The Value of Strong Coach-Athlete Relationships

As a coach, you are a critical element in the strength of the glue that holds your team together. It’s important to cultivate proper technique and skill as well as a positive competitive environment in your players and team; but studies have shown the true key to success lies beyond focusing only on their physical progress and abilities. Coaching is about equipping each individual athlete for success in life and building strong relationships where your players feel safe, seen, heard and supported. Psychology Today says that “many athletes, even at the elite level, desire coaches that have a strong sense of regard for them as individuals and have an understanding of them and what is going on in their lives.” But what are the practical steps you can take as a coach to enrich the team experience? 

We talked to former tennis coach and Team Connection founder, Herb Bolick, about his perspective: “Whether you’re on a court or in a conference room, communication and caring are essential. Your players and your team need to know and feel they’re a part of something special. When they believe that, magic can happen.”

We’ve got five vital strategies to help you strengthen your relationship with your players, and make each season a victory–regardless of the game statistics.

  1. Trust
    This may be the most pivotal piece of building a thriving coach-athlete relationship. Ohio University says that “trust is the cornerstone of a strong bond, and it is formed when a coach provides clear instructions, delivers positive reinforcement, and shows genuine interest. Once trust is established, athletes usually listen more closely, follow instructions more readily, and generally enjoy the entire team experience more intently.”

    If trust is the door that leads to positive coach-athlete relationships, consistency is the key to unlocking the door. Your integrity, courage, compassion, reliability, innovation, curiosity and dedication are massive factors in winning the trust of your team. When you show up every day with clear vision and a plan, then your players know what is expected of them and what they can expect from you. 
  1. Communication
    Sir Clive Woodward, England’s famed Rugby coach who coached the World Cup winning team in 2003 had this to say about his coaching philosophy: “We were big on team culture and behavior. It wasn’t through me telling them, it was a two-way process. It was me saying what I thought, asking them what they thought and getting their buy-in.”

    A recent field experiment on the effects of enhancing coach-athlete relationships on youth sport attrition determined that athletes are 5% more likely to drop out when their coaches show less interest in their lives.

    One simple way to open the door of communication with your team is by giving athletes an opportunity to contribute to ideation, providing a space to get creative with processes and drills, asking them simply, “How could we do this differently?”

    When you as the coach facilitate these conversations, you become approachable and available to your players, and engage with them to get them thinking more intentionally about what they’re doing. This style of communication then translates to important building blocks for deeper communication and players can see you value their input, and subsequently understand that you value them as individuals.
  1. Encouragement
    Herm Edwards, head coach of the New York Jets and later the Kansas City Chiefs, famously told his teams, “Stay focused. Your start does not determine how you’re going to finish.”

    The only way to inspire greatness in your athletes is by seeing them for who they really are–what they are strongest at–and encouraging them in that direction. Our athletes can oftentimes get so hung up on what they need to improve about their game (and there is always room for improvement!) but if we as coaches can begin calling out more of what each player is doing right, we can foster an environment of positivity and build confidence. When athletes feel supported, they open more to constructive criticism and are more willing to learn.

    A recent study by Sophia Jowett found that effective coach-athlete relationships “enable the coach and each athlete on the team to get to know one another while making the most of each other’s abilities and resources. Ultimately, the coach-athlete relationship can act as a vehicle through which each member in the team understands their personal and team goals and objectives, performance roles and start to consciously (or unconsciously) form a sense of groupness and an interdependent team.”
  1. Enthusiasm
    In his 2005 book, “Wooden on Leadership: How to Create a Winning Organization,” basketball player and ten-time winning NCAA championship head coach of the University of California, John Wooden, said that “as a leader, you must be filled with energy and eagerness, joy and love for what you do. If you lack enthusiasm for your job, you cannot perform to the best of your ability. Industriousness is unattainable without Enthusiasm.”

    Your enthusiasm for your players becomes ingrained in the team’s culture and gets passed on throughout the season, acting as a major motivator, and making a positive impact on your overall coaching quality and athlete performance.

    When NBA star Stephen Curry introduced his former college coach, Bob McKillop, at the 2016 Coaching Corps Game Changer Awards, he said “[Coach McKillop] had such an impact on my life and on my basketball career. He instilled confidence in me, gave me a vision for what kind of player I could be, and he’s still impactful in my life — even beyond Davidson and wearing that jersey…We talk all of the time about life and how to be a great man. He’s had a huge impact in my development.”
    That is the power of enthusiasm.

  2. Openness
    Coaches who exhibit a sense of openness toward their players offer them richer relationship development and acceptance, which fosters more positive team culture and individual development amongst each team member.

    Ohio University found that “the relationship between coach and athlete depends on how open the coach is to establishing interpersonal relationships. As a mentor and advisor, the coach needs to make clear to the entire team that he or she is available to talk whenever needed…Coaches who make themselves available to their athletes are paving the way toward establishing and nurturing strong relationships.”

Successful coaching is hinged on building effective relationships with your players. It must be intentional and requires your clever innovation as you work to find creative methods to connect. Our best advice? Just be true to yourself and your convictions, and everything else will follow.

And don’t miss our article celebrating Olympic hopeful, Elle Purrier’s record-breaking success. Check it out here!

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