“A common mistake among those who work in sport is spending a disproportional amount of time on “x’s and o’s” as compared to time spent learning about people.” - Mike Krzyzewski, Duke Men's Basketball
Many factors determine how and why a meaningful relationship is established and whether or not it continues, or is severed. Relationships are the foundation of coaching and even though a relationship takes both parties involved, coaches are leaders and should lead by example to pursue a real relationship with their athletes.
The challenge of coaching is balancing rationale and logic, along with empathy and emotional awareness. A strong relationship is important not only for your athlete’s growth as a positive, ethical and moral person, but for the team’s performance as a whole.
Let’s focus on five essential building blocks that help create and sustain healthy, fulfilling, and, yes, great relationships with your athletes.
5 Keys to Athlete Relationship Building
1. Connect 1st - Coach 2nd
Speaker, Coach, Consultant and Author, Alan Stein Jr. is no stranger to working with athletes of all calibers. From coaching youth athletes around the world to athletes like Kevin Durant and Victor Oladipo, he understands the need to connect with the person within. "It ain’t about you... it’s about them." said Stein.
Connecting with your athletes creates a fertile environment where a relationship can develop. Care for them as people first, and players second.
Coaches who are disconnected from their players can be great at teaching skills, x's & o's, and leading winning teams. But, when a coach is good at all of those things and connects with their athletes on a personal level, then you become more than just a coach, you become a mentor to them outside of the game as well.
2. Listen To Them
As a coach, you definitely do most of the talking. You are a teacher and with that, have to communicate effectively with your athletes. However, one learns much more by listening, and this skill is invaluable when trying to understand athletes. To develop a relationship, you must create an environment in which athletes feel comfortable expressing their concerns and telling you about issues they're facing.
If a player is looking upset when they arrive at practice, don’t be afraid to take them to the side and ask them if they’re okay. Remind them that you’re there for them if they ever need someone to speak with. Your players will appreciate the support. Sometimes all a person needs is the knowledge that someone’s there for them if they need it...
3. Show Them You Care
What makes you a good coach, what allows whatever knowledge you have inside of you to take hold and grow within your players, is all about how much you care about them.
"We always made sure we talked to our athletes about how areas, outside of athletics, are going. We paid close attention to how our athletes were acting and if they seemed low energy, concerned, or frustrated over something we let them know it is okay to share with us if they feel comfortable. We never tried to be intrusive into areas of their life that were too personal, but that they could feel comfortable speaking with us if they needed or wanted to."
Don't be afraid to share life lessons with your athletes. Share basic things that are going on in your life, business and health. This will show them that you are open with them and they can feel comfortable sharing if they need to. This approach will let your athletes know you are not just their coach, but also a person they can trust.
4. Be Someone They Trust - Now and In The Future
Erickson’s Theory of the Psychosocial Development is built on the foundation of trust vs. mistrust. It should be no surprise that our first goal in life is to master trust, since that is the basis for all of our relationships moving forward. Genuine relationships between athletes and coaches generate more trust, better communication and a winning attitude.
Exhibit realness with your athletes. Only when you reveal parts of yourself can athletes begin to acknowledge you as fellow people whom they can have a stronger feeling of trust and respect towards. Sharing experiences from your own life enables athletes to see you more as a real person, not a figure.
5. Respect Them
Back to point one, empathize with your athletes as people, not as athletes, and care about how they are doing.
Bennie Wylie, Director of Performance for the University of Oklahoma Football, is one of the top strength and conditioning coaches in the country and knows how to connect with his athletes, "I coach our boys hard, but most importantly, I treat them with respect."
You must respect your athletes for the individuals they are. While in many cases athletes are parts of large groups, there will be a multitude of needs surrounding that group. Try to meet with players one-on-one before and after the season to set goals, and check their progress.
Allow for the expression of opinions without the fear of being judged or put down. Your word is your most powerful tool, if you say you’ll do something, you have to do it when it comes to agreements and commitments. Do not betray the athletes trust.
If you keep these building blocks top of mind as you coach your athletes, you will build strong and lasting relationships. Most importantly, they will have meaning. That's the key here.
What do you think are the building blocks of building a relationship? I'd love to hear your thoughts.