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UK Coaching Team
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Rapport Building and Communicating

How to Build Stronger Relationships with Your Athletes

The coach-athlete relationship plays a central role in ensuring both athletes' and coaches’ needs are being met. Professor Sophia Jowett highlights the four 'key dimensions’ of a good quality coach-athlete relationship, and UK Coaching’s Chris Chapman poses key questions to help you reflect on your relationships with your athletes

Sophia Jowett is a coach, professor of psychology at Loughborough University, acknowledged expert in coach-athlete relationships and has supported coaches and UK Sport to better maximise the relationship.

The coach-athlete relationship is at the heart of coaching. Coaching is viewed as a process and practice within which both coaches and athletes are expected to engage, interact and communicate. It is this combined interrelating between coaches and athletes that define the effectiveness of coaching and ultimately determines the success of the coaching.

While the coach and the athlete need one another to bring about change in performance (as neither of them can do it alone), they also need each other to experience a sense of personal fulfilment and satisfaction in the pursuit of performance accomplishments.

Good quality coach-athlete relationships matter not only because they drive better results but also because they create a social environment within which both the coach and the athlete feel positive, happy, energised, determined (gritty) and strong (resilient).

The relationship promotes a social environment that is functional, within which coaches and athletes are prepared to strive and thrive.

There are many examples of coaches who have embraced, understood and applied this notion of, what we call, a “relational coaching environment”, where building good quality relationships is at the heart of it. 

Coaches across the world who have achieved the highest sport accolades with their athletes include Pep Guardiola (football), Mike Krzyzewski (basketball), Lisa Alexander (netball), Mel Marshall (swimming), Ans Botham (athletics), among others. They have talked openly about the role and significance of the coach-athlete relationship. 

It becomes immediately apparent that these coaches care a great deal for their athletes and want to support them to become the best they can be. Such coaches become talent magnets, because athletes want to work with and for them!

As the saying goes: “Two is better than one if two can act as one.”

What does a good quality coach-athlete relationship look like?

A good quality coach-athlete relationship comprises of four dimensions: Closeness, Commitment, Complementarity and Co-orientation.

 

Closeness refers to the affective or emotional tone of the relationship. It captures such feelings as trust, respect, appreciation and liking. Coaches who convey their respect – showing they respect and appreciate, or show gratitude by being prepared to support, by wanting to know and understand, by considering their viewpoints and indeed by trying to see the world through their eyes – are central in developing emotional closeness or strong affective ties.

Tips for building closeness in the coach-athlete relationship

  • Be open with your athletes, offer information, show you have nothing to hide, don’t ‘wear a mask’; openness is reciprocated.
  • Display loyalty and protect your athletes, be on their side both in their presence and absence.
  • Be reliable, consistent and predictable; if you let them down or fail to follow through it will create cracks in your trustworthiness.      
  • Honour your promises; if you make promises you cannot keep, your athletes will think you are not dependable. Do not belittle the promise. However small you think it is, your athletes may think it to be significant.

Commitment refers to the willingness and intention to maintain a stable and secure relationship over time. Sport throws at coaches and athletes’ numerous challenges that have to be overcome. Commitment becomes a vital ingredient to the survival of the relationship, especially during difficult and challenging times that may be sport-related, such as injury, deselection, performance decline, as well as personal-related, such as school exams, work dismissal, school/work underachievement, family bereavement or divorce.

If there is commitment from both the coach and the athlete, the likelihood of overcoming difficult and challenging situations will increase. Commitment becomes the glue that keeps coaches and athletes together over time through highs and lows.

Tips for building commitment in the coach-athlete relationship

  • Develop individual developmental plans for each athlete (they need to feel there is a plan for them). It will engage them and motivate them to stay and to work hard.
  • Have a programme based on well-defined and mutually agreed goals.
  • Make athletes’ committed to the squad and team’s goals.
  • Involve them in the coaching process by asking them what they need to be more effective and what will make them more committed.

