Jan 29, 2015
Coping with Coach Difficult

One of the hardest parts of being an athletic trainer is dealing with a difficult coach. Seven ATCs share the lessons they’ve learned.

By David Hill

David Hill is a former Assistant Editor at Training & Conditioning.

They always want things their way. They don’t respect you or trust your decisions. They won’t communicate. They take you for granted. They argue, they manipulate, they outright lie. They go by many different names, but we call them Coach Difficult.

Living with Coach Difficult is hard. With their arrival, a dream job can become a nightmare. Sometimes there seems to be no way out except the want ads. You may even question your career choice.

Almost every athletic trainer at some time has to face Coach Difficult and cope with his or her shortcomings. Whether it’s staring him or her down, going to administrators, reaching an understanding, or simply taking pride in doing the best one can under the circumstances, there is, fortunately, a solution to every horrible coach. Here are the stories of seven athletic trainers who struggled but survived Coach Difficult and have lessons to share.

Standing Your Ground

Often, the gameplan when dealing with Coach Difficult is to stand firm for oneself and the profession without getting personal. Ali Farrell, MS, ATC, has followed this philosophy since the earliest days of her career. Now an Athletic Trainer at Amfit Physical Therapy in Greenwich, Conn., Farrell recalls having to stand up to a condescending girls’ high school basketball coach during her graduate school days in another state.

Farrell had seen reviews from the school’s previous athletic trainer noting that this particular coach could be difficult. Farrell immediately got a first-hand view of the coach’s attitude when he was slow to accept some of her decisions. He was especially upset that Farrell held out the starting point guard after a serious injury. The athlete’s rehab was going well, but the player wasn’t even to the point of being functionally tested. At a Saturday therapy session, the athlete was unusually quiet, and Farrell asked what was up.

“She said, ‘Well, the coach is kind of mad at me. He doesn’t think I’m doing a good job, and he doesn’t think you are, either,'” Farrell says. “It came out that the coach had said, referring to me, ‘She’s not a doctor. She’s just a Band-Aid-and-ice girl.’ The player also told me, ‘No matter what you say, he wants me on the bus to our game Monday.’

“She had a high second-degree ankle sprain with swelling and a nasty hip pointer,” Farrell continues. “She was ambulating without crutches, but we had just started weight-bearing exercise, and anybody in their right mind knows you’re not going to throw a kid on the court at that stage.”

That night, Farrell stayed at school to cover another event, and the girls’ basketball coach was there, too. She confronted him.

“I told him, ‘I understand you have some concerns. You’re right I am not a physician. But I do a heck of a lot more than supply Band Aids and ice,'” Farrell says. “And you compromised this athlete by putting her in an awkward position and then ordering her to be on Monday’s bus. That goes directly against my order and that of any physician overseeing my decisions. If there is an issue with the way that I am treating the athletes or anyone else for that matter, I’d appreciate you speaking to me before you talk to the athletes.’

“He replied, ‘Well if I said something like that …’ then he stopped in mid-sentence and never apologized,” she continues. “And he never apologized to the athlete. When we did clear her to play, she was walking on eggshells from being put in the middle.”

Farrell was in an awkward position: a young graduate student, not on staff, confronting a veteran coach. But she knew that she needed to raise the issue with the coach in order to maintain the athletes’ trust in her and establish the athletic trainer’s role, both for the rest of her time at the school and for anyone who followed.

That same day, Farrell told the school’s athletic director about the incident. During the rest of the season and school year—the coach also coached a spring sport—she tried to remain cordial and make small talk, but their relationship was cool. At the end of the year, the coach’s contract was not renewed. Farrell was told the administration had been documenting the coach’s behavior all along.

“I was more prepared than I had thought—it helped that we talked in classes about how we would deal with these things,” Farrell says. “Because I was going to be there for only a relatively short time, I needed to address it immediately. I didn’t want him saying the same thing to another athlete, athletic trainer, or coach.”

Speaking Up

For Chad Smith, MAE, ATC, now Athletic Trainer and Athletic Health Care Teacher at East Grand Rapids (Mich.) High School, his nightmare coach was a classic control freak. Smith was working for a rehabilitation clinic, seeing a general population of patients in the morning and serving a high school as its athletic trainer during afternoons and evenings. The problem involved the head football coach, who told his players that if they got hurt in a Friday night game, they were expected to meet with him before going to see Smith on Saturday morning. Letting the coach know they were hurt might not have been so bad, but the coach insisted on being a middleman, screening injuries when he had no training to do so.

