In his 35 years as a head athletic trainer at the D1 level, Tim Neal saw his fair share of poor performance on the sidelines. Emotions in the heat of the moment can quickly turn toxic, especially within the competitive arena.

Case in point: The Feb. 20 brawl that erupted among coaches and players following the Wisconsin Badgers’ win over Michigan.

Neal took a few moments to reflect on the importance of de-escalation, particularly in a game setting. Neal is the former head athletic trainer for Syracuse University and currently serves as an instructor and department chair for CUAA’s athletic training program. Throughout his career, he has carved out a name for himself as a leader in the field, having served as a nationally recognized expert voice on matters pertaining to concussion assessment and emergency preparedness.

His expertise goes beyond just physical wellness. Neal helped develop a respected peer training program that focuses on compassionate care and helping athletes heal emotionally as well as physically. In addition to his roles at CUAA, he regularly travels to state universities across the nation to train personnel on a short-term psychological helping process called Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM). Neal is an approved instructor of CISM, one of only a handful of athletic trainers nationwide certified to instruct fellow athletic trainers in this technique.

His faith underpins his professional accomplishments and serves as the motivation for his unique approach to the athletic training field.

Below are Neal’s thoughts on the matter.

Tim Neal’s de-escalation considerations

The topic of conflict de-escalation is prominent in today’s discussion of unruly behavior. Conflict escalation causes people to resort to behavior and comments that they otherwise would not consider had their emotions gotten the better of them. Conflict escalation occurs in every walk of life, be it in classrooms, homes, places of employment, highways, restaurants, and in sporting events at every level such as basketball courts or playing fields. The vast majority of those that escalate a tense or disappointing moment later regret their actions, are embarrassed, and seek forgiveness for their momentary lapse. There is not anyone who can say they haven’t escalated a situation, comment, look, or frustration with someone else at some point in their lives. This then leads to the goal of trying to de-escalate a situation—both from the person escalating the moment to the person or persons on the receiving end of that escalation.

Factors involved in conflict escalation

There is usually a course by which conflict escalates:

  1. First, there are tactics to express one’s displeasure to another. Usually this takes the form of argument, promises, threats, power plays, or even violence or the threat of violence.
  2. Secondly, the conflict grows in size as the parties now invest more effort and resources to the initial issue.
  3. Third, the efforts move from specific to general, and the relationship continues to deteriorate.
  4. Fourth, the number of parties involved can multiply as seen in sport team fights or more family members squaring up against one another over a family issue or challenge.
  5. Lastly, the struggle then becomes about “winning” their point at the expense of others and even themselves. All of these steps can occur in a matter of minutes, and may result in long-term harm that never gets resolved and devolves into contempt and long-term rivalry.

Factors that may initiate escalation are incompatible goals, moral issues, past grievances, and injustice. These and other factors should be considered when deciding to escalate or reciprocate in kind any type of conflict. Additionally, people should understand that one in every four to five adolescents and adults can meet the criterion for a mental health disorder, and that everyone is struggling with some sort of professional or personal struggle that is unknown to others. This consideration should give pause to one as they choose to respond to a non-violent escalation over a situation.

De-escalation strategies

Be it on a court or field in athletics, a home, business, grocery store, highway, or any other situation, some de-escalation strategies to employ include:

  1. Situational awareness. Be aware of situation and surroundings that one finds themselves.
  2. Anticipate potential conflict. This applies to any interaction with people. Prepare statements or exits that will de-escalate the moment.
  3. Calm yourself before entering a potential moment that may escalate. If you are upset, use calming techniques that have worked in the past such as taking a deep breath or disassociate yourself from your emotions and focus on facts and data.
  4. Try not to look threatening as possible.
  5. Try to make a personal connection and listen to the other person. Often times situations escalate when a person feels as if their concerns are not being heard.
  6. Paraphrase what you have heard and offer your side of the situation in a non-judgmental manner. By repeating back what you have heard and choosing to respond to the facts of the situation helps set up a discussion and not a struggle. Agree to disagree.

Once a situation has escalated, one party has to decide when the de-escalation occurs, or else the struggle goes down the continuum previously discussed. Once the battle has been joined, it is hard to stop for a truce once emotions get the best of both parties. There is no clear way to achieve this. That is where the expression “cooler heads prevailed” is so important. Once one gets emotional during a situation, it is hard to recognize the other party’s intent, nor one’s own reaction. Thus, a “time-out” may be necessary, or if in a potentially violent escalation, seeking safety and law enforcement is recommended.

Recognizing your part

Ultimately, once a situation has escalated and harsh words and perhaps actions have occurred, the next step is recognizing one’s own part of the escalation. Forgiveness is so important in order not to devolve the present circumstance into a long-lasting contempt for the other party. Seeking and providing forgiveness, rather than “canceling” the person for a momentary lapse in judgment is the recommended course of action. Each of us have been guilty of escalating a situation and wish to be forgiven and better understood, so providing the same grace to others is not only helpful to the other party, but is also good for one’s own mental health in not carrying around grudges and seeking future escalation with others.

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