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How do you manage the difficult star performer?

As a Captain or Coach, one chief responsibility is guiding the team to meet goals, be it winning the game, reaching the summit or crossing the finish line. However, is it possible in a high-pressure sports situation to guide some individuals to shine whilst maintaining team cohesion?

The typical example of this would be the mollycoddled ‘star player’ who chooses to go for glory; the one that thinks a solo effort is more valuable than carefully planned team tactics. Do these players have a place in the team, or is it more complicated than that?

Judith Germain, a specialist mentor with Seeing Solutions, has a few key ideas to help understand this mentality. Some players are “wilfully independent” but “stand up for what they believe in, even if it costs them their job”, showing “confidence that can be seen as arrogance”. These sportspeople can be among the top performers.
 
In our view it’s highly unlikely they’re solely interested in keeping glory for themselves; instead such “risk-takers who break the rules” do so just to achieve the objective. Put simply, a Cup Final footballer knows scoring the most goals wins and chooses the shortest path to achieve this; a path others may not even see or think too risky. As Germain points out, “from [the player] perspective, their behaviour is not high risk because they have done their own risk assessment” and confident players may see this kind of decisive action as within their remit.

Understanding this doesn’t make such players easier to manage; Coaches and Captains must always be subject matter experts, which is why ex-players frequently take on such roles.  However, it’s just as essential to be an expert in managing people.

When it comes to handling these difficult star players, there are three key focus points for management:

1.    Connecting the team to a higher purpose
Every team needs a common, compelling vision to work toward, one that isn’t simply winning. It may be winning in a certain way, getting to a specific point in a competition or a more long-term achievement.
2.    Connecting the team to one another
Regardless of some players feeling the need for extra attention or special treatment, team dynamics need to be carefully managed. For example, a basketball game has two outcomes, you can either win or not. The outcome is not under any single player’s control, as one against five won’t succeed. If a player starts to see themselves as more important or take too much responsibility for the outcome, it can strain team relations. By removing too large a burden of expectation from one player and sharing it among the team, we think you’ll have a team player that doesn’t feel they have to complete the task single handed.
3.    Treating each player as a person, not a cog in a wheel
In a sports environment, it’s easy to just see a ‘striker’, ‘goalie’ or ‘defender’. We feel managing a person and not a role is much more effective and whilst they may hold the title of ‘striker’, giving a person an understanding of themselves in relation to that role and not just ‘the role’ is much less restrictive.

We think these three focus areas are essential for teamplay and are relatively easy to achieve day-to-day, but the cracks may show when the pressure builds. Coaches and captains should consider what can happen if one of these principles falls by the wayside. Will the team react as one unit, or will the pressure be felt more keenly by one or two? In particular, consider those performers with high expectations on them who may well feel the pressure more; it may be turned into an advantage, but how much can they achieve on their own?
 
In our opinion, you don’t want to curb or restrain players from showing ingenuity or initiative but it’s important that you make them understand that there are boundaries that are set for such times. The reason that some players will set their own pathway to achieving an objective is that they don’t see another option and try to take too much responsibility for the outcome.

It’s this kind of player-felt expectation that can be the source of what others see as ‘bad decision making’ that only gets greater as the stakes get higher. By developing the team mindset to accept the factors that are outside their control (such as tactics or the opposition) and only fight for what is within their control, we think you’ll find that a much more cohesive unit will be formed.

Of course, this situation is not just limited to sports teams. Every business leader or manager will at some stage in their career come across a ‘difficult star player’, who is successful but achieves their success against the grain.

Martin Fairn, CEO, Gazing Performance Systems
www.gazing.com   
@gazingtraining

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