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UK Coaching Team
Rapport Building and Communicating

Challenging Situations Between Coaches and Participants

Developed in partnership with Katelynn Slade, Professor Sophia Jowett and Dr. Daniel Rhind from Loughborough University, this guide (the first in a mini-series) explores how to normalise challenging situations and the importance of a strong coach-athlete relationship in effectively managing them

Have you ever had to tell someone you coach that they have not been selected for a tournament or game? Or help support a participant struggling with their performance? What about keeping an injured participant engaged during their recovery and involved in the team?

Challenging situations are regularly experienced by all coaches, even the most experienced coaches! It’s completely normal, and even more so to be faced with more than one at a time.

Challenges are innate when it comes to physical activity and sport. They often occur specifically between two people, namely: coaches and participants.

It is important that coaches, and sport in general, normalise challenging situations and the conversations that come with them. You are not alone; all coaches experience challenging situations, and it is time we start talking about them."

K. Slade (2022)


  • What challenging coach-athlete situations have you faced?
  • How do you currently manage challenging coach-athlete situations?
  • Who can support you in managing challenging situations?


The importance of the coach-athlete relationship

The coach-athlete relationship can be strained when faced with challenging situations, making the quality of the relationship highly important.

It is one of the most important interdependent relationships in sport, requiring effort from both the coach and the participant. A strong, high-quality relationship can impact not only well-being, but also performance.

Coaches and participants working together in a collaborative manner based upon trust and respect, and relationships that have been built together before a challenging situation occurs, provide coaches and participants with a strong foundation to work from.

There are many aspects to a relationship between a coach and participant, and each partnership is unique. It is affected by:

  • your age and that of your participant
  • the involvement (or lack of) of parents
  • how long you have known your participant
  • whether you’re a full-time coach versus a volunteer coach
  • whether you’re working and the person you coach is participating in an elite environment or at the grassroots level.

Each coach-athlete relationship has its own unique aspects. However, it’s important to develop and maintain a high-quality coach-athlete relationship based on closeness, commitment, and co-orientation. For more on this, see our infographic, Building Successful Coach-Athlete Relationships.

Case study

You will often need to make decisions to keep your participants safe, which can be challenging.

These types of situations, especially concerning safety, can be made even more difficult when the stakes are high and there’s something to lose, such as when a competition is taking place on an international stage, or they’re pushing to compete despite an injury.

In this case study, a coach explains how they felt about making the decision to pull their athlete from competition due to safety concerns.

“Now, it was a big call, but it was the right call because that guy’s safety, the safety of it is more important and he was fuming at the time because he just wanted to [compete]… but I made the call but again, that goes back to trust in me,” he explains.

The coach went on to say:

“He [the athlete] said straightaway afterward, he was like I trust that you know what you’re talking about, like you, if it was the right thing for me, you would say it.”

In this situation, the coach-athlete relationship and the athlete’s trust in their coach were essential in them effectively managing the challenging decision and maintaining the relationship.


Think about the coach-athlete relationships you have with the participants that you coach:

  • What is the quality of your coach-athlete relationships? Are they all the same? Why or why not?
  • How have you developed high-quality coach-athlete relationships?
  • What have been some of the barriers to developing high-quality coach-athlete relationships?
  • How have challenging situations affected your coach-athlete relationships?


Read the Full Series

Discover further insight into managing challenging situations to ensure the great experience for you and the people you coach


Related Resources

  • Guide to Understanding Relationships

  • How to Build Stronger Relationships with Your Athletes

  • Understanding the Coach-Athlete Relationship


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