Joshua Gordon, conflict management specialist, founder of the Sports Conflict Institute, and co-author of essential reading, The Sport’s Playbook: Building Teams That Outperform, Year After Year


By Mim Haigh, Sports Writer – Athlete Assessments

We had the opportunity to interview Joshua Gordon for our article ‘Proactive Conflict Management in Sport’ and he had so many valuable insights that we wanted to share this with you in this extended Q&A.


You are a conflict management professional with more than 25 years’ experience spanning business, education and gang-related violence. What made you want to specialize in sport?
Sport remains the one arena where just about all of society engages, globally and locally, and most often performance and success matters a great deal. It’s this nexus of competition and diverse stakeholders that make it so ripe for conflict and also creates an openness to innovation. I also believe sport is important and that the lessons learned through sport transcend sport itself.

What role do conflict management and resolution skills play in optimizing performance?
In a perfect world, these skills are universally recognized as core competencies that can be learned and perfected along with other critical abilities. Any high-performance environment is constrained by time and resources and being mired in conflict diverts both from the primary goals that individuals and teams are working towards. It’s far more effective to be able to proactively address issues rather than allowing them to erode performance. A high-performance culture sets the system of human behavior in place that both anticipates and addresses conflict proactively and prepares for the inevitable moments where resolution is needed.

Many people avoid conflict, is conflict something that people should be frightened of?
Not at all. Conflict is natural and normal. The alignment among teammates and leaders doesn’t happen by accident – it requires identifying what key people’s interests are and having critical conversations to set behavioral norms to achieve that alignment. Many mistake avoiding conflict as a form of keeping the peace but often allowing conflict to reside in the darkness allows fertile ground for it to grow and have more negative consequences. Generationally, avoidance has become a prevailing strategy (and it does have its place from time to time) but it is used as a tool by default rather than a well-thought analysis as to what the best approach for addressing an issue is given the specifics of the players and the conflict.

What impact does unchecked conflict have on sporting teams?
A lot of teams refuse to even acknowledge that they ever have conflict. Yet, the funny thing about conflict is that it will do its damage to a team whether or not you admit it exists. Teams often operate like a machine – each part needed to work in concert with every other part for the machine to produce. Conflict operates like grit in the machinery and it can damage individual parts and grind the entire system to a halt. At a minimum, everything operates a bit more inefficiently. In the extreme, people underperform, leave the team, or leave the sport entirely.

What influences our initial skill base when it comes to conflict management and resolution?
They are learned skills so they are often first learned in the context of family and then later in sport, educational, and professional contexts. Popular culture often emphasizes really bad conflict skills. It’s far more exciting to watch a tv show of people fighting than for a productive, interest-based conversation, drawing from an understanding of both yourself and others involved. That drama is best left on the television.

What prompted you to develop your conflict management tools and curriculum – the Play-By-Play Model™, Outside the Box / Inside the Ring™, Stop Bully!™, Sports Conflict Observations Tools (SCOTs)™?
The first wave of conflict resolution professionals believed so strongly that they had uncovered a better way for us all to manage critical moments in our lives that they felt that people would actively seek them out and “do the right thing.” While there’s little doubt in the value of these skills, my perspective is that it has always been imperative to first help people understand the value is measurable and critical to their success, that it extends far beyond a more noble motivator of doing the right thing. Selfishly, if you want to be successful, these skills are critical. So, all of the tools that I have developed over the years are designed to be easy to implement and immediately effect behavior and add value. These skills and tools have immediate return on investment.

Your book is a ‘must read’, seven chapter blueprint for establishing a culture of continued success. Sporting teams chase this idea of replicating success. It’s the holy grail in sport. How did to come up with your blueprint?
25 years of engaging in some of the most intractable and complicated conflict across a variety of contexts forces you to evaluate where barriers to success begin. This blueprint represents the common threads amongst the greatest culture innovators in high pressure settings where the slightest edge makes all of the difference.

What gets you excited / what do you look forward to most about your role as a mediator, facilitator, educator, and organizational capability builder?
The most rewarding opportunities is when a team brings you in early to help build the foundation for a high-performance culture and then watching those seeds of success grow into a championship culture on and off the field of play. While I find the “firefighting” of a conflict inferno exciting and interesting and appreciate the complexity involved with unmanaged conflict, it’s ultimately far more rewarding to be part of a proactive approach.

What have been the top 3 things that have helped you succeed in your work with clients?
1) Candor – I will not sugar coat things
2) Customized – Everything requires an understanding of the uniqueness of a situation and then specifically tailoring the approach for that team’s success
3) Comprehensive – Recognizing that a workshop alone is rarely enough. I’ve had great success in understanding the entire ecosystem around a culture and making sure the words are reinforced by practices, policies, procedures so that the behavior exemplifies the aspirational language.

What feedback do you receive from your clients about the best thing about working with you?
That I’m both innovative and pragmatic, understand the constraints and pressures, and can work well within those to help a team get as close to their ideal as they are able to. Essentially, I’m the opposite of a cookie cutter approach.