With about five years of experience in the field at the time, Smith remembers feeling a little wet behind the ears. He also knew that some athletes do use the athletic training room as a refuge or way to seek attention, so the coach’s concerns were not necessarily without reason.

Still, he was puzzled. “I thought, ‘How could a coach not understand the importance of an athlete’s health,'” he says, “‘and why would he put himself in that type of situation, especially with the liability issues that could occur?'”

Smith mulled over his options, then decided to speak to the coach privately. The coach pretty much admitted that he wanted to make sure they were coming to see me for legitimate reasons,” Smith says. “He didn’t trust my decision-making on whether the reasons were legitimate or not.”

Smith reasoned that the coach had never properly learned the role of an athletic trainer, and he thought that a little education could solve the problem. He outlined the liability risks the coach could create for himself and the school if someone lacking medical training assessed injuries, and explained his own background, education, and experience. Smith felt as if he were getting through and considered the issue resolved.

But nothing changed. Players were still told to see the coach first. Although Smith was careful to keep the problem between himself and the coach, he tried to find out how the coach treated others.

“I kept hearing that this coach was one of those people who would tell you what you wanted to hear,” Smith says. “At the end of a discussion with this coach, you would feel like you got your point across, that he listened to you, and that the situation would be resolved. But in the end, nothing would change.”

At that point, Smith took his concerns to the school’s athletic director. But that proved fruitless as the coach was also an assistant principal who outranked the athletic director. In addition, the athletic director was about to retire and was reluctant to take action.

Now in a job where coaches understand and respect the athletic trainer’s role, Smith looks back on his time with Coach Difficult as a growth experience. “I learned the importance of dealing with a problem in a professional way,” he says. “I’m glad I tried to solve the problem by talking to the coach first, before taking it up the ladder. And I’m glad I did so behind closed doors instead of airing dirty laundry in the open. But mostly I kept my sanity by focusing on the health of my athletes, which is what I’m trained to do.”

Keeping Calm

Clint Thompson, MA, ATC, is at the end of a career instead of the beginning, and his strategy for Coach Difficult utilizes a combination of both Farrell’s and Smith’s suggestions. Recently retired as Head Athletic Trainer at Truman State University, Thompson has worked at several universities during his 37-year career and encountered his share of problem coaches. What he’s found most helpful, he says, is to let your work speak for itself, address a problem when you need to, and be careful to never get into a battle.

Thompson recalls one Coach Difficult who came to Thompson’s school accustomed to treating athletic trainers a certain way. “He wanted complete control in any situation,” Thompson says. “When we were in disagreement, he would let me know, because he’s a very straightforward coach.”

Thompson countered this attitude by keeping his duties firmly in perspective and not taking it personally. “I’ve known athletic trainers who get on their haunches when they think a coach is trying to run the show,” he says. “I just stayed the course and did not go off the handle. I figured that if I remain positive in the way I present myself, my skills and my care for a coach’s athletes will eventually come through. The coach will come to realize that I know what I’m doing and that my interests are not selfish but magnanimous toward his or her athletes.”

In another case, Thompson supplemented his stay-calm armor with the sword of the facts. The sport was wrestling, the era was before recent NCAA weight-maintenance regulations, and the coach took an old-school approach. “The general thought was if you had a good 190-pound wrestler, he would be even better if he was 172—mean and lean,” Thompson says. He knew the coach was using the tactics of severe calorie restrictions and dehydration, and Thompson decided he couldn’t remain silent. His strategy was to point out the detrimental effects on the wrestler’s performance and explain the mechanism behind them.

“I don’t think I ever said ‘This guy cannot participate,'” Thompson says, “but I did explain that the skill level of the athlete was dropping. I also explained that he was often ill specifically because of dehydration and reduced calories. And I pointed out that injuries can happen to athletes who are dehydrated and who have not been eating. Coaches know they can’t win with injured athletes.”

Thompson says, overall, he’s learned the importance of augmenting confidence in your own athletic training abilities with patience, calmness, and tact. “If there’s one lesson to learn, it’s that along with relying on athletic training knowledge,” Thompson says, “you need to develop and continually refine your people skills.”

