Coach Athlete Relationship

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Sydney Williams November 9, 2021 Founders Corner

One Coach’s Impact

An old friend described a large celebration he attended for a former college coach, or simply “Coach.”

Coach’s story and the event go something like this:

Over his twelve years at the school, Coach wins both the league championship and national championship. He completely rebuilds the program. Suddenly and unexpectedly, he departs. He joins his wife, who starts a dream job a thousand miles away. Coach doesn’t think twice about his decision. She had supported him steadfastly on his career choice.

In the years that follow, Coach’s athletes become successful doctors, lawyers, and business people. Many have families. Some are coaches themselves. Dozens who could not attend the ceremony lavish praise and recall humorous moments in video tributes. They speak of how Coach taught them to push past boundaries, be honest to themselves, and always respect opponents in victory and defeat.

What struck us wasn’t just how many people participated (150 or so) or the intensity of emotions. It’s how the gathering reminded us of similar celebrations at every level of sports.

For many athletes, coaches deeply shape lives. We remember coaches, good and bad. We think about how these experiences weigh on choices we make long after our playing days.

Why, at even highly academic schools, do far fewer people return to campus to acknowledge a favorite teacher or professor?

How can athletic experiences evoke such strong emotions?

The Answer Lies In The Coach-Athlete Relationship

Consider five perspectives: time, team experience, age, performance, and success and disappointment. It’s not a question of how well a coach and athlete get on. Often it’s much more about their mutual respect for each other. One is accountable to the other. Both, moreover, are accountable to their individual selves.

Time, Team Experience, Age

Time. You invest a lot of time in your coach. A novice high school athlete, for example, spends more time on the playing field than in any one academic period. A college athlete, on the other hand, trains up to 20 hours a week with a coach. Competitions and travel, moreover, expand a coach and athlete’s time together.

Team Experience. Playing a sport introduces most people to a team experience. We learn how our actions affect others. We work towards individual and team goals. A coach steers this experience and explains right from wrong.

Age. As the expression goes, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. We absorb much more information in our youth than we do as we age. We constantly build on our athletic experiences: first, in study groups and school clubs; after that, in jobs and careers.

Performance, Success and Disappointment

Performance. For many of us, we first perform in front of an audience on a sports team. That audience might range from a handful of parents to hundreds (maybe thousands) of unfamiliar faces. A sudden realization that people might judge us—or root against us—affects us in different ways. As a result, we never forget these moments—whether they challenged or inspired us—or how a coach directed us.

Success and Disappointment. A thoughtful coach instructs athletes to focus on what they can control. A coach, for example, might say, “Listen, don’t just do. Review mistakes. Work hard at getting better.” The same coach cautions athletes to anticipate what they can’t control: “Know that your opponent trains hard, too. Weather could affect play.” No matter how well a team trains, however, it cannot completely escape disappointment. A coach helps us deal with success and disappointment. This is risk management at its core—a lesson that we revisit again and again.

What Happens If A Coach-Athlete Relationship Sours?

Not every coach connects with every athlete. Not every athlete connects with every coach. Personalities conflict. Eventually, expectations misalign. After that, trust evaporates.

Athletic directors and parents may intercede. Oftentimes, a season simply ends and the coach and athlete go separate ways.

Aside from extreme instances of abuse or misconduct, the downside is a lost chance at situational improvement. Establish a mechanism that checks downward spirals, and you clear a sustained path of cooperation and cohesion.

What if a coach, for example, were consistently to share feedback with athletes? What if athletes were to reciprocate with feedback of their own?

A coach and athlete may never fully restore a frayed relationship. At the very least, they can improve how they understand each other, and avoid risking a negative team experience for everyone else.

Take the following steps to curb breakdowns:

  • Set up two-way communication channels that allow coach and athlete to share feedback.
  • Work towards individual and team goals.
  • Establish a set of values and expectations that each person—coach and athlete—buys into.
  • Reaffirm values and expectations throughout the season.

So, Let’s Review

Coaches rank among the most influential people in a young person’s life. Each of us vividly recalls coach and team experiences. Therefore, why shouldn’t a coach and athlete work towards an even better relationship?

Frayed relationships don’t have to produce negative outcomes. Interpersonal issues may rupture relationships. If you find ways to communicate a clearer set of expectations and values, then you mitigate—even reverse—negative trends.

Several people help to establish a constructive relationship: athletic directors, program directors, parents, other coaches and teammates. A system that supports corrective information benefits coaches and athletes alike. It serves the entire organization, as well.

Athletes contribute to two-directional relationships. Just as a varsity college athlete shares important viewpoints, so does a novice high school athlete. Coaches shouldn’t rely only on captains for feedback. A coach who can help athletes express themselves gains a distinct competitive advantage. Informed conversations, especially, increase the odds for positive outcomes on and off the field.

Lessons For the Coach-Athlete Relationship

Coach Athlete Relationship

  • Feedback. Coach and athlete cannot operate in a vacuum. One needs to educate the other. Athletic directors need to share in this exchange, so that they can manage the organization’s interpersonal health.
  • Goal Setting. Small steps equal big gains. Simply writing down goals doesn’t accomplish much. Learn, therefore, how to define goals as small steps that extend boundaries.
  • Values. First, define a set of values as a team. Next, justify and explain them. Last, emphasize them in team and one-on-one meetings.
  • Expectations. Any team that creates feedback loops, sets goals and defines values aligns expectations.
  • Sense of Belonging. Get everyone to buy into the team experience. Feedback, goal setting, values, and expectation alignment make this happen. Coaches and athletes advance from a stale one-directional relationship to a dynamic, two-directional bond. Each team member gains a truer sense of belonging.

Sydney is Stride’s Founder.