Is there an example of your work with a client or clients that stands out for you?
In working with a top NCAA Football program, we were able to turn the program around in 1 year’s time from a program best known for arrests, NCAA infractions, and underperformance on the field to one with exemplary community contributions and a top Bowl game performance with student-athletes excelling in the classroom. This involved an assessment of the coaches, student-athletes and administrators, and supporting the staff to engage the student-athletes in creating a shared performance culture that everyone bought into by following the very blueprint found in the book.

What is most miss-understood about mental skills development and/or the work you do with athletes, coaches and/or administrators?
Too often failure is attributed to an individual when it most often is the result of a sub-optimal culture. We love to blame “bad apples” but are best served by looking at the entire system that delivered that apple.

If you were to give one piece of advice to a coach or athlete, what would it be?
Questions are undervalued. It is from questions that change and solutions derive from and, yet, many feel tremendous pressure to begin with answers. Everything starts with questions.

What do you see as the number 1 issue your clients face and work to overcome?
How to align so many individuals with divergent interests into a cohesive culture working towards a common goal? It takes a proactive and disciplined approach to get there and some planned re-alignment moments to stay there.

What you are most proud of? What has been your career highlight so far?
The privilege of being considered a trusted individual when someone is at their darkest and most vulnerable moment is never lost on me. Each time someone brings me in to help them problem solve reminds me of the importance of integrity and passion and remains an ongoing highlight of my career. The process and journey to accomplishing greatness often gets very little of the accolades but, to me, is where I find myself most proud.

What was one thing you changed from last year that has made a significant difference?
Saying no, more often. I’ve learned to be choosy about who I partner and work with. At the end of the time, time is such a valuable commodity and the experience of working with good people is so critical to maintaining a never ending passion.

What advice would you give someone starting out in their career as a consultant within the sporting industry?
First, ask yourself why? If it’s for the glory and the money, go elsewhere. It has to be driven by intrinsic motivators and the passion for taking some unique skill set that you have to helping others. If the interest comes from any other place, I’d recommend reconsidering.

How/why did you get into what you are doing now?
I’ve always been motivated by finding ways to do something better than it’s ever been done before. It’s an obsession, really. It drives my wife nuts, because it extends to my own daily life, as well. So, I’ve had the privilege of helping solve some ridiculously complex problems in just about every context you can imagine but I always return to sport. I’m a lifelong athlete (baseball, tennis, basketball, athletics) who loves competition and pride myself in outperforming my level of talent. I see problem-solving as a competitive edge and to be able to combine personal passion with helping others in a context I enjoy so deeply is truly a gift.

Can you share an ‘ah-ha’ moment in your career?
About a decade ago, I was meeting with one of the highest profile league presidents and came in with the assumption that this guy had all of the answers and doubted my ability to be of any value in supporting some of the goals. I wasn’t even sure why, honestly, I was invited in to come speak. Yet, as I asked questions, I appreciated that what made this individual so successful was their openness to learning and a willingness to seek guidance and support. It reinforced my own instincts that I am never done learning and to similarly not assume anyone else should be equipped with all of the answers, either.

What are you aiming for in the future?
To continue to transform sport so that the opportunities it provides for challenges and human growth are universally available to all. I don’t think conflict should ever be the reason someone leaves a sport.

How has working with Athlete Assessments contributed to your work with clients?
Athlete Assessments have been amazing partners. It begins with my dedication to only working with good people – Bo, Liz, Laren, and the rest of the crew are absolutely outstanding people who happen to be great at what they do. They share a dedication to continuous improvement and are motivated by a similar passion for helping lay the foundations for success for others.

How has using Athlete Assessments’ DISC Profiles helped most with your work?
Athlete Assessments’ DISC profiles ask the right questions to uncover invaluable insights on complex human behaviors so that we have a common language from which to follow the blueprint for high-performance culture. Culture and conflict are complicated but the profiles help in making solutions accessible. All of my work with clients begins with assessment and, having evaluated nearly 40 other instruments, it is with confidence that we use Athlete Assessments’ DISC Profiles. It’s been such a pleasure having such great partners in Athlete Assessments. I always know that when a team is using their tools that they care about the right things!

Anything else you’d like to share?
I hope that everyone who cares about performance makes sure to have a copy of The Sports Playbook on their desk, it’s meant to be used continuously, not simply read and put away on a shelf!

You are welcome to read our article about
Joshua Gordon, ‘Proactive Conflict Management in Sport


Where to from here…

If you’ve enjoyed this Q&A article, you might also value reading:

Are you a sport psychologist looking to achieve similar results with your clients? You too can take your consultancy to the next level and achieve the success that Joshua Gordon has.

As a top consultant, your clients rely on you being the best in your field, knowing the true determinants of success and having access to the tools that will make the most impact when it comes to improving performance. Athlete Assessments’ DISC Profiling is the tool you need to help your clients realize their potential.

Find out more about Athlete Assessments’ Consultant Program now.

At Athlete Assessments we’re here to provide you with excellence in service and to help you be your best. If there is anything we can do to be of service, don’t hesitate to contact us.

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