The term “attitude” is thrown around a lot to characterize so-called problem kids. You know – the ones who react to correction and criticism with hostility, those who emit anger and frustration during games, those who yell at their teammates and/or talk back to coaches, and those who shut down, glower and quit during games, sometimes taking the rest of the team with them.

But what does “attitude” really mean? What’s behind it? It seems that too many coaches and parents are much quicker to give up on a girl than figure out the answers to those questions and help her.

So-called attitude can result from several conditions. The girls who react defensively when given correction or criticism almost always have low self-esteem and/or low self-confidence. They don’t want to hear what they’re doing wrong, because they make the leap that any lack of skills they might have means something is wrong with them. (This shouldn’t be held against them, as there are a hell of a lot of defensive adults walking around this world, and kids are young with less coping skills). These poor self-esteem girls cope the only way they know how: by rejecting the advice and heaping scorn upon whomever tried to give it.

Frustration comes as a girl gets upset when she messes up and/or the game isn’t going her way. We’ve all been there – stymied at various points. Or maybe they were raised to always expect negative outcomes. Either way, they get easily frustrated. “Attitude” girls stay focused on what didn’t go right instead of regrouping and figuring out another way to get what they want. They let frustration take them out of their game, and “messing up” becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Players who yell at their teammates (which is tied to frustration) not only have poor impulse control, but they’re probably trying to externalize some of the blame they feel themselves if things aren’t going well. This is also tied to “inability to take criticism because there might be something wrong with me.”

Athletes who shut down and just stop playing are the hardest to deal with and understand, because it’s literally like talking to a wall. They don’t answer questions, they can’t or won’t explain themselves; they just stop. It’s a defeatest state of mind that’s rooted in the fear of failure and/or rejection. In other words, “If we’re going to lose this game, I’m not even going to try. Then at least it’s not my fault.” In reality, it’s often players like that who cause the entire team to sink because the other girls feed off the energy of the defeatist.

Essentially, what looks so scary and bad ass – attitude – is really weakness in disguise. Like in “The Wizard of Oz,” if you pull back the curtain that hides the frightening monster, you see a person who’s cowering and doesn’t believe in herself.

Coaches and parents must have compassion with these young people and be the adult. While they shouldn’t put up with crap, they should try to help an athlete overcome her faulty belief systems instead of giving up on her or thinking “that’s just the way she is.”

It should be explained to girls with low self-esteem that criticism isn’t to be taken personally; that everyone needs to work on something; and that criticism isn’t a reflection of their person. This will have to be explained more than once – sometimes much more. Self-esteem exercises for such athletes include: having the girl make a list of her strengths and weaknesses and going over it with her, giving praise for and possibly adding to her strengths list; regular positive reinforcement and praise, (only) when appropriate; telling her how she could be even better at some of the things she’s good at.

Ask the easily-frustrated kids to write down their thought process as they become frustrated. Tell them to re-focus when something doesn’t go their way from what just went wrong to what they can do now to get the outcome they want. Tell them to never, ever give up.

Those who yell at teammates on the court during games should be taken out immediately, in my opinion. Not necessarily for punishment, but because when team members criticize one another, that’s the quickest way to lose team morale. The yellers should be asked to name what they’re doing wrong on court, and if they can’t, they should be told. It should be pointed out that everyone makes mistakes, and it isn’t the job of the athlete to point that out – it’s the coach’s responsibility. The player should be given another chance, and if she yells again, she should be taken out of the game and the explanation cycle repeated until she gets it.

The maxim that one should never, ever, ever give up needs to be imparted to the players who shut down – especially when they do so at the first hint of trouble. Coaches will also have to cheerlead them on and boost them up in some cases; remind them of their skills – almost jump start them. If players continue to glower on court and/or at teammates and coaches, I support keeping them out of the game until they get it together, but only with an explanation that their attitude is detrimental to the team, and it’s nothing personal. Consequences can and should be administered in a positive way.

Bottom line: Coaches and parents can’t be fooled by any “attitude” a player shows, and they should never give up on a girl. Adults need to identify the true problem and show athletes how to cope with it. This will lead to a more productive basketball career and a happier life.