10 Rules to Manage Conflict Like a Pro

Written by VersusThu Aug 18 2022
10 Rules to Manage Conflict Like a Pro

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No matter the activity or setting—there’s always going to be conflict in sports. It’s simply impossible to throw together the mix of coaching staff, trainers, athletes, administrators, and parents that make up a modern-day sports team and expect there not to be some fireworks. When not managed properly, ongoing conflict can destroy an athletic team from the inside out. Unresolved conflict can negatively impact performance, stop individuals and teams from reaching their goals, and drain any fun and enjoyment out of the game.

10 Rules to Manage Conflict Like a Pro

A must read for coaches, athletes, and parents

No matter the activity or setting—there’s always going to be conflict in sports.

It’s simply impossible to throw together the mix of coaching staff, trainers, athletes, administrators, and parents that make up a modern-day sports team and expect there not to be some fireworks.

When not managed properly, ongoing conflict can destroy an athletic team from the inside out. 

Unresolved conflict can negatively impact performance, stop individuals and teams from reaching their goals, and drain any fun and enjoyment out of the game. 

Furthermore, poorly managed conflict can also leave staff exposed to legal liability. One doesn’t have to read very far into these examples of bullying lawsuits, to see that unresolved conflict was a contributing factor in each case.

The problem is, just recognizing that conflict happens isn’t enough… 

Every person in a leadership role within a sports team—coaches, administrators, athletes, even parents—must have a detailed plan for how to manage conflict, before it escalates. 

For those who don’t have a solid framework for managing conflict in sports yet, or who want to refine their existing approach, we've got something special for you in this article.

Tim Walton’s Golden Rules for Managing Conflict

Not many people are as qualified as Coach Walton to teach on managing conflict. 

He’s been a head coach in college softball for over 20 years now (17 years with the Florida Gators), with an envious list of personal and team achievements. 

Just some of the highlights of Walton’s coaching career so far include:

  • Second-fastest college softball coach to reach 1,000 wins
  • Five-time winner of SEC Coach of the Year
  • Has taken eight of his ten teams with the Florida Gators to the Women’s College World Series, with back-to-back championship wins in 2014/15
  • Instrumental in his players winning more athletic and academic awards than one could count, such as 43 NFCA All-American Honors, 2 USA Softball Player of the Year, 10 SEC Player and Pitcher of the Year, and 18 CoSIDIA Academic All-American Honors

His awards and achievements are impressive. But anyone who’s had the pleasure of working with Coach Walton, can attest to the fact that his unique style of mentoring and leadership is actually his most impressive quality. 

We’ve detailed this in several other articles available on Versus and the VS app. 

In our latest installment of exclusive video interviews, we asked Tim Walton to go through his philosophy and approach to managing conflict. 

This turned out to be a BIG video. Tim dives deep into every aspect of his framework for conflict resolution, which he believes is a “key ingredient for success” in sports teams. 

We’ve covered the top 10 points from the video in this article, but there is a lot of other great information we just couldn’t fit in. 

To get Tim’s take on managing conflict with parents, and the rest of his advice, head over to Versus to sign up. You’ll get access to this video, plus the rest of our exclusive content, and more.

Now, let's get into Tim Walton’s 10 rules to manage conflict like a pro.

1. Have a Plan

One of the biggest mistakes anyone can make with managing conflict, is going in without a plan. You might get lucky here and there and end up with a good outcome. But in most cases, jumping in without a firm idea of how to manage a situation is just going to make it worse.

A recurring theme throughout all of Walton’s advice, is the importance of dealing with small problems while they are still small. This is entirely possible to do, but only if one sets out with this aim. Keep this principle in mind as you go through the rest of the points.

2. Give it Time

Walton uses a “24-hour rule”, but you can adjust this as needed. The important point here is to avoid the pitfall of wading into a conflict when emotions are running hot and acting in a way that you might regret later. It takes some discipline and self-control, but allowing a “cooling-off” period before dealing with conflict tends to yield better results. 

How do you put this into practice? Speak to the people involved. Gather the required information. Then be clear with everyone that you won’t be making a decision or taking any action for a set amount of time. This will allow space for some of the heightened emotion (including yours) to dissipate, giving everyone involved some time to reflect on a good path forward.

3. Listen to Everyone

One thing that Coach Walton emphasizes above all else, is knowing your players. His main advice in this area—listen to them. There is perhaps nowhere this is more essential than in managing conflict.  

