Healing the Bad Apple

by | August 27, 2014, 6:00am 7

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about leadership lately. I spoke at Melissa Witmer’s coaching conference on the importance of teaching leadership and then immediately transitioned into actually teaching leadership as part of a new program at Seattle Youth Ultimate Camp. I’ve had a ton of great conversations with kids, with my co-teachers Alyssa Weatherford and Reid Koss and with guest speakers (Sarah Griffith, Ben Wiggins,  Hannah Kawai and Spencer Wallace). It’s been one of those really wonderful experiences of getting so much information and ideas and exposure that it is impossible to process it all. I’ll be going back over my notes and memories for weeks; I’ll be sure to share the highlights.

One recurring theme was how to deal with the ‘bad apple.’ This issue came up in various forms as a question during my URCA talk and it’s been one of the more pressing issues faced by the students in the leadership camp. How do you deal with a player who is causing problems on the team and resistant to changing their behavior? How do you deal with a captain who is out of sync with the rest of the team? I thought I did a pretty bad job answering these questions during the conference Q&A. Part of that is just not having enough data; each case is so individual. And yet, there are some real commonalities that run through all of these situations. Here is the answer I should have given:

Prevention is the best medicine. A healthy team with a strong and positive team culture is very unlikely to have bad apple trouble. First, there are fewer unhappy players. It is a powerful feeling when a team is all driving in the same direction. The feeling of unity and direction makes everyone happier, so you are less likely to have a player become unhappy in the first place. Still, there are always people who are disappointed with their playing time or disagree about strategy or are just plain difficult. A healthy team culture inoculates the other players against the damage the bad apple can inflict. Basically, the players just don’t care that much because the tone of the team is set by the team. This is where the Clown Tent can be a life-saver. The bad behavior becomes just another idiosyncrasy like tardiness or the drops. The team accepts it as a part of the person just as they accept that person’s strengths. So, if you are having bad apple trouble, look first at your team culture and team systems. Are they in tip-top shape? If not, address both team and individual issues simultaneously or you will find yourself dealing with a similar problem in the very near future.

Use the one-on-one conversation outside of practice. This is the best single tool you have as a leader. By making the conversation private, you remove any difficulty that might come from loss of face. It is much easier to admit fault privately, where there is less loss of pride. By moving the conversation outside of practice, you move it away from the emotion of the moment. This allows for a more rational and unemotional conversation, and you’ll need all the help you can get. Finally, go slowly and don’t be afraid to take breaks. Talking about really difficult issues is difficult; it’s okay to stop for a moment, breathe and collect your thoughts. Many people have excellent defense mechanisms that allow them to avoid truly facing issues; pausing will give you an opportunity to find your way through the maze. These conversations are tricky, difficult and emotional so give them the care they deserve.

The bad apple is a leader. This is a person who has the emotional strength to be a giant pain in the ass. That’s a person who is a leader. You want this person on your side.

Be humble. Put the team first. If you set out to win an argument, you’ve already lost. Even seeing it as an argument is setting yourself up to lose. The only thing that will truly convince this person that you are on the same page is to you put yourself behind the team.

Consider the nuclear option. Carefully. There are times and places where a player, captain or coach is so toxic and so unwilling to adjust their behavior that the only choice is to eject them from the team. Before you get here, I really encourage you to make sure you’ve exhausted all your other options because this is going to be a big mess for everyone involved and there is a non-zero chance that it will destroy your team. I was part of a team that chose the nuclear option and it was followed by a five year nuclear winter. Still, in the broader ultimate landscape there are a couple of teams a year that evict players or leaders, and it’s usually for the better.

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  • david barkan

    Brilliant, Lou. It is so easy to label a "difficult person" on your team, attribute all kinds of negatives, and make (bad) decisions accordingly. But we rarely ask the question, "why is this person acting this way, and what might WE be doing, as a team and individuals, to facilitate those bad behaviors.

    If you look at whining, blaming, dominating, or being divisive as symptoms, then the really interesting question is not, "how do we get rid of this person?" but "what might be OUR underlying problems that are manifesting those unpleasant symptoms"? Could it be there are cliques on the team that make some people feel excluded, so they act out? Maybe lack of strong compassionate leadership brings out the aggressive and hostile in some. Is there a common agreement on mission, cultural norms, ways we want to comport ourselves (Ex. Revolver's IHD), or is is just assumed we will behave ourselves and play great? Without structure, people do the funniest, and not so funniest, things.

    Sure, sometimes we have a "bad apple" that is just plain rotten, but as you say, this is very rare. After all, they must be on the team for some compelling reasons. But more often than not there is an opportunity for growth, for that person, and even more importantly, for the collective, for the team.

    Anyway, I think your piece will be very helpful to many, and it is worth remembering (though very hard sometimes), that all this is true outside of Ultimate too, in work, in family and beyond..

  • David

    Nuclear option or bottom line. Either they get better or quit, either way the team wins.

  • wannabe break

    i think part of this is to hold up a mirror. often bad apples think of themselves as passionate defenders of the true nature of the team. show them the way that their actions are harming the best parts of the team. don't attribute to malice what you can attribute to ignorance until you're sure it is malice. at that point, the nuclear option applies.

  • Wow. Lou, I think that while it's far to say that casting Johnny aside was 'a move' it kind of sucks that you decry our efforts from 01-03 as a wasteland. A Semi-final appearance, same at world… It's not like we were wandering around in the waste land trying to figure out how to throw flicks.

    Those were decently successful shoulders that the championship teams stood on. I humbly accept that I was the barnacle that the winners scraped off to sail faster to victory. But let's not hyperoblize too much.

    Your Clown.

    • Burruss

      I hope I implied that these kinds of events are more than a 'move' – that they are incredibly difficult for everyone involved. I'm not sure 10000 words would be enough to fully and fairly explain that whole sad story. Anyway, I agree 100% with you about 01-03 building the foundation; I just counted differently by starting with 98 and including the 02 season up to Worlds.

      • Lou,
        While it may not always be patently clear, I was, again, mainly just yanking your chain. And, I was never jealous of y'all winning while I was skiing… always supportive. Hell, I was the worst player in the history of ever to have a no practice, no spring, contract on such a good team… Great years I'll always treasure. Keep up the good coaching, good posting, and I'll try to rep the 541 in the land of Ufda and Hotdish.

        • guest

          It sounds like there is a great ultimate history article waiting to be written about Sockeye's late 90's to early aughts….any takers?