The Two Biggest Reasons for Troubled Athletes

Troubled athletes are an unfortunate reality of working with any team.

I spoke to both a football coach and a basketball coach recently who relayed similar stories from their last season. Both had to dismiss four players from their teams because the troubled athletes couldn’t play as teammates. The athletes didn’t have a talent problem. They had a problem with discipline and perspective. The coaches both admitted they just didn’t have the time to get those troubled athletes up to speed—so they let them go.

I think there’s a deeper problem in this predicament. During their childhood and adolescent years, kids often experience something traumatic. They encounter one extreme or the other: either abandonment or abundance. Some troubled athletes experience both.


Young athletes who experience abandonment are often thrust into responsible roles too soon. Perhaps because of an alcoholic father or an absent mother or a self-absorbed caretaker, these kids never fully form. They’re exposed to emotionally traumatic situations and typically don’t respond well. (Today, 62 percent of kids are being raised without their biological father.)

Obviously, some do fine, as they’re forced to become an “adult” very early. More commonly, however, is another scenario when kids are abandoned. They simply stop growing emotionally. Their maturation is stunted. I know several former athletes in their forties, who are far from being healthy and well-adjusted. It’s as though when a child is abandoned, their emotions and spirit stop maturing. They shut down. They may have adult bodies, but emotionally, they’re still early teenagers. They’re boys who can’t seem to become men. Abandonment is a sure-fire recipe for producing troubled athletes.


The other extreme is abundance. It’s a great word—we all love abundance. But when abundance is furnished and young people never learn to manage resources (money, possessions, relationships, or time) because they have so many, their growth can be stunted as well. Their ability to grow up simply atrophies. (Current research suggests that as many as 30-40% of twelve to eighteen-year-olds from affluent homes are experiencing troubling psychological symptoms.)

Certainly, every parent wishes to provide for their children abundantly, but a never-ending supply of anything reduces the human ability to interpret, manage, save, give, and spend wisely. Frankly, we become spoiled. Kyle is a student athlete in this situation. His parents are fearful of losing him. They’re afraid he won’t like or accept them. So Kyle is now in power. He’s completely self-absorbed, and he’s come to expect his parents do everything. Kyle has feigned a suicide attempt and is rude to his teammates. His parents are ashamed.

Kyle was not abandoned. Quite the opposite. He wasn’t expected to fend for himself at seventeen or eighteen, when he probably should have been. More important, there was no plan for giving him responsibility in increasing amounts as he grew up. Abundance is a sure-fire recipe for producing troubled athletes.

From abandonment to abundance

This abandonment/abundance problem is worse when a student athlete goes from abandonment to abundance due to their talent. For example, a kid may grow up without a dad, and lack the direction he desperately needs to become man. Then, in middle school or high school, he discovers all kinds of attention because he can run with a football well. Suddenly, he goes from abandonment to abundance. He may not know how to handle all the attention and soon becomes a “prima donna.” The shift from abandonment to abundance also produces troubled athletes.

We Must Perform a Balancing Act

In 2010, I wrote a book called, Generation iY—Our Last Chance to Save Their Future. In it, I describe these scenarios that produce troubled athletes and provide a simple response, based on research done at UC Berkley. They need us to perform a balancing act.

What troubled athletes need is a coach, teacher or leader who makes appropriate demands and sets appropriate standards for them in a responsive environment of belief and concern. In short, they need us to display a balance of two qualities—they need them to be both responsive and demanding:

  1. Responsive: to display acceptance, support and patience; to be attentive to them.
  2. Demanding: to establish high standards, directing them to target those standards.

Psychologist Diana Baumrind speaks of these characteristics and suggests that adults with too little or too much result in these scenarios:

  1. Permissive – Too much responsiveness with too little demands.
  2. Authoritarian – Too many demands with too little responsiveness.
  3. Uninvolved – Virtually no responsiveness and no demands.
  4. Authoritative – Responsiveness is matched with appropriate demands.

Daily, we must ask ourselves when we confront troubled athletes: what does this kid need in this moment: a responsive or demanding coach? Players who’ve had little support in their past may need you to offer that belief and support. Others who have too much—need someone to finally demand something of them.

We’ve all seen it. Troubled athletes who act like immature brats because teachers or parents have failed to hold them to standards of behavior. On the other hand, we’ve all seen the pitiful scenario where kids live in fear because adults have pressured them to perform and never communicated grace and support. Troubled athletes need a balance.

Here’s to discerning when you need to be responsive or demanding when dealing with troubled athletes.

The Two Biggest Reasons for Troubled Athletes