How to Deal With Difficult Players

Learning how to deal with a difficult player is one of the most frustrating things you have to do as a basketball coach or leader of any team. Throughout my coaching career I have had my share of difficult players and there is no “cookie cutter solution” to dealing with them.  Each one comes with a unique set of problems that has contributed to their current difficulties.  Therefore, it is important to have guiding principles in place so you can deal with each circumstance effectively.  There are three main principles I use in order to lay the foundation in determining the best course of action when dealing with a difficult player.

  1. Absolutely no one is irreplaceable:  This can be a tough spot for you as a coach or leader of a team in the business world because you might feel you have to have them on the team.  Many times people who are creating difficulties on a team or within an organization mistakenly believe they are the only person in the organization with the ability to do what they do.  This false sense of security can many times lead to an attitude that they are the captain of the ship.  As the leader you must understand and be willing to take the risk of losing a person before you can ever make real progress.
  2. Make decisions based on what is best for the team: As the leader of any organization you have the responsibility over many individuals not just one.  This can often be a heavy and lonely responsibility which cannot be taken lightly.  Each situation is different and must be weighed in light of what is best for the team first.  Several years ago the best basketball player on my team started causing problems.  It finally culminated one day when he showed up late for practice and later stormed off the practice court in frustration.  I followed him into the locker room knowing my conversation with him would set the tone for my team the rest of the season.  I let him know he was important to the team but if he continued with the attitude and problems I would have no choice but to let him go. Unfortunately over the next couple of days his attitude and behavior did not change.  It was a tough decision to let him go because I really loved him and wanted nothing but the best for him; nevertheless, I would do what was best for the team.   It was amazing to feel the difference the next day at practice.  There was obvious concern from the rest of the team but also a huge feeling of relief.  Several of the players told me afterwards that he was causing a lot of problems in the locker room behind my back.  Even though we struggled in the “win” column we still had a successful season as the team pulled together and filled new rolls in order reach our goals.  Your goals and expectations for your team should be well stated and understood before the season starts.  I write out the goals and expectations in by basketball coaching planner which is a coaching planner specifically designed for recording team goals, planning effective basketball practices, scouting opponents, and game planning.  By recording and posting goals everyone can be on the same page.  These team goals become your guiding principles when making tough decisions about a difficult player.
  3. Next, make decisions based on what is best for the individual: I was coaching for a school with a district wide rule that if a player violated a particular rule regardless of the circumstances they would be kicked off the team.  It was a good rule and I agreed 99.9% of the time.  However, I had a player that violated this rule on purpose because he was in a fight with his parents and wanted to provoke them.  As a coaching staff we decided his actions, although detrimental, were not purposely made to hurt the team.  Therefore, we appealed to the school district to allow him to stay and let the coaching staff come up with an appropriate consequence.  We decided to suspend him for 4 games which really hurt.  As a result, the difficulties that had been festering with this player which had finally culminated in the rule violation completely went away.  More importantly, he viewed the coaching staff in a brand new light because we stood up for him when we didn’t have to.  The end result was we had a 100% committed team player for the rest of the season.

If you will give yourself guiding principles to coach and lead by, you won’t necessarily avoid dealing with difficult players and people.  However, you will be able to deal with each situation effectively as it arises and still maintain your status as a fair, honest, and engaged leader of your team.

Joe is a basketball coach in Montana and corporate leadership consultant with The Leader’s Institute based out of Dallas, Texas.  His experience and insights into coaching for all levels of coaches from junior high girls to varsity boys have helped many coaches become successful.  He is also the creator of the Basketball Coaching Planner used by coaches across the country designed to create effective practice plans, game plans, film review, and scouting reports.  You can visit his website at