Getting Respect

Jane Steinberg, MA, ATC, SCAT, Athletic Training Clinical Coordinator at the University of South Carolina, has worked with so many highly difficult coaches throughout her 27-year career that she can’t single out one as the worst. So she prefers to think of a composite horrific coach. Composite Coach Difficult’s key life-souring trait is a lack of communicating.

“When a coach announces practice is at 6 a.m., the athletic trainer wants to fill the whirlpools and water bottles and all that stuff, and needs to be ready when the athletes come in to be taped, wrapped, and treated,” Steinberg says. “So you get there an hour and a half before starting time. Then the coach takes the team in for film review for the next hour and a half, and you sit there twiddling your thumbs. You could have slept, ate, exercised, or done office work.”

In some cases, a coach just doesn’t communicate well with anybody or may simply be inconsiderate. In other cases, Steinberg sees the lack of communication as a symptom of a larger problem: lack of respect and understanding of athletic trainers. When this is the case, Steinberg counters by simply refusing to tolerate it.

“I teach my students that when your absence gets more notoriety than your presence, there’s something wrong,” she says. “So I tell my coaches that when they change their schedule, I need 24 hours notice. This is how the world works—in the doctor’s office, they require 24 hours notice. If I don’t get that notice, I don’t show up. I tell the coach, ‘I’m a valuable person, I’m willing to be a team player. But you need to communicate with me, professional to professional, coach to athletic trainer.’

“It can get ugly,” Steinberg continues. “But you have to stand up for yourself. When I know practice is going on, yet I was not informed about it through proper channels and I don’t show up, I’m wondering, ‘What if a kid gets hurt? Watch one of them bite their tongue in half or destroy their knee.’ But you have to draw the line.”

Steinberg believes it’s especially important for new athletic trainers to stand up for themselves early on. While the initial conversation can be hard, and the first time you have to enforce your own rule will be tough, it’s easier than being abused on and on, she says.

“In your first year, you can either swallow it and grumble and get ulcers and headaches, or you can stand firm,” she says. “You learn you can either be a puppet or you can be a respected professional.”

Resisting Advances

When Anita Eisenhaur, MAT, ATC, started her career, she was hired to be an athletic trainer at a school that had never had one on staff before. She was ready for coaches who didn’t know how to work with an athletic trainer, and she was ready to work with boys’ teams not accustomed to having a female in their presence. But she ended up having to deal with a coach where none of that preparation helped.

Eisenhaur, now Sports Medicine Coordinator at the Orthopaedic and Sports Medicine Center in Trumbull, Conn., had been at the school for about a month when one of the assistant coaches started making sexual advances toward her. She tried to shrug it off, but that wasn’t the right way to deal with it, and the coach’s actions escalated.

The turning point came after a late practice. The coaching staff was going to a bar around the corner, and Eisenhaur, wanting to fit in, joined them. They had a couple drinks and when it was time to leave, Eisenhaur asked for directions. The assistant coach came out with her.

“He walked me out to the car to give me directions, and that’s when he made the pass at me and became physical,” she says. “I was slightly in shock and didn’t really respond other than to say ‘I’m leaving.’ And I left.”

Into the following morning, Eisenhaur thought about what to do next. Her first impulse was to tell the athletic director or head coach. But she didn’t want to risk being labeled as someone who’d turn every male-female incident into a complaint of sexual harassment. “As soon as you play that card, it might as well be stuck to your forehead for the rest of your career, so a lot of times you have to let things slide just for that very reason,” she says. “I’m not saying it’s right.” Still, she wanted to make sure it would not happen again.

She concluded the best thing would be to tell the assistant coach that the advances were not welcome, and if he understood that and apologized, they could continue to work together. If not, she would take it up with the head coach and athletic director.

She planned her words carefully and reminded herself to remain calm, which was not easy. “I was very angry at being put in that position,” she says. “I needed to be clear and calm in conveying to him that it was inappropriate, unacceptable, and could not happen again. At the same time, I knew that I couldn’t be really confrontational because then he would be defensive. Plus, he was older than I was and he’d been at the school a lot longer.”

Eisenhaur arrived at work early the following afternoon and approached the assistant coach at his car. She told him what she had practiced saying, adding that she would not bring a complaint, but could accept an apology and move on. It seemed to work.

But later that day, the assistant coach was fired. “He took his anger out on one of the athletes—made him run laps until he collapsed,” Eisenhaur says. “And the head coach said ‘You’re out of here.'”

