At some point, every coach has had to deal with the “I think I want to quit” conversation. What do you do when that happens? How do you react? How do you deal with this? Our reactions are so important when dealing with competitive athletes who feel like quitting.

This 7 step process is most beneficial for coaches who have built strong relationships with the athletes who wants to quit. It wouldn’t be as helpful for a new athlete because they have not spent enough time in the sport to truly feel what it is they would be leaving behind.

Some athletes won’t have the courage to talk about quitting in which case, there is not too much you can do to help them. If they do come and see you, it is important to keep your personal thoughts out of your reaction in the initial stages. You are human, it is okay to have feelings towards your athletes wanting to quit, especially if you have put in a significant amount of time and effort into their development. I believe it is ineffective to put the weight of your feelings on your athletes, especially the younger ones. If you have a strong professional relationship with your athlete, they will already have some idea as to how you feel and probably won’t need the added stresses in addition to their own feelings.

Your Initial Reaction

Your initial reaction will often be a negative one; sighing, negative comments and/or personal opinions. Your athlete is already dealing with so much, so the last thing they need to hear or see is your opinions on their thoughts.

They came to you in trust, so the best thing you can do for them is to just listen and let them talk. For an athlete who has invested so much time and dedication to a sport, wanting to quit is a big deal. As coaches, we may personally feel or think that their decision was made irrationally.

Sometimes they are and sometimes they have seriously contemplated at length before approaching you but it is not your job to decide that. It does however help to understand how “serious” the situation is. If you suspect irrationality in their choices, only the first 5 steps of this process would be be beneficial to follow. It is important to take the time to assess where your athlete falls in the spectrum of rational before taking any steps forward with the plan of rehabilitation.

The 7 Step Process

Step #1 – The Initial Conversation

What should a typical first conversation look like with your athlete? Sit beside them, not in front of them. Although you may feel that you want to instruct the athlete on what to do because you are their coach, in this type of situation it is not our place to give them instructions. It is your job to learn by listening to them and being fully engaged. You don’t want to intimidate them. Sitting beside them helps to allow that comfort of knowing that this is a conversation, not an interrogation.

Step #2 – Why

The next step would be to find out why they are having these feelings and if there were triggers?
Make sure they understand that you will not be upset regardless of what is said. If it’s something you’ve done or haven’t done as their coach, this is a great opportunity to better yourself for your current and future athletes. Try and make sure that they know that. If it is something personal to them, they need to know that you will not judge them or belittle them for their thoughts or feelings. This question can be intimidating for some athletes, so it’s important to do your best to help them feel comfortable.

Step #3 – Always Check In

Check in after those hard conversations to see how your athlete is feeling. Are they anxious, nervous, embarrassed, upset, or perhaps even happy or relieved? Be attentive to their body language and feelings so that you can make sure you are taking the right approach with your reaction to find the best possible solution. I encourage you to repeat this step multiple times while working with this athlete.

Step #4 – Other Factors

Once you’ve established how they are feeling and why, you can start to ask about other factors such as parental concerns, family pressures, issues with friends or so many more things. This could be a sensitive topic, especially if it includes family or friends, so it is important they feel safe and comfortable with you.

Step #5 – Analyzing The Situation

At this point you should have gathered quite a bit of information. This is where I like to take a break and give the athlete some time and space to help avoid additional stress or anxieties. This will give both you and your athlete time to process everything they have told you and the situation at hand.

After this step is complete, your athlete may decide that they are being irrational and that a small issue may have turned into something much larger than they thought. As their coach, you should be able to identify if quitting is something that they truly want or if this is situational and can be fixed. If you can reduce some pressure from your athlete, I would recommend you try to do that ASAP.

If this is something they have really decided on their own and the feelings are strong enough, proceed to Step #6.

Don’t worry, it’s not over yet.

Step #6 – The Magic Question

I only do this if I know the athlete is still leaning towards moving on from the sport.

Ask them, “Can you see yourself not coming to training ever again?” “Can you see yourself completely disassociated with the sport and would you be okay with not continuing your program at all?”

Usually these questions really gets them to think. Some athletes really feel like they are ready to quit but when they are faced with the hard fact of never being able to take part in the sport again, they reassess.

You are not trying to change their mind here. You are simply inquiring if they would be able to emotionally and physically handle not being part of any training going forward.

If the athlete says “yes” then as their coach you should accept it no matter how much you disagree with their choice. If they tell you no, then you know there is still some hesitation and maybe a possibility to keep them in the sport. It doesn’t mean there isn’t an issue, it just means that there is a window of opportunity to grow this athlete.

Step #7 – The Options/Plan

At this point you can come up with options for them. Maybe there is an alternate training program they could be following if they don’t want to give the sport up completely. Perhaps there are coaching opportunities or maybe they just need a little break for some physical or emotional healing. As competitive coaches, we know it is almost impossible to take a break from mentally and physically demanding sports, but sometimes it is required for the athlete to be fully engaged, motivated, confident and successful. The option they choose may not be the one you want for them as their coach, but it may be exactly what they need. I find with my own athletes, they don’t realize that there are other options for them. For some odd reason, they think it’s either all or nothing. Once they learn that they don’t have to give up completely, they become more relaxed and open minded about coming up with a plan of rehabilitation.

Being A Trustworthy Coach

With their new knowledge, they may decide to work through their program, or they may not. Whatever happens from this point on, I encourage you to be approachable, allowing them to feel comfort in confiding in you. We all know that competitive sports are both physically and emotionally demanding, which puts athletes in a vulnerable position, but working through it makes for a better athlete. Your reactions to their feelings will have a huge impact on them emotionally as you are someone who they look up to and spend a majority of their time with. I encourage you to be the type of coach that they can be honest with without feeling judged or burdened.

“You are your own most powerful motivator and critic. Which will you be?”

-Coach Brittany-