Note that I am not a psychologist or mental health professional. My assertions are solely based on my observations as a coach working with athletic teams.
Drama Llamas/Mamas, Attention Seekers, Drama Queens, Pot Stirrers, Instigators… We have heard these sayings before, and most of us have undoubtedly encountered teammates and athletes who fit one of those descriptions. How can we better understand these people as coaches, leaders, and teammates? More importantly, what should we do with them?
The Drama Triangle was developed by Psychologist Stephen Karpman in 1968. According to Deschutes Wilderness Therapy, The Drama Triangle "is also known as the 'Victim Triangle' and demonstrates how people take on dysfunctional roles to address conflict." The Perpetrator, the Victim, and the Rescuer are the three components of the Drama Triangle. It's pretty easy to recognize and identify the Perpetrator and the Victim, but what about the Rescuer? What happens when someone who starts with positive intentions negatively evolves? Is there more to this role's psyche than just being overly sympathetic?
Before I dive in, I need to backtrack for a moment. Recently I was reading articles about the dynamics of team drama, the roles players play, and how to break the cycle. As I was reading, I noticed that my team doesn't have Perpetrators or Victims, but we've had a couple of menacing Rescuers over the years. Specifically, I've seen Rescuers who exhibit what's known as "organizational Münchausen syndrome." The Rescuer and someone who presents organizational Münchausen aren't the same, but when you blend the two descriptions (in the world of athletics), you get what I'm going to call a Covert Roster Obfuscator (CRO).
Let's break this down:
Within the Drama Triangle, the Rescuer creates drama for athletic teams by taking on too much responsibility, not allowing others to solve their problems, and creating a culture of emotional dependency. It's not intentionally malicious, but it's a result of the Rescuer not addressing their issues and feeling the need to carry the burden of others. This is often a teammate with a moderate to low position within the team (in terms of playing time and on-court contribution) who wants to stake claim to their place of value. The Rescuer's actions can lead to a disempowered team that cannot work together and self-organize, ultimately inhibiting the team's growth and success.
Conversely, a person showing signs of organizational Münchausen syndrome, also known as "factitious disorder imposed on another," creates drama within teams/locker rooms by intentionally creating problems or exaggerating situations to get attention, sympathy, or admiration from others.
The main similarity is that both types of individuals seek to make themselves indispensable by creating or perpetuating problems (then solving them). However, as I already mentioned, a Rescuer may genuinely want to help others, while the person exhibiting organizational Münchausen is driven by underlying psychological issues.
I've searched for research or articles that combine these two distinct "disorders" but haven't found anything. How do we mentor a CRO? Can we as coaches and team leaders manage this person? How do we keep them from creating drama on our teams? Should we try?
Here are three tactics I've found are helpful for teams to mitigate locker room drama:
Swift communication: Don't let feelings fester. You should respond to negative words or behavior in at most 24 hours as a good teammate. When you let anger and resentment fester, you're more likely to share those feelings in passing with "ally teammates." This contributes to the drama triangle. See something—say something.
Don't assume: When you presume to understand what someone else is thinking or feeling, you fill the space (where communication should have been) with gossip. If a teammate is angry after a loss, don't take every word they say to heart. "I'm so ticked off… We should have XYZ…" isn't always grounds to start an issue or even a conversation. Sometimes comments in passing are just people venting to themselves out loud. Give people the grace and space to process. 9 times out of 10 they will be fine within a few hours or by the next day. We presently live in a "cause culture" where everyone wants a cause or an issue to combat. Sometimes you just need to mind your business and give people space to process.
Don't engage: As a teammate, self-examine your intentions before going down the emotional rabbit hole. Hear people gossiping? Don't partake. If what you hear will cause more significant issues, be an active bystander. Say something like, "Hey, I don't think that conversation is appropriate," then leave it alone. We don't need to participate in every issue or comment… We don't need to "rescue."
Proverbs 6:16-19 says, "There are six things the Lord hates, seven that are detestable to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked schemes, feet that are quick to rush into evil, a false witness who pours out lies and a person who stirs up conflict in the community." An athlete who demonstrates traits like lying, gossiping, martyrdom, and stirring up drama in the locker room undermines the values and expectations of sportsmanship. According to the passage, these behaviors are abhorrent to God because they encourage selfishness and threaten the cohesiveness and success of the team.
When all else fails and you have a CRO that won't let up- remove them. Let them go. Set them free. Let the CRO fly! Talent will never be more valuable than peace of mind. Not every little stinker on your roster will be an overt perpetrator. Sometimes the sneaky CRO you thought was a genuine caring teammate is the problem. As a coach or team leader, you can help put them back on the right path by asking them questions and encouraging them to think of solutions to the perceived problems. But eventually you will wear yourself out continually trying to rescue the rescuer/CRO. Do what's best for the team— you can't save everyone.