Eisenhaur has since drawn on the lesson of that incident and recommends the same approach for other female athletic trainers who face unwanted advances or outright sexual harassment. “Any time you become uncomfortable with the direction someone is going, you have to nip it in the bud,” she says. “You should say, ‘I’m not liking where this is going,’ and reassert yourself professionally.

“When I was the head athletic trainer for a professional baseball team, I was the only female among 30 guys,” she continues. “When I first started, there was a lot of testing the waters from the athletes and from coaches. But by presenting myself professionally and letting them know that I would not tolerate that behavior in any way, shape, or form, I set the right tone and never had a problem.”

Your Own Rewards

Sometimes, all efforts to work with Coach Difficult fail, and the only satisfaction is in a job well done, or at least performed as well as possible under the circumstances. That was the case for Chris Patrick, MA, ATC, now Assistant Athletic Director for Sports Health at the University of Florida, when he faced his most difficult coach, long ago at another school.

Patrick’s tale is a classic “new hire gone bad.” The coach had done well as an assistant at another school and came with high expectations as the new head coach. But his attitude immediately turned off nearly everyone. Patrick’s first inkling of trouble was when the coach set strict rules of behavior for his players only to ignore them the first time they were broken. Then the coach’s negative attitude emerged.

“Everybody was a dumb kook except him,” Patrick recalls. “He was constantly demeaning. He refused to recognize that anybody else knew anything and refused to try to work with people.”

Others in the athletic department began looking for jobs. Patrick stuck it out for the year. “I took the attitude that I would try to do the best job I could for the athletic department and the athletes involved,” he says. “I bit the bullet, controlled what I could control, went about my business, and, unfortunately, dreaded going to work every day.”

Patrick left for a new job at the end of the academic year. The nemesis soon left coaching and has been out since, Patrick believes, leaving one less Coach Difficult for you to deal with.

Sidebar: Listen Well

Sometimes, the most important tool in dealing with Coach Difficult is on the sides of your head. “People forget we have two ears and one mouth,” says Devin Healy, ATC, CPT, Athletic Trainer at Danbury (Conn.) High School and HealthSouth Sports Medicine Coordinator in southwestern Connecticut. “The point is the ears are more important sometimes, and we need to use them.”

Healy discovered this just three days into his assignment to Danbury. A female basketball player with a history of a torn ACL complained of pain in her knee and limped during a late-season practice as the playoffs loomed. Healy thought she should sit out the rest of practice and see the doctor the next day. He took her off the court and into the athletic training room.

“The coach comes in and says, ‘She’s fine. She’s going to go play,'” Healy says. “I said, ‘Coach, she’s not fine. Here’s what I found.'” Healy explained that he’d detected laxity in the knee and, given her history of a torn ACL, was concerned she aggravated or reinjured the joint. “I went through the whole thing. She said, ‘No, she does this all the time.'”

Healy recalls wanting to yell back at the coach. But he kept his cool and realized he was new and the coach may not be comfortable with him just yet. Plus, he wanted to let the coach have her say.

He left the athletic training room while the player and coach continued to talk. It was then that Healy discovered a twist to the case. He heard, from outside the room, the athlete say loudly, “Mom!” It turned out the coach-player duo were also mother and daughter.

A few minutes later they came out, and Healy talked to the coach. “I said, ‘Listen, I’m concerned because of her history,'” Healy says. “‘I’m not certain that it is the ACL, but I’m also not sure that it isn’t. So this is where my thoughts are. What do you think?’ And all of a sudden she kind of looked at me like, ‘Oh, you care what I think?!'”

The coach/mother explained that she felt her daughter was hypochondrial, and Healy conceded that she obviously knows her daughter better than he does. They agreed to ice the knee for 10 minutes and see how the player felt. After 10 minutes, she was still limping and couldn’t bear full weight on the knee, so she stayed out of practice, saw the doctor the next day, and an MRI confirmed a meniscus injury. Healy earned the coach’s trust, and things have been fine since.

The take-away lesson, says Healy, was the importance of listening and showing respect for the coach. “Once you earn their trust, life’s easy,” he says. “Even if you don’t agree with them, listen, reiterate what they said so you make sure you understand, let it soak in, and make sure they’re done. And then you can respond if you feel it’s necessary. If you just talk to them, they’ll respect you. That’s the most important thing.”




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