May 10, 2012

The Poison Pill

My two least enjoyable seasons as a collegiate coach involved The Poison Pill.  As I have written about before, this is the player who's attitude kills the season because it is a poison to the team.  Many times, this player may be one of the most talented on the team, and at the least, is skilled enough to be a starter.

Collegiate coaches are very aware of attitudes in the recruiting process.  Even though many VolleyFamilies see a club player offered a scholarship, who they feel has a terrible attitude, I can promise you that the collegiate coach knows of this attitude.  The coach is just willing to gamble that they or the program can change or at least, minimize the poor attitude.  This can happen within two specific circumstances - The player was more topical in their poor attitude, and the program is so established with its positive mindset that it dominated the player.

In the past, coaches tried to manage these Poison Pills and (generally) were willing to provide the PP a couple of years to get her mind right.  But, in today's recruiting world, the PP will be gone in one year and I agree with this One and Done scenario.  But, unfortunately for the team and the coaching staff, they still must deal with the PP for a volleyball season.  I have developed a Zero Tolerance attitude when it comes to players who's mindset run completely contrary to team success and positive chemistry.

I am well aware that there are any number of poison coaches or coaches that are just not skilled enough to properly manage teenage and young adult players.  And who knows how many coaches are just so far gone, that they actually create the toxicity which exists on their own team?  I have seen this situation enough to know that it is all too often.

The challenge with the Poison Pill is that it can be very tough to identify.  I have had a player smile to my face and thank me profusely for some deed, then find out that 10 minutes later they were ripping me in the locker room in front of the entire team.  These are the players who say the right things in public, who do the smile and cheer, who work hard enough, but when they are out of sight of the coaching staff, they are breeding toxicity.

On just about any team there will be a certain number of players who love the coach, and a certain number of players who are neutral but influenceable.  This is a natural status; some players are emotionally attached and supportive of their coach, while others just want to play the sport and view the head coach as simply the coach of the program. This is the way it was when I played, and it has been this way with any number of the teams I have coached.

The problem comes when the third element, the Poison Pill player is added.  The problem is not the coach's ego; we are the grown-ups and being criticized by a 18-22 year old student-athlete should not bother us in the least, but rather the problem is the fractions created within the players.  The supportive players will chaff at suggestions the coach is not a good person/coach and will rebuttal any critiques, this will instantly create a negative situation within the team.  The neutral players get placed into a tenuous position; they will either remain neutral, or believe the argument of the Poison Pill or believe the refute of the supportive players.  Again, this creates a negative karma within the program.

Very rarely have I seen a team win at the level of its capabilities when there is divisiveness.  I have seen teams play above their capabilities when they eliminate any toxicity within the program; this does not mean they hang out like the Von Trapp family, they just understand what is good for the success of the program.

VolleyParents, I am speaking to you - Work hard to make sure you do not send off a Poison Pill to college.

Some thoughts born of experience as a player and coach:

1.  Attitude is a family responsibility; it is not the club coach's job to create the positive or neutral attitude and it is not the collegiate coach's job to fix an attitude problem.  If the coach is a Triple C (Crazy College Coach), then transfer or find a mindset which allows separation from the gym and student life.

2.  In today's collegiate environment, it is easier to for a coach to cut and recruit, than it is to coach and mentor.  If a PSA arrives as, or develops into a Poison Pill, they will be gone and they should be gone.

3.  College volleyball is not high school and it is not club volleyball.  It represents the second highest possible level of indoor volleyball in the USA and it is intensely competitive.  Being 'happy' or 'having fun' is a byproduct of doing things right and winning matches.  This may be harsh to hear, but if a player just wants to have fun or wants it always to be enjoyable, then they should consider inter murals or club volleyball when in college.

4.  Not everyone plays and the majority of newly arriving players tend to sit the bench more than they get on the court.  This is natural because there are only 7 positions playing, and today's rosters are around 15 players with recruited walk-ons.  The reality is that there could be a better player in your position; you will either need to get better yourself or wait for this player to graduate.

