Conflict is inherent in sports, as individuals and teams compete against one another to win. In football, hockey, and boxing, people intentionally hit each other to gain an advantage. Even in basketball, where there are distinct rules to avoid contact, there is significant contact “in the paint”, and players often injure each other as they vie for advantage. Despite conflict’s central role in sports, “on the court” conflicts are not usually considered the type of conflict that is resolved using communication-based conflict management techniques. However, there is often considerable conflict “off the court”, at times the result of a complex array of needs and expectations amongst various actors including parents, athletes, coaches, and fans. Poole (2012), describes one such conflict, between a player and coach, a result of differing expectations of playing time between the actors. The case highlights how relationship uncertainty, attribution without communication, and relationship economics work to keep the conflict in the initiation phase, whereas relationship-centered communication is a leadership opportunity to collaboratively resolve the conflict and improve the team.
The case study revolves around a conflict between the coach and one of the players, where the player seeks a greater role during games, while the coach is confident in their decision-making and appears unwilling to meet the player’s expectations of more playing time (Poole, 2012). Poole (2012) describes the conflict from the point of view of the player:
You go to practice and work as hard as anyone else, and know all the plays. You previously went to your coach and asked why you weren’t playing in the games. You felt that he had favorite players, and since they didn’t include you, you weren’t receiving the opportunities that you should as a member of the team. The coach replied that since he picked the team, he owned it, and he would decide who played. He suggested that you quit if you didn’t like it. (p. 1)
The case describes a conflict that appears to be stuck in the initiation phase, without an obvious path forward to resolution, given the apparent finality of the discussion. Failure to bring the conflict to resolution has inherent risks for the player, the team, and the coach, insofar as the conflict has the potential to lead to a confrontation avoidance cycle. In particular, the relationship may suffer from the chilling effect, where “one person in the relationship withholds grievances from the other, usually due to fear of the other person’s reaction” (Abigail & Cahn, 2011, p. 29).
According to Abigail and Cahn (2011), the chilling effect can lead to decreased level of communication, decreased commitment, and eventual death of the relationship. The possibility that the relationship between player and coach could suffer from the chilling effect is apparent, given the coach appears willing to end the relationship, rather than work to resolve the conflict. Of course, the player has an equal role in the conflict, insofar as the player does not appear to consider the needs of the coach or the team. To fully understand the perspectives of both actors, this author will first analyze the situation from a theoretical perspective, before arriving at a recommendation.
To analyze the theoretical perspectives that may be at work in the conflict, this author will adopt Goffman’s (1956) dramaturgical perspective, looking at the conflict from the perspective of the player and coach roles. The player is concerned that they are not receiving an appropriate amount of playing time based on their sense of fairness and as recognition of their effort. In addition, the player appears to attribute the lack of playing time to favoritism on the part of the coach, an inference that may or not be reflective of the situation. “Attribution theory states that people act as they do in conflict situations because of the inferences they make about others based on their behavior” (Abigail & Cahn, 2011, p. 216). Moreover, people may respond aggressively when one person seeks to constrain another’s alternatives, when the act appears to intentionally do harm, and when the act appears illegitimate (Abigail & Cahn, 2011). The coach’s role is a difficult one, as the coach must balance the goal of winning, with the needs of every player and a variety of additional actors, including parents, administrators, and fans. Balancing these perspectives, the coach may have legitimate reasons for not playing the player, however, because the player attributes the coach’s behavior to favoritism, the player does not attempt to understand the coach’s decision-making. In turn, the coach may believe the player is seeking to illegitimately constrain the coach’s choices, perhaps influencing the coach’s response. While attribution theory provides insight into the behavior of both the player and coaching, social exchange theory may offer additional insight.
