“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” –Viktor E. Frankl
The title of this article probably made you smile. But as you consider it a bit more, you might think about what a big problem bitching can be for coaches and athletes. I recently wrote an article titled “10 steps to improving a player’s personal motivation” that discussed helping individuals come to the realization that they control their own lives. Here, I’d like to offer some insight into how bitching just might be the biggest obstacle to personal achievement and improved performance. Taking personal responsibility for your situation – and your response to each situation – can create dramatic transformations. Let’s start with a five-point overview of the anatomy and psychology of bitching – who we bitch with, why we bitch and what we bitch about.
1. Friends who bitch together.Friends tend to bitch about similar things. In sports, friends bitch about their teammates, their coaches, their opponents, daily schedules and the expectations of their coach. They can often be heard saying things like, “I can’t believe we have to do this!” Coaches often bitch about players, officials, athletic directors – you get the idea. If you think about it, we often associate ourselves with people who have similar perspectives.
2. Getting others to bitch with you. If players can get others to commiserate with them by bitching, they often feel justified in their discontent. Complaining always seems to absolve a person of their disgruntlement and personal responsibility. By sharing their unhappiness and getting a cohort to agree, it helps you feel justified. You might hear, “I knew I wasn’t the only one who thought this was terrible!” And don’t forget the coaching side of it. Ever had a discussion with another coach and said, “I knew I wasn’t the only one who had a problem with this kid”? When coaches do this, they’re trying to absolve themselves of their responsibility to unravel issues with a player. But putting all the blame on the player rarely accomplishes anything.
3. Bitching is the best defense. The best defense is a good offense. What bitching implies is, “It’s not my fault or responsibility – it’s the fault of the coaches, the officials, trainers or my teammates. By bitching they also might finagle themselves out of doing what they really need to do but are resisting.
4. Bitching gives away your power to succeed. Athletes and coaches rarely realize how the act of bitching takes away their personal power. One issue I discussed earlier in the book is the importance of accepting personal responsibility. It’s a critical aspect of personal growth. We need to have a willingness to accept failures as part of the learning or growth process. Think about a toddler beginning to walk. They repeatedly fall down. Do they respond by slapping the floor, swearing and giving up? No. They shrug it off, get up and try again. There’s no judgement about what a useless human being they are or about how walking is way too hard. Bitching is a learned behavior and defense mechanism that blocks the innate process of learning.
5. Bitching provides a great excuse. Bitching not only gives people emotional cover from having to deal with failure, it provides a distraction in the form of an excuse. People get mad or frustrated and refuse to do any problem-solving or introspection; that’s a lot more difficult. I would always tell players that everyone has hurdles to overcome – either emotional, mental or physical. Individuals who have become accomplished in their field – like great athletes, award-winning writers or business leaders – have a willingness to engage their personal hurdles. They become proficient and obsessed with successfully overcoming their obstacles. They choose to become an actor, not a victim. And they choose to take personal accountability for their situation.
This my golden rule of coaching: Awareness leads to change. Unless players become aware of unproductive behaviors, there’s little hope the behavior will change. Bitching and denial prevent change. Here are my suggestions for eliminating this behavior from the team environment. Coaches should participate, too. Joining in will humanize you to the team.
- Assign each player to spend some time individually journaling about their tendencies to bitch – with whom, about whom, when, where? What does this bitching do for you? Are they really enjoying playing? Do they want to continue? What do they get out of playing and being a member of the team? Remind them they are in charge of their life.
- Does this bitching help or inhibit your progress as an athlete and in becoming a valuable member of the team? Give some examples.
- With one or two close friends (who know you well and will be honest with you), check to see if your personal reflections are consistent with how they view your behaviors.
- In a team meeting, share some of your personal observations about yourself. CAUTION FOR COACHES … keep this light. It can end up being a funny and productive experience if it doesn’t get too serious. Coaches should share some personal reflections. For example, one time I shared how I got irritated when they had trouble with a drill in practice and I bitched up a storm about them after practice. Then I told them that I finally realized that it wasn’t their performance in the drill that made me mad. Rather, it was the crappy drill I had designed! They got a real charge out of that admission. It opened the door for them to be more forthcoming. It’s good to let them know that it’s normal for them to bitch about you, their coach.
- Give them a few minutes to consider what they might be accomplishing with bitching. Have them include when, where and with whom it usually happens. Ask if this helps them become better players. If not, what changes will they try to make? One player volunteered to make “No Bitching Zone” stickers for their lockers.
- Finally, have them do some problem-solving as a group about things they can do for themselves and each other to reduce the unproductive behavior of bitching.
Stephanie Schleuder coached college volleyball at Alabama, Minnesota and Macalester. She retired in 2009 with 702 career victories and will be inducted into the Volleyball Hall of Fame in December.