A point Walton returns to over and over in the video, is that when people bottle things up that are bothering them for too long, it leads to negative outcomes. By encouraging communication around conflict—even when it is uncomfortable—everyone involved in the team will at least feel like they've had a say, even if the final decision doesn’t go their way.  

4. Handle Every Situation Individually

Policies and procedures have their place in conflict resolution, but only so far as providing a framework to respond to each situation individually. An easily overlooked point about managing conflict, is that the perception of being treated fairly is just as important as the final decision.

There usually isn’t a way to give everyone what they want when managing conflict. In essence, conflict arises in a team environment precisely because everyone can’t always have things their way. In most cases, genuinely acknowledging the circumstances of an individual’s grievance—even if nothing can be done—will go a long way to diffusing a tense situation.  


5. Prevent, Rather than React

This point comes back to our overarching principle of stopping small problems from becoming bigger ones. Preventing conflict, rather than reacting to it should always be the goal. Does that mean you're likely to eliminate conflict completely? No way.

You're still going to run up against loads of conflicts that couldn’t be prevented. But if these are managed with an eye to preventing current problems from escalating—plus avoiding similar occurrences in the future—the overall frequency and severity of conflict should reduce over time.


6. Be Clear on Standards

Being absolutely clear on the personal standards expected from everyone on the team eliminates any uncertainty about what passes as acceptable or unacceptable behavior. In turn, this clarity prevents the many instances of conflict that come about when people aren’t sure of team rules and expectations.

To give you an idea of just how clear Coach Walton is on this point, he’s developed an acronym that no one on his team (the Florida Gators) is ever likely to forget. While an acronym is optional, clearly communicating your team standards is not.

Coach Walton’s Team Standards

  • Go to class
  • Act responsibly
  • Tell the truth
  • Obey the law
  • Respect yourself
  • Show up on time 


7. Encourage Accountability

Part of being an effective leader is learning how to delegate and share responsibility. Particularly when it comes to something as challenging as managing conflict, it’s essential to have processes in place to share the load. One of the ways Walton does this, is by building accountability processes within the team.

Every player on the Gators knows who they are accountable to—themselves, the team, their accountability partner, the accountability group, their parents, the softball program, and the University of Florida. By instilling a sense of accountability into his team, Walton achieves two important things. He shares the responsibility for managing conflict throughout the team (he reports that many problems get solved before even getting to him) and he develops leadership qualities in his more senior players.


8. Deal With Conflict Face to Face

While Walton is an advocate of using several different communication methods with his players, conflict is one topic he suggests should be dealt with face to face. Misunderstandings, leaving things unsaid, and speaking through other people are some of the main contributing factors in conflict. 

Trying to manage conflict by text or DM leaves a lot of room for misinterpretation, increasing the chances that conflict will escalate. While it might initially be more uncomfortable and time intensive to discuss conflict in person, it is usually the fastest and easiest way to achieve a speedy, mutually agreeable resolution. 


9. How You Say it Matters

So much of communication in sports relates to how things are said, not what is said. Just look at something as simple as a coach or teammate saying “C’mon” to another player. Said in an

encouraging, energetic tone, this could be a compliment or encouragement. Said differently, it could easily be taken as saying that the player isn’t giving their all or is underperforming.

To effectively manage conflict, your tone, body language, and energy must match your words. Try to deal with something like hazing or a complaint from a parent in an incongruent, passive-aggressive way, and you're in for a world of pain. The people you're addressing will see right through you and immediately lose faith in your interest or capacity to solve their problem.

10. Be Considerate, Concise, and Consistent

Walton touches on this topic partway through the video, when he states he's always thinking “How can I impact our young people without embarrassing them. Without making them feel bad. But still be able to be firm, direct, and honest”. 

Really, this is a goal all of us should work towards to decrease conflict in every area of life. True to style, Coach Walton uses this as a fitting closing for the interview. His final advice for managing conflict…

  • Be considerate. 
  • Be concise. 
  • Be kind.  

Small Problems are Good Problems

If there is one commonality among all the points in this article, it’s a focus on dealing with small conflicts to prevent them from becoming bigger problems.

While it sounds counterintuitive—assuming one is prepared to deal with them—these small conflicts should be welcomed. Why?

Because without a doubt, managing small conflicts is the best way to prevent bigger ones. 

That team-wide bullying problem that got out of control—started with a small handful of students before it spread.

The parent who put in a formal complaint with the university administration—tried to raise their concerns with the coach initially, but wasn’t given the time of day.

The star athlete whose off-field behavior is causing continual headaches—didn’t have firm boundaries set early on, now will take a huge effort to rein in.

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