“Social exchange theory states that people evaluate their personal relationships in terms of their value, which is created by the costs and rewards associated with the relationship” (Abigail & Cahn, 2011, p. 220). In the player coach relationship depicted in the case study (Poole, 2012), differing perspectives on value may be the source of conflict, as the player clearly values personal playing time, while the coach’s value orientation is opaque. However, by adopting the role of coach, this author may infer the coach’s value orientation to provide further insight. As such, this author believes the coach likely values winning, while also valuing team play, player development, and perhaps even their job. The case highlights how differing value orientations can form the basis for conflict. The coach’s willingness to end the relationship suggests that the rewards of the relationship fall below the comparison level standard perceived by the coach, likely a result of the coach’s perception of the player’s teammates, where the alternative of ending the relationship with the player is preferable when compared with the costs of meeting the player’s expectation. Of course, the coach’s willingness to end the relationship likely creates considerable uncertainty for the player.
Uncertainty can occur both in a relationship, and within a conflict relationship, and is often the result of insufficient information (Abigail & Cahn, 2011). The player clearly does not understand the coach’s motivation for selecting the player line-up, nor does the player know specifically what they need to do in order to realize the opportunity for additional playing time. The uncertainty in the situation and the ambiguous motives of each actor in the case, combine to create a potential chilling effect, where the player may be unwilling to address the conflict in a productive way, given the potential implications. The coach’s willingness to let the player leave the team introduces further uncertainty into the player’s perception of the likelihood of future play. Moreover, the coach’s attitude may undermine the player’s level of esteem. Maslow (1943) identifies esteem as a fundamental human need associated with confidence, achievement, and respect. Because the coach is likely concerned with player development, the coach’s communication with the player, whether intended or not, may be incongruent with the coach’s value orientation and role as a leader. Furthermore, given the role of coach is a leadership role, the coach has a responsibility to understand the nature of the conflict and use the conflict constructively to provide value in the leader-member exchange (LMX).
Leader-member exchange theory is a leadership theory that focuses on the dyadic social exchange process in the relationship between the leader and member (Graen & Uhl-Bein, 1995). According to Graen and Uhl-Bein (1995), a LMX is the basis of social exchange between leaders and members, and leadership behavior can lead to high quality LMX relationships. Moreover, high quality LMX can improve organizational commitment and improve organizational citizenship behavior (Cropanzano & Mitchell, 2005). The case study highlights a missed opportunity on behalf of the coach to use the conflict constructively to benefit both the player and the team.
Had either, the coach or the player, taken a constructive view of the conflict, the situation could be very different. However, as a leader, the coach has an overriding responsibility to use conflict constructively as an opportunity to help players reach their goals, while improving team outcomes. Irrespective of responsibility, both actors in the conflict drama have the opportunity to use the conflict as an opportunity to collaborate to resolve the conflict while improving both personal and relationship growth (Abigail & Cahn, 2011). Collaboration is a relationship-centered approach to conflict that seeks to resolve conflict and create win-win scenarios (Abigail & Cahn, 2011). Had the player, or the coach, sought to understand each other’s needs, empathized with each other, or emphasized their common purpose, the actors may have found opportunities to collaborate.
For example, the coach, being concerned with player development, could have used the opportunity to communicate the specific improvements required of the player to increase their playing time. Conversely, the player could have asked what specifically they needed to improve to increase playing time, rather than attribute the lack of playing time to favoritism. However, this author suggests the responsibility largely rests with the coach. The conflict was a coaching opportunity that could have motivated the player to improve, and provided support via future leader-member exchanges oriented toward the players development. While it is unclear whether the player would meet the coach’s expectations of future performance, Bandura (1997) notes that expectations are the best predictor of success.
While conflict can be a source of angst and uncertainty, conflict is equally an opportunity to improve personal and relationship outcomes when used constructively. Moreover, when conflict occurs in the leader-member exchange, constructive conflict is a leadership moment, an opportunity for a leader to teach, influence, and raise expectations of performance. To take advantage of the leadership moment, the leader must adopt a relationship-centered approach to understand the members needs, and actively collaborate to help the member achieve their goals. While both actors share the responsibility to initiate collaboration, the leader has a greater responsibility. After all, leaders choose to lead.