Complementarity refers to coaches and athletes’ levels of cooperation, coordination and collaboration. It reflects the degree to which coaches and athletes are responsive, receptive, open, friendly, approachable during training and competition. For example, if a coach readily responds to their athlete following the execution of a movement with constructive and genuine feedback, then the athlete may more readily receive and use this feedback (and even seek out further feedback from the coach). 

If there is complementarity, the likelihood of athletes feeling intimidated, humiliated and manipulated is low because athletes have experienced coaches’ positive, supportive and helpful behaviours. Complementarity also captures the specific roles coaches and athletes take in this type of relationship. On one hand, coaches are leaders, orchestrators, instructors and on the other hand athletes are followers, executors, doers and makers.

 

Tips for building complementarity in the coach-athlete relationship

  • Work together through well-coordinated actions.
  • Improve communication. “Simple communication” is best and more impactful.
  • Clarify roles and reinforce rules; explain consequences if rules are not met.
  • Create a friendly and supportive environment; show flexibility and adaptability (adopt a flexible leadership style).

Lastly, co-orientation simply reflects the degree to which coaches and athletes understand one another and outlines the degree to which coaches and athletes have developed a common ground. It is a measure of the extent to which coaches and athletes are trying to see the world through each other’s eyes. Co-orientation relates to the notion of empathy and perspective taking.

Perspective taking is the ability to look beyond your own point of view, so that you can consider how someone else may think or feel about something. To do this successfully, you must have some understanding of others' thoughts, feelings, motivations, and intentions.

Great communication powers and empowers

Research has also shown that communication is fundamental to good quality relationships. 

I use an analogy to pull all the Cs together: the quality of the coach-athlete relationship (the 4Cs) is viewed as a vehicle that takes coaches and athletes on a journey, where A is their starting point and B is their destination. The relationship as a vehicle requires fuel to transport both coaches and athletes from place A to place B (a “Better” place). Communication is the fuel, the energy and power of coach-athlete relationships. Communication as a fuel can accelerate/speed up or decelerate/slow down the journey. Communication powers the relationship and empowers coaches and athletes within their “working” sporting relationships. 

Have a go!

Select three athletes that you coach and write their names in the column below (this template is available to download and print out via the link at the bottom of the page). 

Now look back through the explanations on each of the dimensions above and write down how you feel about this dimension with each athlete.

Reflect

Now step into their shoes and think how they will feel about your relationship.

Q. Anything stand out or surprise you?
Q. How would you improve the quality of the relationship? 
Q. Which dimension will you consider first?
Q. How will you develop strategies/ an action plan to improve your coach-athlete relationships?
 

 

The COMPASS model uses seven strategies of communication: Conflict Management, Openness, Motivational, Preventative, Assurance, Support and Social Network. Coaches (and athletes) use these strategies to maintain good quality, functional and healthy working relationships which promotes closeness (increased mutual trust, respect, appreciation), commitment (enhanced eagerness to continue the relationship) and complementarity (improved capacity to work together in responsive and friendly manner).

While coaches’ overarching goal is to support athletes to achieve their goals, meet their athletes’ needs, support athletes to develop and grow physio-social-psychologically, some coaches fall short.

One reason for this may be their focus on performance issues and less so on relationship issues. 

The coach-athlete relationship is at the heart of coaching and in turn the quality of the relationship can define the effectiveness (process and practice) and success of coaching (destination). 

A conscious and deliberate effort to invest in building good quality relationships (4Cs) and communicating competently can have long-lasting and cumulative effects on coaches’ and athletes’ performance and well-being, including their growth and development, personal success and satisfaction, as well as mental and physical health. 

Failing to notice the relational side of coaching is failing to notice yourselves as a coach and what you represent (values, goals, expectations), as well as failing to notice your athletes – the people who you so desperately want to support and develop.

Related Resources

  • Building Successful Coach-Athlete Relationships

    View
  • Principles of Great Coaching: Person Centred

    View
  • Why Mastering The Coach-Athlete Relationship is Important

    View

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