August 18, 2017 • Coaching

The 10 plagues of a problematic program

Does disappointment, drama and dysfunction seem to characterize your program?

Do your athletes spend more time attacking each other and the coaching staff than they do your opponents?

Is the stuff hitting the fan with your program?

The problematic program is one that is mired by a great deal of drama and dysfunction. The off-the-field issues rear their ugly heads during competition, putting your program’s health and your job status in serious jeopardy while diminishing your chances of success.

Coaches of problematic programs find themselves and their programs in a huge hole that is tough to climb out of. The hole could be because your program has suffered a long and demoralizing losing streak, been rocked by a scandal, has been slowly declining and decaying from within or seems like it’s about to implode.

Whether you are the coach who was in charge of the program when it fell into the hole or the one who has been tasked with bringing it out of the ditch, remember the “first rule of holes” when you find yourself in one: Stop digging.

Like the biblical plagues of Egypt, problematic programs seem to be hit by wave after excruciating wave of drama and disaster. Sadly, much of it is brought on by their own doing.

Here are 10 common plagues that can beset a problematic program:

1. Corrosive culture.

Problematic programs typically have a highly corrosive culture. The negative values, attitudes and standards of the program act like a caustic acid incessantly eating away at your program from within. There is a pervasive feeling of selfishness as people primarily look out for and try to save themselves. There is a tremendous amount of distrust and a lack of candid communication. The corrosive culture obviously is not much fun, nor does it support either short- or long-term success.

2. Clueless coaches.

Problematic programs are sometimes plagued by an incompetent coach at the helm. In some cases, the coach is completely clueless and doesn’t even recognize the pervasive problems going on under his or her nose.

More often, the coach’s lack of people skills has significantly contributed to creating the problems within the program. Sadly, they neither have the wherewithal or leadership skills necessary to effectively address the issues.

3. Coercive coaches.

Coercive coaches are another cause of problematic programs. These prickly coaches use demands, criticism and insults to try to light fires under their athletes rather than using credibility, confidence and inspiration to get them motivated.

Coercive coaches mercilessly attempt to demand results from their athletes instead of credibly coaching great performances out of them. Coercive coaches often neglect to invest the time to develop effective relationships with their athletes and fail to fully connect with them as people. They forget that rules without relationships equals rebellion. This heavy-handed, coercive approach demotivates many athletes and leads them to check out mentally and physically.

4. Inconsistency and double standards.

Other coaches create problematic programs through inconsistency. Their athletes (and staff) never know what to expect from them one day to the next, or from one situation to the next. One day they might be in a great mood and easy going in terms of their standards. The next day they might be an unbearable ogre and taskmaster.

This Jekyll and Hyde approach makes it difficult on the team. For some coaches, problems stem from having inconsistent rules and standards for the team. They let their superstars get away with murder while their substitutes can’t as much as sneeze without incurring their wrath and punishment. Having double standards are an almost sure way to guarantee a problematic program.

5. Ring leaders.

In problematic programs, you often notice that a powerful and negative ring leader has taken a strangle hold of the team. Rather than having positive leaders who exemplify, encourage and enforce the standards of behavior for the team, you see a selfish ring leader who intimidates the team into doing things their way.

The ring leader wreaks their reign of terror on the program and creates a highly toxic, negative and fearful environment. The rest of the team has to either choose to be quiet or suffer the wrath of the ring leader.

6. Resistance and resentment.

If the coaches and leaders of the team are not respected or considered credible, you will see a tremendous amount of resistance and resentment on the part of the athletes. Without respect, athletes grudgingly obey their leaders because they have to, not because they want to.

Athletes in problematic programs will either be openly disrespectful to their coaches or, more likely, look to covertly sabotage the program behind the scenes. Both are obviously a major concern and a telltale sign of a problematic program.

7. Apathetic athletes.

After a while of being resistant and resentful, many athletes eventually become apathetic if changes aren’t made. They give up trying and basically resign themselves to endure the situation and look forward to it ending. They hang on out of necessity to preserve a scholarship — or their parents make them.

The athletes fall into what psychologists call “learned helplessness.” They go through the motions, give little discretionary effort and become like zombies just waiting for the whole experience to end.

8. Cliques.

Some problematic programs are the result of cliques, where the players spend more time competing with each other than they do their opponents. Keep in mind that subgroups naturally develop on most teams based on common interests, year in school, similar backgrounds, etc. These groups are normal on teams as long as they peacefully coexist with each other.

Problematic cliques occur when one subgroup intentionally excludes, belittles, undermines or becomes hostile toward another subgroup. Cliques destroy trust and team chemistry because they put their smaller group’s interests ahead of the team’s interests. Many problematic programs are the result of corrosive cliques between the upper-class athletes and the lower-class athletes. Divisions also can form when the athletes on offense blame the athletes on defense for the team’s failures. 

9. Underperformance.

Given all of the drama and dysfunction, there also will likely be a lot of disappointment, as many student-athletes will underperform. With all of these issues and the divisions within the program, many athletes will be highly stressed and very distracted, resulting in poor performance.

Many athletes lose motivation to work hard when they don’t respect their teammates or coaches. Even highly talented teams eventually succumb to the negative environment and significantly underperform when they are in a problematic program.

10. Mass exodus.

Understandably, because of the troublesome factors already reviewed, problematic programs usually are plagued by mass defections of staff, athletes and fans. It’s no wonder that everyone tries to get out while they can like rats leaving a sinking ship. They realize that if drastic changes and improvements aren’t made soon, the entire program will go under. They don’t want to be part of the carnage or fallout.

With the 10 plagues discussed in this article, problematic programs are in desperate need of a major transformation — and fast. In most cases, serious changes need to be made in order to salvage the situation. The quickest and easiest way for most administrators to deal with the headaches of problematic programs is to clean house of the current leadership and start all over again.

To learn more about building a winning culture, check out Jeff’s book “How to Build and Sustain a Championship Culture,” and visit

Leave a Reply