OFF THE PITCH: Conflict Resolution for Coaches, Parents, Administrators

Do you know the secret to move beyond positions and into solutions when you are in conflict?

This week’s bi-weekly “Off the Pitch” column by Ruth Nicholson outlines the three steps for addressing and resolving conflict, including the secret behind moving beyond positions and into solutions. Ruth is an internationally-certified facilitator, trained mediator, and the founder of GO!, the go-to expert resource for youth sports governance, operations, and coaching survival.


by Ruth Nicholson

While few of us enjoy conflict, it is a part of life, including in youth sports. However, there are ways to move through it and resolve it in less painful ways.

Each of the five levels of conflict intensity can be described in terms of its objectives and issues, tactics and relationships, language, and options for resolution. For example, the five levels reflect the underlying objectives of the parties as the intensity of the conflict increases:

  • To solve the problem,
  • To come out looking good,
  • To win,
  • To weaken or humiliate the other party in order to get him/her to withdraw, and
  • To get rid of, hurt, or destroy the other party.

Successful conflict resolution has three components. First, procedural satisfaction is the sense that the process of discussion, issue resolution, and agreement was reasonable and fair. Second, substantive satisfaction results when the solutions reached are realistic and adequately address the specific elements of concern. Third, psychological satisfaction occurs when the parties feel heard and are emotionally satisfied.

What are the three practical steps to resolving conflict?


Step #1: Identify the Context

The first question to ask is: Who are the parties and what are their relationships to each other?

There is a myriad of relationships between board members and club owners, directors of coaching/technical directors, coaches (paid and volunteer), staff (paid and volunteer), parents, and players. Each relationship has its own context in terms of power and influence. Some are equals. Others have the power of employment and supervision, leadership, teaching or training, or a client/customer relationship.

Much of the conflict in youth sports results from the Alpha Dog Syndrome in which people hold different perspectives with regards to power and responsibility. Members of a board of directors are the alpha dogs of the legal and fiduciary responsibilities in an organization. Directors of coaching are the alpha dogs of the technical program in the sport for the club. Coaches are the alpha dogs of their teams. Club operations managers and non-coaching volunteer staff are the alpha dogs of the off-field administrative team. Parents are the alpha dogs of their households and their children who play the sport. (Players have a lot of alpha dogs telling them what do to!)

What happens when you put a bunch of alpha dogs together?

The point is that each person has role to play in coaching, leadership, administration, or other game and player support, but when s/he plays “out of position”, it triggers conflict.

Consider these questions to prepare for a constructive conversation:

  • Who needs to be involved to address the issue?
  • What is the power and influence of the parties in relation to each other?
  • What is the history of the issue and the relationships of the parties?
  • How well are the issues and concerns understood?
  • What is the urgency of the issues and their potential impacts over time?
  • What is the best place and time to have a conversation?

Conversations to resolve issues are more productive when the power differential between the parties is lessened. One way to level the power difference between people is to focus on interests, not positions.


Step #2: Separate Interests from Positions

What is the difference between interests and positions? Positions are the “how” manifestations or preferred solutions of the way to get what we want. People often begin difficult conversations with their positions and solutions. Interests are the underlying “why” we want or need something. The way to uncover the interests behind the positions is to ask questions.

The Five Whys is one approach to asking questions to discover the interests behind a position. It begins with the identification of an issue, problem, or position. The first question asks why the problem happens or why the position is important. Listen to the response without developing a rebuttal or reaction. Acknowledge the response without judging it. Then ask another “why” or “help me understand” question regarding the response. If you cannot think of a “why” question, simply ask the person to tell you more. Repeat the process of listening to the response and formulating another “why” question to develop an increasingly deeper understanding of the issue. It often takes multiple iterations to find the real interests underlying a position or proposed solution.

Consider the example of two people who want the only orange available. Each of their positions is “I want the orange.” Do you cut the orange in half? What if one person wants to eat it (they are hungry) and the other person wants the rind (for baking a cake)? Asking “why” questions uncovers the underlying interests of hunger and baking. This enables the opportunity to find a better solution than giving the whole orange to only one person or cutting the orange in half.

The secret behind moving from positions to solutions is to identify the interests behind the positions.


Step #3: Find Solutions that Meet Interests

Before you can successfully find solutions that meet the interests of other people, identify and communicate your own needs and interests. Then, you can discover the needs and interests of the other parties to see how they compare. Sometimes, the underlying interests are not in conflict although the initially-stated positions appear to be at odds.

To move from interests to solutions, try this three-part conversation:

  1. WHAT? Validate what the parties know about the situation and their individual interests. Look for areas of agreement or overlap.
  1. SO WHAT? Interpret what the situation, interests, and concerns mean to each of the parties. Build an understanding of the impacts and effects on all parties.
  1. NOW WHAT? Decide on next steps and solutions. Look for the easy “yes” items as you build agreement on shared interests that are not in conflict with each other. It will make finding agreement on more complex things easier.

One of the challenges with resolving conflict is that sometimes it returns even when the parties believe it has been resolved. Post-agreement conflict can arise from unanticipated events and is difficult to predict. The four conditions under which it is most likely to arise are when there is an ongoing relationship between the parties, the initial conflict was very intense, the original issues in the conflict were complex or broad in scope, and there was significant effort or change required by the parties to resolve the initial conflict.

General Principles for Conflict Resolution

  • Address and resolve issues at the lowest level possible.
  • Look beyond positions. Be open to multiple ways to satisfy your interests and the interests of others.
  • Develop an organization or team communication protocol that addresses:
    • Methods for regularly sharing information on team and club activities (e.g. email, websites, phone, text),
    • Best times to talk to your coach and how to do it (e.g. in person, phone, email, text),
    • A 24-hour or similar rule defining a cooling off period between the end of a game and when issues can be constructively discussed between concerned players, parents, coaches, and others, and
    • An overall issue resolution approach that outlines how to have an initial conversation about a concern and the appropriate escalation process in the event the concern cannot be resolved at the lowest level possible.
  • If you get lost in details, politics, or organizational administrivia, Compass Point North Always Points to Your Players

Ruth Nicholson is the founder of GO!, a 24/7 Resource and Training Library offering youth sports organizations proven leadership and administrative tools. It includes resources for assessing and addressing conflict. To download a sample resource, click here: Conflict Scale – The Levels of Conflict.


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