The Problem with Your Problems

Back in 1974, a young film director named Steven Spielberg had what he thought was a really big problem. He was making a shark movie, but he didn’t have a shark. He was over budget, past the deadline, and pouring more and more money into trying to get their mechanical shark working.

Eventually, Spielberg decided to not scrap the film; instead, he scrapped the mechanical shark. He chose to view his situation from a new lens, and through that lens, he saw an opportunity in that which had once been a problem. By filming a movie about a shark without showing the shark, it created a unique and scary atmosphere, precisely because you couldn’t see the shark.

Jaws would go on to become a blockbuster hit and a legendary classic.

What’s Your Problem?

Maybe the players on your team aren’t responding to you this year, and you’ve lost the locker room. Maybe the players on your team lack mental toughness and are unable to manage their emotions when facing adversity.

Maybe your best player has the worst attitude and doesn’t take coaching. Or, maybe your coaching staff isn’t cutting it. Their preparation is poor, and they continuously offer suggestions without putting in the work.

When you check your inbox the day after the game, maybe you have an email from yet another parent, complaining about their child’s playing time. And maybe the administrators at your school are failing to set boundaries with disgruntled parents and instead are putting pressure on you to make these problems go away.

Maybe you’re in the middle of yet another losing season in the history of your program, and you’re unsure if they will keep you around much longer. Or, maybe you had a really successful season last year, and now expectations are higher, but they are not realistic, and you can’t meet them.

Maybe your family life is strained. Your children haven’t seen you in days, your spouse is stressed out and trying to keep things together, and your heart literally aches from the pain of missing them.

These are all just a few of the many problems coaches face on a daily basis. They are real. They are painful. And they are taking their toll. I’m sure you can relate to at least a few.

But what if I told you that these problems aren’t really your problems?

Your real problem is the way you think about your problems.

3 Ways to Turn Problems into Opportunities

1. Do Something Radically Different

Obstacles turn some people away. Others see them as walls to be broken through.

Spielberg chose to see past the obstacle and took a more strategic approach. He chose to see the wall as a springboard to where he wanted to go. Spielberg might not have been able to sell the studio on the idea from the onset, but once he was over budget and past the deadline, they were just eager to get the film made. Obstacles not only forced him to think creatively; they gave him a different opportunity.

Just like Spielberg initially kept throwing more money at the problem, we often just keep trying to solve our problems by working harder and longer. But dialing our effort up to 11 often magnifies our problems and makes us doubt our own abilities.

Try This: Let’s say you have “parent problems” on your team. The next time you have a big win—or even a hard loss—invite parents into the locker room for the post-game talk. Perhaps they’ll get to hear the message you deliver to the team—and sometimes, they need to hear it more than the players do! Regardless, it’s a radical step towards making them feel like they are part of the team.

2. Stop Focusing Only on the Problem

“A problem—no matter how important, no matter how significant to our well-being—doesn’t belong in the center of our thoughts.”

—David Niven, It’s Not About the Shark

American psychologist Martin Seligman discusses the role of rumination in depression and anxiety by likening it to cows. Cows chew grass for hours, swallowing multiple times.

Just like cows chew on grass, we can sit and chew on our negative thoughts. While we shouldn’t ignore our mistakes or stop pondering the areas in which we need growth, we also don’t need to ruminate on it all day and all night!

Try This: Instead of chewing on your problems post-practice or post-game, try alternating between these three journaling activities:

  1. Gratitude Journals: Brainstorm 5-15 things you are grateful for in your life.
  2. Success Logs: Write down 5-15 things (big or small) that you have done well or that have gone well for you. I prefer to keep these as controllable things, like “I read for five minutes,” “I kept my cool during the game,” or “I called the right play, and we got a good shot.”
  3. What Will Matter in 5 Years?: When we ask ourselves this question, we will often find that whatever problem we are ruminating on will get smaller, and the opportunity to use that problem for our personal growth will get bigger.

3. Find a New Perspective

It was a sweltering hot July day in California without air-conditioning when Bob Wells and Mel Torme wrote “The Christmas Song” for Nat King Cole. This was not quite the perspective or circumstances you would expect to birth the famous lyrics, “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire/Jack Frost nipping at your nose.” But as Bob Wells said later, “You don’t write about a mountain from inside the mountain; if you did, you’d never get what people feel about it right.”

Sometimes, we are so deep in our own problems that we are unable to step outside ourselves and identity the right course of action. We need a change of perspective—and often, it doesn’t come from us.

Try This: We’ve found it incredibly beneficial to have someone outside of our circle to help us see what we can’t. Where can you find someone who is uninvolved in your program to serve as a mentor? You can try a former coach or a long-distance friend. Additionally, if you want someone who is fully dedicated to you and your growth to give you some real outside perspective, you should consider the Thrive On Challenge Mentorship Program. Over 90% of our coaches remain in the program for additional seasons and source funding for the program through their club or school.

Final Thought

It’s not that your problems don’t matter. It’s not that the pain they cause isn’t real. It’s just that continuously approaching your problems in the same way is unhelpful.

When it came to filming Jaws, Steven Spielberg’s mechanical shark wouldn’t work, and so he thought the film was doomed. But after looking back on the experience, he said, “The shark not working was a godsend. It made me become more like Alfred Hitchcock.”

Just like Spielberg, we will continue to fail if we don’t start looking at our problems through a completely different lens.


  • It’s Not About the Shark by David Niven
  • Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman