When I was a child my dad (who was a high school teacher) used to say, “Boys are so easy, they just get into a fistfight and get it over with. Girls will hold a grudge for twenty years!”  When I say that during presentations at coaches conventions I always get a laugh from the audience because it rings so true.  If we look at the structure of men/boy’s teams there is something of a ‘pecking order’ where the leaders lead, the followers follow and aside from some fisticuffs now and then it pretty much just works.  Looking at women/girl’s teams in contrast there seems to be cliques and splintering.  Sometimes someone tries to lead and no one follows, other times there are multiple ‘leaders’ going in conflicting directions and then there are situations where it seems like no one is leading at all.  Oh the drama!  To the untrained eye it looks like a chaotic mess.


If this sounds like your team don’t worry, it is perfectly normal.  Once you understand what is going on you can provide your athletes with the skills to Stop The Drama! and focus their energy on reaching their full potential as individuals and as a team.


Why does it happen?


The short answer – women have different Communication DNA than men. 


If you go back to the dawn of human beings, a man’s role was to hunt and protect his family.  To do that effectively he needed to be strong and healthy.  If he is injured physically and he can no longer do his job.  Thus the best way to convince a man that he needed to see things a certain way was to, injure him physically.  And the best way to become a ‘winner’ after losing would be to align himself with the winner.  It is a very “king of the jungle” way of looking at things.  He who wins gets his way.  He who loses shuts up and lines up.  We still see that very clearly on male teams today.


Since the dawn of time things have been very different for women.  If it wasn’t hunting or protecting a women was doing it.  I will save you from reading the laundry list of tasks as I am sure you can imagine it yourself.  The important point is, there is no way a woman could do all of the tasks herself.  She needed the help of the other women in the “cave-complex”.  Injuring a woman physically would only give the group someone else to take care of and two less hands to do work.  That would be counterproductive.  However, convince the group she is bad and push her out and suddenly the resources her family was using are available for your family.  And so gossip, backstabbing, and bickering were invented.


Obviously that is a simplification.  But it makes the point very clear that women use language differently than men.  How they communicate, what they expect from their teammates and how conflict is addressed, or ignored, originates from a different place.  Telling a female team to “leave it at the gate”, “shut-up and play” or “don’t take it personally” isn’t going to help.  You need to teach them how to do it.  There are many teams giving up W’s before they ever set foot on the field because they don’t know how to lead, follow or get out of the way.


How to fix it


Teaching your team how to engage in productive conflict will eliminate the vast majority of the drama on a team and help leaders emerge. It allows athletes to focus on the technical and mental aspects of the game and coaches to focus on coaching.  But what is productive conflict?  Productive conflict is the ability to engage in a conversation about a topic or disagreement, get solutions on the table, chose one, implement it, agree it is solved and move on.  No screaming. No cliques.  No grudges.


Here are a few skills you can share with your athletes to support the use of productive conflict:

  • Active listening – Many rifts are caused by misunderstandings.  Active listening ensures the intended meaning is what is heard.  Use phrases like, “If I understand you correctly…” and repeat the main point of what was said.
  • Speak from the “I” – Conversations will quickly turn into confrontations when sentences start with the word “you”.  Starting with the word “I” allows the athlete to own her side of the conversation and creates space for the other person to have a different opinion without becoming defensive. “I think…” “I feel…” “My experience was…”
  • Ask why – It is very easy for us to make up why someone does something.  “She is out to get me.” “My coach doesn’t like me.” Encourage athletes to ask for clarification rather than making negative assumptions. (This means you have to be willing to take the time to explain.)
  • Play brave, not afraid – Create an environment where athletes can push the envelope knowing their teammates will catch them if they fall.  Mistakes should be seen as a teaching opportunity.  A fear of failure will make any team mediocre by encouraging them to play it safe.


One final note – you can’t expect your athletes to use these skills if you and your coaching staff aren’t using them.  How do they see your coaching team handling conflict?  Do disagreements with parents or refs result in yelling or complaining behind their back?  Athletes learn from observation.  The best you can expect from them is what you do yourself.




Dr. Robyn Odegaard (aka Doc Robyn) is a nationally known speaker, consultant and author specializing in leadership, teamwork, communication and conflict resolution.  She is the founder of the Stop The Drama! Campaign, author of the book ‘Stop The Drama! The Ultimate Guide to Female Teams’ and the CEO of Champion Performance Development.  More of her teambuilding secrets and her video blog are available from www.StopTheDramaNow.com.  She also writes the Champion Performance Topic of the Week at www.ChampPerformance.com.  She is always happy to respond to your questions or schedule a presentation for your team via email DocRobyn@ChampPerformance.com or Twitter @DocRobyn.