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When the Athlete Acts Out

Last week my own personal athlete acted out. Acted out of frustration? anger? fatigue? overwhelm? her mother being annoying? I'm not sure on the exact cause, but I sure know my switch was flipped in an instant.

Here's the thing - as a parent, as a coach, as a professor, and as a psychologist I have desired only the best for my children, athletes, students, and clients. Just because supporting others is one of my highest ranking life values does not mean it's always easy.

I get that anyone I work with can have an uncharacteristically rotten day and sometimes I might be their safest target. That's part of my job descriptions. On my good days, any blow I may receive is met with not only compassion, empathy, and curiosity but also with a humble privilege. I am a safe enough person for them to know they can allow their outside expression to match their inner emotion. However, on my bad days, this "humble privilege" can look a whole lot like indignant rage.

Let's be clear. I doubt that anyone who knows me would consider me anyone's punching bag. So, this last week caught me off guard. My first response - of which I am not proud - was to go through all the things I do for this child of mine. "All the time, energy, and money I spend on you and this is what I get?" I won't go into details, but it was not pretty.

When I am not in my indignant rage mode, the last message I ever want to give my child is that my love for them is somehow conditional. I want them to rest securely in the knowledge they can have a bad day and my support and love remains undeniable and unshakable.

Rupture and Repair

I use the idea of rupture and repair on a daily basis in my own practice. When you work with clients, there is no way around the topic of relationship. By definition, being in therapy is a relationship with your therapist ... where you discuss your other relationships. Rupture within any significant relationship is inevitable, but the sweet spot of connection is in the Repair.

To initiate the Repair process on this particular day, it took a phone call to a friend, reassurance from my other daughter that her sister's actions were inappropriate but also uncharacteristic, perfect timing of an already planned meeting with my own psychologist, and an eventual return to my adult self's "humble privilege" of getting a proverbial right hook to my ego.


As a coach, I’m sure you are quite familiar with the ruptures of emotions. You see your athletes when they are distressed with not only all the responsibilities of being an athlete, but also with academics, living away from home, roommate issues, intimate relationship ups and downs, lack of privacy, loneliness, friendship dynamics, family struggles, and countless other variables that may all be magnified for them after a move to campus.

Stressful physical activity is known to lower the emotional defenses. It is on the court where you can see typically mild-mannered students wear on their sleeves the highest highs and the lowest lows. Practices are meant to push an athlete to their limits and with those limits can come some expression of emotions that may include a proverbial right hook.

In my years of working with clients and athletes, a much larger concern than “acting out” is “shutting down”. When acting out your athlete is matching their inside emotions to their outside expression which unquestionably can cause some conflict, but I would argue even more damaging is locking those emotions up and shutting down on the outside.

Continuing bad behavior cannot be tolerated in a program. However, sometimes the bad behavior comes from an internal distress that if addressed with compassion, empathy, and curiosity may be brought to the surface - the only place healing can truly begin. The goal then can move to active Repair. The Repair can have astonishing effects that can ripple throughout your team and can strengthen your relationship with your athletes, create a sense of safety in your program, and may even use the same energy that seemed so destructive before to enhance performance on the court or field.

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