5.  Too many players don't want to accept the fact that someone is better.  While there are any number of "....not right in the head" collegiate coaches (can anyone tell me the movie quote?), they are not going to keep one player on the bench and play a clearly lessor player.  If two players are nearly the same, then it comes down to nuances which can be tough for a player to understand when battling for court time.  The answer?  Work harder to get better and make it not a choice for the coach.  Student Athletes must accept that to play on the court they need to be better than their positional competition, and sometimes obviously better, rather than get mad and blame the coach.

6.  Here is a stunner..........a PSA may spend their entire career being a valuable part of the program, and not seeing the court in any meaningful manner.  Mom, Dad, PSA....understand you may not play.  You will practice your spandex off, you will do everything you are supposed to do, you will have a great attitude and you may not get court time.  You must understand this is a possibility, and if you are faced with this possibility you have two choices; 1) stay a positive contributed to the success of the team by being a great practice player, 2) Transfer or quit the team.

VolleyFamily, make sure your PSA does not become a Poison Pill SA.  Poison Pills get flushed.


  1. AnonymousMay 10, 2012

    Great post! My PSA DD who will be reading this at the dinner table tonight. Could not agree more with your points and their implications. VolleyFamilies(Parents) definately have a responsibility for self motivation and control.

    btw- movie quote stumped me so I cheated....
    found 49 references to that quote.

    I'm guessing it's the Truman Show. Although, given a career with working with teenage girls, "That's so Raven" was a close second choice guess. ;)


  2. Wow - 49 references! That is crazy; I guess it is not a complicated quote, so that does make sense. But, the quote I referenced is not from The Truman Show (or That's So Raven)! The movie is about independence and revenge!!!!

    1. AnonymousMay 11, 2012

      is it "cool hand luke"?

  3. Nope. Great movie but not my quoted movie. Another hint - Not said with an American accent.

  4. AnonymousMay 11, 2012

    Braveheart! "I didn't like him anyway. He wasn't right in the head."

    great post

  5. AnonymousMay 12, 2012

    Gee Coach, wish this had been posted earlier during club season having just watched DDs team deal with a PP and her PP parents! Would have loved to have sent the link to this post to them and the rest of the team. So much of the players attitude is "learned" from their parents! This team's season could have been the one you were talking about when you said that you can't play and win when you are struggling with divisiveness. The season just continued to go downhill thanks to this family and their attitudes and willingness to cause a problem no matter what! Mean while, DD liked the coaches and refused to give up on the season and her team, even waiting for it to be over before she would have surgery to repair a torn meniscus. She gutted it out for months because she loves VB. She has now had that meniscus repaired and it looks like she will be ready to get back at it in a short period of time and is working hard in physical therapy to make sure that she is. Thanks for all your insight! On the movie - I have no idea!

    1. I should have posted it early in the club season - I think I was emotionally trying to digest the disappointment of last collegiate season, and the PP being one component of this frustration. Maybe I am subconsciously trying to assist other coaches by reaching out to collegiate bound VolleyFamilies to not get flushed because the PP is going down the tubes in today's College Volleyball world.

  6. Such a great post! Attitude is everything. My daughter and I talked about this--she's 18, and heading to college to play vball this fall. She thinks that coaches will put up with a pain in the neck if she's REALLY good. She witnessed this at camp last summer. Pain in the neck recruit was favored because she was amazing.

    1. Glad you liked it and your future College Coach Thanks You for talking with your VolleyDaughter about this. Coaches will put up with a pain in the neck who has talent; in camp, the coaches will put up with it all camp because they want the $ and the commitment. In college volleyball, they will put up with it for one season, maybe two if she is outrageously phenomenal, but eventually, the pain goes away because the PP gets cut.

    2. I'm also grateful to her high school and club coaches who did not allow divas! All of them made it clear that the girls would be benched if their attitude was out of line. And they followed through. Imagine the lesson the girls learned when they thought they were "all that" and had to sit the bench until they straightened up. Good for those coaches!


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