The Coach’s Guide to Managing Conflict in Sport

Bo Hanson
4x Olympian, Director, and Lead Consultant

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We all know that in the highly stressful environment of elite sport (and even social sport), conflict is bound to occur.  Coaches need to know the best way to understand, recognize and manage conflict in a way that results in a positive outcome.  Dealing with conflict is a delicate yet necessary part of any coach’s role, so we have also included a guide to the Critical Conversations you will need to have regularly in your coaching career.

What is Conflict?

The easiest way to see conflict is as a disagreement between parties.  It often begins through a difference in people’s behaviors, interests, desires, or values. Conflict can also begin through jealousy or personal dislike.

Recognizing Conflict

Even before overt conflict occurs, there is undoubtedly smaller, covert conflict which likely went unaddressed.  When trying to successfully manage conflict it is critical to notice it when it begins and before it escalates to a crisis situation.  Closely monitoring your behavior and the behavior of others can give insight into where discussions and situations may go.  This can help to identify where conflict may come from.  Although some clues may be obvious, there are other more subtle hints, so those with high levels of self-awareness and empathy are most able to adapt their approach to managing these situations.

Outcomes of Conflict

Conflict often gets perceived as only having negative outcomes. This often can be the case if the conflict is managed inappropriately or it is ignored altogether.  However, conflict can have positive outcomes.

Negative Outcomes

  • People feel defeated or demoralized, anxious, stressed or inadequate.

  • A distrustful or suspicious environment is created.

  • Communication can be disrupted, leading to a lack of cooperation and information not being conveyed.

  • Poor work and team relationships develop;

  • There is a decline in productivity.

Positive Outcomes

  • Increases motivation and creativity, new ideas as people look for new approaches.

  • Leads to clarification of issues and ideas.

  • Encourages team performance and cohesion.

  • Develops tolerance.

  • Increased trust can be developed within relationships.

  • Assists with evaluation of existing systems and processes.

  • Increases productivity and sense of achievement.

I know myself that some of my strongest and most enduring relationships within my sport have become so, after we had been through a level of conflict or disagreement.  The overcoming of the situation showed commitment to the relationship from both sides and the experience helped to further understand each other.  While not always the most enjoyable way to build a strong relationship, overcoming conflict can be very effective.

Managing Conflict in Sport

So how do you manage conflict? And why should you?  Managing conflict in sport is all about attempting to get the most ‘positive outcomes’ out of a conflict situation.  The key is learning to manage our emotions (always easier said than done).   Learning to identify your triggers, and catch hold of your emotions in the heat of the moment is vital to constructive conflict resolution. Teaching your athletes to manage their emotions also becomes a vital part of a coach’s role also. Read our article on ‘The Amygdala Hijack – When Your Brain Snaps in Sport’ to understand why you lose control in the heat of the moment, and why it is so costly!

It is vital to manage conflict in a skillful manner, as undoing the damage caused in the heat of a moment response can sometimes take a long time and a great deal of effort.  When this is coupled with the highly personal relationship between a coach and athlete or team members, managing conflict in sport in a skillful way becomes even more important.  Sometimes relationships are even beyond repair.  Hence why conflict must be addressed prior to this degree of deterioration.  An appropriate way to manage an escalating conflict is to have a productive conversation between the parties involved.  This can be thought of as a critical conversation, as it determines whether the outcome of the conflict is mostly positive or negative.   (We use the term ‘critical conversation’ but the book we refer you to is ‘Crucial Conversations’.)

Critical Conversations

It is best to have a plan of action going into one of these conversations to ensure that you communicate your side of view effectively, but also allow the other party to express themselves fully.

We highly recommend the book Crucial ConversationsTools for Talking When Stakes Are High, by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler.  As this book outlines, when stakes are high, opinions vary, and emotions run strong, you have three choices:

  1. Avoid the conversation and suffer the consequences;
  2. Handle the conversation badly and suffer the consequences; or
  3. Have a “Crucial Conversation” and communicate best when it matters most.

