's a great idea to at least consider inviting the two parties to talk things out together."

BUILDING YOUR SKILLS
Most athletic training education programs don't teach mediation or conflict resolution, so seeking out formal learning opportunities can be the key to improving in this area. "I strongly advise getting some mediation training," Moshak says. "Approach your human resources department about bringing in a trainer, or look into community resolution programs, which often offer free training. I use the skills I learned in my university mediator training every day as an athletic trainer."

And like many things, conflict resolution gets easier with time. "It takes experience to develop the insight to deal with these situations really well," says West. "Once you've lived through a few of them, you develop greater confidence."

"There's also an element of trial and error," adds Max. "It's definitely an area where I've evolved as a professional. You see what works and what you should have done differently, and you develop the ability to stay calm when people around you are in conflict. For this aspect of the job, experience is a great teacher."


Sidebar: AT THE HUB
It would be nice if conflicts always involved just two parties, but in an athletic department setting, there are often more people with a stake in the outcome. Complex situations call for a mix of strategies, and often the athletic trainer's most important role is keeping the conversation flowing with everyone on the same page until a resolution is reached.

That was the case for Eric Rozen, MA, ATC, Head Athletic Trainer at the University of Rochester, when he encountered a conflict involving serious risk and liability. "A senior football player was experiencing recurring stingers and burners with weakness on one side of his arm," he recalls. "We sent him to our spine specialist, who ordered x-rays, an MRI, and EMG studies. When the results came back, he determined the athlete was at increased risk for severe neck injuries, paralysis, and permanent damage. We removed him from activity for his own safety."

The athlete was understandably upset, but seemed to come to terms with the decision, even telling teammates he was done playing. But a few days later, Rozen fielded a call from the player's mother. "She was very upset," he says. "She told me, 'My son lives to play football. How can you take this away from him?' She wanted to seek a second opinion in the hopes a different doctor would clear him."

Rozen respectfully heard her out and agreed to talk with the first physician before getting back to her. "Our specialist said that if the player wanted a second opinion, there wasn't much we could do to stop him," Rozen says. "They found a physician who did new studies and said he was fine to participate."

At that point, things got more complicated. Rozen consulted with the athletic director and ended up working with the university's legal department to draft a waiver for the athlete to sign, absolving the school and its employees from liability if he was injured. "We made sure our physician's opinion was on the record and that the second physician accepted the liability that came with his diagnosis," Rozen says.

Then Rozen had a sit-down meeting with the student-athlete and his mother, during which both sides shared their perspectives. "Throughout the conflict, it was very important that I listened with an open mind, especially to the mother," he says. "I could have dismissed her and said, 'The athlete is over 18, so I don't have to deal with you.' But that could have easily escalated things. I tried to be open and avoid acting like I had all the answers."

In the end, the athlete finished his senior season without incident. "When he came off the field after the last game, he hugged me and we both breathed a sigh of relief," Rozen says. "Was I happy that he was playing? Not completely. But I was very happy with the process we used to handle the conflict. There were so many moving pieces that resolving it required having one person who could keep everyone talking. As it turned out, I was in the best position to fill that role."