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February 5, 2014 • Athletic AdministrationCoaching

Identifying the five types of conflicts in athletic programs

One of the many tasks of a high school athletic director is resolving conflict. Conflict is a natural by-product of managing people, and an effective athletic administrator must be able to respond to conflict and control it.

Conflict seems to have a way of finding leaders and it is very time consuming. To be effective, however, it is important we don’t react. Effective leaders decide what the issues really are, and then develop a plan. Not all conflict is the same — there are multiple types — and before we can begin to solve conflict, we must first identify the type of conflict.

One long-time California high school athletic director had this to say about conflict management:

“My approach is really stepping back instead of being reactionary. A lot of times when conflict happens, it’s in your face so quickly you tend to react. I spend a lot of time investigating, a lot of time interviewing the parties involved. Time talking to kids one-on-one, or bringing in three or four to get to the root of what the conflict is.” 

In the 2003 book Building Teams Building People by Thomas Harvey and Bonita Drolet (2003), five types of conflict were identified to help leaders begin to un-muddy the waters, and begin to develop a strategy:

  1. Value
  2. Tangible
  3. Interpersonal
  4. Boundary
  5. Perceptual

1. Values Conflict. Value conflicts are struggles over beliefs, tenets or principles. As an athletic director I have encountered many situations rooted in value conflicts.

One example I have recently dealt with happened when the parents of a young man complained about a consequence we gave their child for a flagrant (fighting) violation in an athletic contest. The rule policy is clear if you are ejected for fighting. The parents, who came in to see me, valued aggressive play. They viewed it as a part of the game. They felt the penalty was excessive. Our belief systems were in opposition. A values conflict existed. According to Harvey and Drolet, “Values conflicts are not easily resolved, in most cases cannot be resolved. Both sides simply agree to disagree.”

2. Tangible Conflict. Tangible conflicts are those that can be measured, shared or counted. Money, personnel, benefits, or facilities are some examples.

A frequent example is coaches of two different sports who want to use a facility at the same time. It is important that we don’t take the “Top Down” approach to their resolution. A compromise is the more acceptable approach here. I always try to have the parties involved work out a solution. If they can’t come to an agreement, then I step in to help them come to a workable solution. Tangible conflicts are more readily resolved than other types of conflict.

3. Interpersonal Conflicts. This is a conflict about my feelings about you as a person. These are very common and they are the second most difficult to resolve. The most important thing to remember is interpersonal conflict is most often the secondary result of another conflict. Take your time and look for the possibility of another conflict.

For example: I sometimes hear a coach verbalize dislike for another coach. The coach says something like, “He’s a jerk,” or they just don’t talk to each other. At first you may label this as an interpersonal conflict. The real reason they don’t speak to each other, however, is that one coach is upset because he feels the coach is not allowing his athletes to participate in the other’s sport.

Another example presents itself when parents come to me and complain that a particular coach does not like their child and is mistreating their child. As the conversation develops, the true complaint surfaces as lack of playing time. Both of these scenarios originate in other types of conflicts.

4. Boundary Conflicts. There are two types of boundary conflicts: boundary penetration and boundary expansion. In the first, you have a certain area and someone has violated your area. The second is when you are expected to step in and help in another person’s area if they are absent. An example of boundary penetration is if the soccer coach wants to practice on the softball outfield. The softball coach may feel their domain has been violated. Another example is a school function in the gym taking priority over basketball practice.

An example of boundary expansion is if the athletic secretary’s hours have been reduced due to budget cuts and coaches are now required to fill out all the necessary paperwork for the play-offs. Or, if because of budget cuts, coaches are required to do additional fundraising to purchase basic items. If ignored, boundary conflicts can escalate. The preferred strategy in this type of conflict may call for a third party intervention by the athletic administrator.

5. Perceptual Conflicts. This type of conflict is the easiest to resolve. Perceptual conflicts are the result of a mutual misunderstanding. Most of the parent/coach conflicts are in the perceptual area. This type of conflict usually results from a failure to communicate. When parents come in to complain about playing time they usually do it under the guise of “the coach is not treating my child fairly.”

In most cases this is resolved when the coach explains to the parent that the reason for the lack of playing time is because their child has missed practice, or has not been hustling, or, in some cases, is not academically eligible. Communication is the preferred strategy. Preseason parent meetings help to reduce the number of perceptual conflicts.

Knowing the type of conflict you face allows you to begin to develop a strategy to resolve conflict.


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