Addressing conflict in youth sport

Nadia Kyba brings her experience mediating custody battles to the soccer pitch as she helps young athletes resolve team conflicts.

In the clubhouse of a Steveston townhouse complex, 14 and 15-year-old girls beginning their season on an elite Richmond soccer team gather in a circle for a workshop on conflict resolution.

They start by writing their goals for the season on post-it notes. Most of the hot pink and highlighter yellow notes have “work hard” and “respect” written on them. One says “resolve your problems maturely.”

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That’s a skill facilitator Nadia Kyba hopes to show them. Signing kids up for sports comes with a host health benefits, but Kyba is focusing on one potential mental health hazard: when conflict among players interferes with kids’ enjoyment of the sport.

Girls on a Richmond soccer team participate in a conflict resolution workshop with Nadia Kyba. Photo: Richmond News/Megan Devlin

When Kyba was growing up, she remembers her team being her second family. That left her with high expectations of how her daughters would be treated when they started playing competitive sports. But she was surprised.

“I noticed that there was so much conflict in sport. Especially in youth sport. I was kind of like, wow,” she told the Richmond News.

“I saw these admins and coaches, all volunteers, spending their time putting out fires, trying to manage different issues with athletes and parents … all their attention for the season goes to conflict rather than the team.”

After 21 years of working with families facing contentious issues like deciding custody after divorce or placing children in government care, Kyba left her job at B.C.’s Ministry of Children and Family Development to start her own business, Now What Facilitation, offering workshops on conflict resolution aimed at sports teams.

She says things like bullying, gossip and unmanaged conflict can make the team dynamic so bad that young people may quit their sports—which is the worst-case scenario, according to Kyba.

“If there’s conflict that’s not resolved and there’s a lot of drama, it’s easier for them to walk out,” she said. “What I see is a lot of athletes, as they get a bit older, they’re leaving sports. The retention is not there.”

Girls on the soccer team say they’ve seen that.

Yasmin Zadunaisky, 15, joined the Richmond team after three years playing in Vancouver. A few practices in, she’s already enjoying it. But she has friends who haven’t been as lucky with their sports teams.

“A lot of people quit because they don't feel friendly with their team and they don't feel comfortable when they go to practices and games,” she said.

Sports conflict
Two teenage soccer players from Richmond, both named Priya, brainstorm how sports teams can benefit from working through conflict effectively. Photo: Megan Devlin/Richmond News

Several of the Richmond soccer girls said jealousy over playing time or not being passed the ball can lead to issues. A couple recounted miscommunications when a player interpreted not being passed the ball as personal dislike from another teammate.

Another issue girls mentioned was gossip—how players may vent to others about a teammate instead of bringing it up with the player herself.

“I feel like … we should just be respectful of each other and how others play, and help them out instead of talking badly about them,” Zadunaisky said. 

Kyba wants to prevent these toxic behaviours from happening and reminds the girls in her workshop that working through conflict effectively can help a team in the long run. 

“If a team can move through conflict, then they have trust. And they can perform better,” she said.

During a brainstorming exercise, Priya Dosanjh, one of the Richmond soccer players, wrote on her orange cardstock thought bubble that teams could benefit from conflict because once something gets worked out, it usually stays resolved.

The key, though, is learning how to move through those tricky situations. It’s a skill that not many adults have, Kyba says.

She recommends talking it out in person or over the phone whenever possible, since non-verbal cues like body language and tone of voice can help with communication.

Tricky conversation script
Nadia Kyba has some helpful hints for having a difficult conversation. Image: Nadia Kyba

She also hands the girls cards printed with a script for having a tough conversation. It starts by framing the problem using “I” statements to describe how you’re feeling rather than labelling the other person a bully.

“It’s ‘I saw you roll your eyes’ or ‘I saw you look away while I was speaking’,” Kyba said.

Then, she advises players to ask the other person if they can change their behaviour.

Many teams prioritize team-building, Kyba said. But too often, that only looks like going to dinner after a game. She thinks workshops like this at the beginning of the season can give teams a solid set of tools so they can deal with issues as they arise.

“I think that these are skills that don’t come naturally. They’re not taught in school,” Kyba said. “They also come with an awareness that conflict is natural. It occurs everywhere, but people shy away from it. But if you have skills to manage it, it becomes normal.”


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