Ask the Coach: "How Can I Play With a Mean Teammate?"
Norway's Gjert Ingebrigtsen tells a young footballer how to sidestep the team bully—and still hold him accountable.
Ask the Coach is an advice column to help you keep your mind in the game.
There's a player on my team who treats me like crap. I swear I can't do anything right around him. Last week, I scored the winner and he got in my face about how "selfish" I was for not making the extra pass to him. But the match before—when I actually did set him up—he yelled at me for not taking the shot, saying I have a "weak mentality". He acts like he's trying to instil a winning mindset but the way he goes about it makes me feel like a loser. It's not just me, though: he's an asshole to most of the team, which creates a bad vibe. How do I shake off his constant criticism so I can concentrate on my game?
Hearing Every Last Point
First of all, HELP, I'm sorry this is happening to you. It's so scary to be approached with an angry tone and a raised voice. It can create a nasty cycle: when every move you make is attacked, you start to expect to be attacked. You think, If I pass, it's wrong. If I don't, it's wrong! Then you freeze up, dreading the inevitable. And your performance suffers.
This kind of venom can end up poisoning a team's overall culture. I've noticed that when players are being bullied, they start to bully others in turn. A kind of feedback loop develops until, pretty soon, negativity and frustration become the norm—and that affects everyone's performance.
This behaviour can't be tolerated in any sport. As a coach, I believe that how you treat others is more important than a trophy or medal. It goes beyond being a good athlete. It's about being a good human being. That's why I start every season by telling everyone about the behaviour that's expected and the consequences of not doing the right thing. That includes the leading scorer. And the MVP. And in my case, my children.
I became a coach because I wanted to coach my sons, Henrik, Filip and Jakob. These days, I coach them in professional mid-distance running but we started out with cross-country skiing and football.
My sons—I'm not saying who!—have occasionally been on the other side of this situation. They've been the arrogant ones. They've been the ones talking negatively to other athletes during or after events or in training sessions. I've had to take them off the pitch or track and say, "This isn't how you speak to others. You can get back out there once you change your behaviour". It's my job to prevent bad behaviour from taking root in a team, so I've never hesitated to put up strong boundaries with my sons.
I should mention that bullying is hardly unique to athletes. You'll find it in schools, in offices and even amongst neighbours. But the level of adrenaline people have in the heat of athletic competition can make a situation more likely to spin out of control.
I believe that how you treat others is more important than a trophy or medal. It goes beyond being a good athlete. It's about being a good human being.
It's kind of like the way some people can get aggressive when they've been drinking. Afterwards, they might regret it. They might apologise for their behaviour. They might not even understand why they lost control. The next time your teammate lays into you, try to keep that in mind. Not so you can excuse his behaviour but so you can remember that it has nothing to do with you. It's all about him and his lack of control.
This bit of understanding on your part helps put mental distance between you and your teammate so you can focus on your game. And if that doesn't work? Try some physical distance and walk away the next time he goes off on you.
Of course, these are temporary fixes. A bully will rarely change their behaviour unless someone holds them accountable. They won't learn to self-regulate when they're pumped full of adrenaline unless someone helps them connect the dots between their actions and losing playing time (or losing a game!).
That's why it's so incredibly important that you tell your coach what's going on. I know that coming forward isn't an easy thing to do but it's your coach who needs to talk with this teammate, not you.
First, because trying to confront your teammate could put you at risk of retribution. Second, because your coach has two jobs to do here: they need to stop the bullying that's going on now and prevent the bullying that hasn't happened yet.
I hope your coach takes this opportunity to improve the situation for you and, ultimately, the entire team. They won't just be containing one bully, he'll also have the chance to create a culture where teammates know how to support each other and know that they can speak up when something is wrong.
And you can be very proud that you've been part of creating that culture. You might even find that you start scoring more and the team starts winning more. The team bully might wake up one day and understand that he had been holding you all back. And if it doesn't get through to him? If he doesn't understand the importance of treating others with respect? Well, in that case, he probably won't be on the team for long.
Gjert Ingebrigtsen is a Norwegian athletics coach and trainer to his elite-level sons, Henrik, Filip and Jakob. The family is dominating middle-distance running in Europe, with all three men having been crowned 1,500-metre gold medallists at the European Championships. Jakob also won the 2020 Olympic gold medal in the 1,500, holds a European gold medal for the 5,000, and is the youngest runner to run a mile in under 4 minutes. Having had no background in running, Gjert has developed his own coaching philosophy based on rigorous process and constantly verified results. He was named Norwegian sports coach of the year in 2018.
Photography: Constantin Mirbach