Coaching Association of Canada

Peter Eriksson, ChPC - Athletics

How to Break Bad News to Your Athletes

The TORONTO 2015 Pan Am Games were a huge success for our track & field athletes and particularly the male sprinters. You’ll remember, however, that the men’s 4x100m relay was disqualified for a lane infraction and it was coach Glenroy Gilbert’s job to break the bad news to the men.

“It has happened to me several times where my athletes get disqualified for different reasons,” says Peter Eriksson, Head Coach at Athletics Canada. “You fight for them as much as you can according to the rules. If you lose in the end, then you lose. You can’t hold that against anybody, you need to move on and focus on the next things on the schedule.” Below are Peter’s 3 tips for giving athletes bad news.

1. Assess and provide feedback
Just like any other coach-athlete interaction, it has to be tailored. “Your process depends on the athlete and what the situation is,” says Peter. You might have to ease into it with a more emotional athlete whereas a more process-oriented athlete might just want the facts and outcomes. “You’ll need to describe what happened: why they got disqualified, what the verdict was. “Focus on what was good during the race... I focus on the positive,” explains Peter. He says to use the standard positive, constructive, positive structure for your feedback and focus on the most important area for improvement.

2. Shift the focus to the next performance or opportunity
Generally in these circumstances, coaches don’t have to tell athletes that they’ve screwed up, they know this already. “Dwelling on the negatives will just drill it in and you don’t want to do that. They already know they’ve been disqualified and they need focus on what to do tomorrow,” suggests Peter. Once you’ve been able to make the assessment and discuss the technicality of the ruling with the athlete, it’s important to focus on the next event and return to the original mental preparation plan, taking into account any changes made as a result of the disqualification.

3. Check in and follow-up with the athlete
“He [Glenroy] met with them on several occasions after telling them,” says Peter. Because news of this nature can be a shock to an athlete, particularly when they aren’t expecting it, as was the case with the men’s relay team, it’s important to follow-up. The mood can change quickly, emotions can surface, and it is important for coaches to make sure the athlete is still focused on their process, the necessary improvements, and the next event.

Disqualification aside, Peter is excited for the sprinters, particularly because of the demonstrated performance and the potential of this young team. “Nobody can take away that they had a good race, this is just the beginning of something greater, so we have to move on. This is a team that can, under the right circumstances, in the right lane, break a Canadian record and be on top of the world. I’m not disappointed about this; it’s part of the game and you have to live with the mistake and learn from it, and not do it again,” concluded Peter.