Watch Bo Hanson speak in-depth about the best way to have a Critical Conversation in Sport

Here is an effective five step process for critical/crucial conversations:


Share your facts

Sharing facts is the best way to begin a critical conversation. So tell your facts (as you see them), and identify issues that need to be discussed. It is best to outline facts first, as they are the least controversial, most persuasive and least insulting. This allows you to begin the conversation in a composed manner which leads to a more constructive outcome.


Tell your story

The next step in this process is to tell your side of the story, drawing rational conclusions from the correct facts. This is not the time to pile it on – don’t lay out all your grievances at once. Try to detect if the other party is feeling threatened, and to create an environment that is less tense. It is also vital at this stage to be prepared to take some responsibility, where it is appropriate.


Ask for others’ paths

It is important to remember when having a critical conversation that you may not have all the facts. Be careful when making assumptions. Although confidence is necessary, balance this with humility. Allow others to share their facts, stories and feelings and listen to the other party carefully. You need to be willing to reshape your view as additional information surfaces. The most important thing to remember at this stage is to be open-minded. Welcome others observations, opinions and feelings, even if they do not match your own.


Talk tentatively

It is always important when having a critical conversation to talk tentatively. This reduces others defensiveness, as it shows your own uncertainty, and willingness to listen. It can also increase your influence. Know that being tentative does not mean being wimpy.


Encourage testing

Encouraging testing by actively inviting and encouraging the other party to share their side of the story. Making the other person feel safe allows them to respond openly without fear. This makes for a more productive outcome.


Having a basic understanding of conflict management and how critical conversations should be managed, is an essential tool which should be in every coach’s toolbox.  Remember conflict is not always negative, and some great outcomes can be achieved when conflict is handled in a skillful manner.  Essentially effective conflict management is about improving communication within your team.  As we know Communication is the Key to Success, this helps you and your team achieve a better overall performance!

For more information on how to communicate better and prevent ‘brain snaps’ see our articles on ‘The Amygdala Hijack – When Your Brain Snaps in Sport ‘ and ‘Coaching Effectiveness: A Guide to Creating Engaged Athletes through Better Coaching Interactions’.

At Athlete Assessments, we’re here to provide you with excellence in service and here to help you be your best.  If there is anything we can assist you with, please Contact Us.

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Over the summer, Bo Hanson, Director of Athlete Assessments and David Hedlund, Assistant Professor of Sport Management at St. John’s University, New York presented at the National Coaching Conference in Morgantown.

The presentation focused on David’s ‘Research into the Effectiveness of Developing Sport Coaches’ Self-Awareness using DISC Profiling’. David previously presented accompanying research at the 2014 SMAANZ (Sports Management Association of Australia and New Zealand) Conference in Melbourne.

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In the pressure cooker environment of elite sport, conflict is bound to occur and absolutely should occur. In fact, I would be more concerned about a lack of conflict in sport than too much... Whether you are a coach, athlete or sports professional, you need to understand the best way to recognize and manage conflict in a way that results in a positive outcome.

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Bo Hanson

Senior Consultant & Director

Bo Hanson’s career within the sport and the business sector spans over 25 years, delivering leadership, management, and coach development. In addition to his own athletic career comprising of four Olympic appearances and including three Olympic medals, Bo has worked for many years with coaches and athletes from over 40 different sports across the globe. Bo was also the winner of the Australian Institute of Training and Development (AITD) 2023 Award for L&D Professional of the Year, for his dedication to L&D and transformational work across various industries.

After a successful career in sport including four Olympics and three Olympic Medals, Bo co-founded and developed Athlete Assessments in 2007. Bo now focuses on working with clients to achieve their own success on and off ‘the field’, and has attained an unmatched track-record in doing exactly this.

BoRowing-Atlanta Olympics

Now, watch us interrupt him for a round of quick fire questions.