By: Dan Gould & Cliff Mallett
Originally Published in: Sport Coaches Handbook
Provided by: Human Kinetics
Ability and desire to relate to athletes are critical in coaching. The coach-athlete relationship provides a foundation for effective motivation, communication, mental preparation, and feedback. Coaches also need to build good relationships with assistant coaches, support staffers (e.g., sports medicine providers, strength coaches), program administrators, officials, and athletes' family members.
Early research in youth sport showed that coaches who are more encouraging and less punitive fostered athletes who were more motivated and more satisfied! A synopsis of 25 years of this research produced the following relationship-building guidelines for coaches:
Research reveals that when coaches create a caring climate - in which athletes know that their coaches care about them, support them, and respect them as individuals - athletes exhibit greater enjoyment, more positive attitudes, higher commitment, and more caring behavior. Specific actions for creating a positive climate include asking players to introduce themselves to one another at the start of the season, greeting each player individually by name upon arrival at practice, setting clear public expectations about the importance of personal effort and improvement, and helping athletes build relationships with each other through strategies such as identifying teammates' strengths and working with a practice partner.
Another study identified the following key components of the coach-athlete relationship:
The study also emphasizes the fact that "coaches' and athletes' feelings, thoughts, and behaviors are interdependent" and that better coach-athlete relationships lead to desirable athlete outcomes, such as better leadership, motivation, and performance! To gain these benefits, both parties must clearly express their goals and their commitment to those goals; they must also find the most effective styles of working with one another. However, even as coaches facilitate a positive bond with their athletes, they must remain in command. Not only are they more knowledgeable than athletes, they are also legally and ethically liable for their players' health and safety.
Developing and maintaining an effective coach - athlete relation-ship also depends on the coach's ability to understand and recognize the athlete's feelings, thoughts, behaviors, and intentions. To develop empathic accuracy, make a point to gather information regularly about your athletes. For instance, you might recognize that when a certain athlete snaps at others during practice, this behavior indicates anxiety or worry about the next game. Such insight can help you maintain empathy appropriately. For example, you might show support to an athlete who is late to practice due to losing a loved one but respond differently to one who regularly arrives late for no good reason. At the same time, reflect on your own actions to gain understanding of why you behave in the ways you do. You might, for instance, realize that you are displaying anxiety that makes your athletes feel anxious. Finally, seek to avoid any biases that might cloud your coaching judgment, such as assuming that African American athletes would not be interested in swimming because none have been on the team before.
An especially effective way for coaches to build relationships with athletes and other key stakeholders is to spend less time telling others what to do and more time asking questions. In Coaching for Performance, sport coach and business consultant Sir John Whitmore argues that a coach's role is to "unlock people's potential to maximize their own performance" while "building awareness, responsibility, and self-belief." He encourages coaches to do so by asking questions. This approach shows athletes, fellow coaches, and support staffers that their opinions are respected. It also invites athletes (and others) to become more aware of what they are doing and gives them a chance to own their answer and commit to it of their own accord. Coaches can ask good questions by using the GROW model.
G or goal questions: What would you like to achieve? What are you hoping to accomplish?
R or reality questions: What have you tried so far? What have you seen others do?
O or option questions: What could you do? What would help you achieve your goal?
W or what will be done, when, and by whom: As a result of our meeting, what can I expect to see you do differently?
Of course, asking good questions is not enough. Coaches must also listen attentively, both to ensure that they really hear what is being communicated and to show that they are listening.
Whitmore is not suggesting that coaches should never direct or tell others what to do; to the contrary, they must instruct. He does contend, however, that the bedrock of good coaching involves a general shift away from telling others what to do and toward asking them questions that help them become more self-aware, take more responsibility, develop more self-belief, and become more self-efficacious. In our experience, this approach also greatly facilitates relationships and helps coaches become more effective.