Coach-Athlete Relationship

Coaches often have more impact on a child than any other adult other than the child’s parents. In some cases, coaches can be even more influential than parents. Some youth athletes spend more time with their coaches than with any of their teachers in school. That is why it is important to be a Positive Coach and to manage your relationships with players accordingly.

As a Positive Coach, you strive to win, but never at the expense of a child’s well-being. That means ensuring player safety in every circumstance from a routine practice where you check that equipment functions properly to deciding that a player is too hurt to go back into a game. “Never at the expense of a child’s well-being” also means that when necessary, you sacrifice wins in the name of teaching life lessons.

No matter how brightly your ambition burns, no matter how badly you want that championship, the higher priorities should always be player safety and helping players develop into healthy, productive and contributing members of society. When you consistently demonstrate those values to players and their parents -- by your character, your behavior, how you carry yourself, the way you lead, decide and communicate -- you will win them over.

When you have won them over they will go to great lengths for you. They’ll play hard. They’ll sacrifice for you and for each other, forming the type of cohesive team that is tough to beat on the scoreboard.  

Forming Relationships

Being a great coach starts with forming positive relationships with your athletes.  If you are curious, caring, honest and open, it is easier for players to connect with attach you .And having an authentic connection sets the foundation for getting and keeping players attention and respect, as well as setting the stage for openness to learning new skills, strategies and life lessons.

Especially with kids, you will never get away with dishonesty or in-authenticity. If you are a gentle person, all the bluster in the world will not convince kids you are tough. If you are rough around the edges, no false affection can hide that. Just be yourself!

Maintaining Relationships

Once you have reached your athletes, maintain good working relationships, using the principle of giving respect to get respect.

The old model of “tear them down so you can build them up” no longer applies. It’s better to build them up so you can build them up more.. You, your players and their parents endure  less drama and enjoy a better youth sports experience, working towards  your goals as their coach and in helping players develop beyond sports.

That’s the basis of Filling Emotional Tanks . The right mix of praise and correction (five pieces of truthful, specific praise for each piece of specific, constructive criticism) brings about the best results in competition and keeps players open to learning from you and willing to work for you.

Occasionally, you will need to have even harder conversations than a simple correction. You may need to tell players that they just are not learning fast enough or seem to be exerting less than maximum effort. You may need to bench or cut players. All those conversations should be private and face-to-face. If the player objects, hear him or her out. Even if they are leaving your program, give them all the advice they can use in order to have better success at their next stop in sports or whatever else their next endeavor may be.

As respectful as the coach-player relationship may be, coaches still must ensure order, discipline and fairness. Coaches should be very open and up-front very early in their relationships with players as to the team rules and consequences for violating them. Be careful not to set rules and consequences that you can’t live with, because as soon as you fail to deliver on a consequence, you lose respect, attachment, attention and all the other things you’ve worked with your players on. Conversely, if you impose the strong, fair, consistent discipline you promised, you’ll nip most problems in the bud.

Maintain Boundaries

While you seek to have positive, enduring relationships with your players, you also have to recognize and respect the boundaries that you must maintain in any relationship with children. We strongly recommend you not have players as part of your social media circle of friends.  We strongly recommend that you not put yourself in a situation where you are ever alone with a child.  We strongly recommend you refrain from making jokes or comments that you might find funny but that an impressionable, sensitive young athlete might misinterpret.  Your job as a coach is just that: a job.  Maintain healthy space between your work life and your personal life.  

How Coaches and Players Benefit from Their Relationships

Beyond the obvious gains of on-field fun and success, coaches and players may enjoy long-term benefits from their relationships. For example, players later in life may make important decisions based on what they learned from their coach many years before. And they may stay in touch and continue to call on the coach for even more advice.

Coaches, meanwhile, also learn from players, and certainly take a great delight in seeing past players succeed. Along with the sheer joy of seeing youth develop to their potential, coaches get a separate special kick out of knowing they had a role in helping those kids along.

Looking back on your coaching career, you should think of how many people you positively impacted, how deeply they were affected and how many people they impacted. And the only thing that will make you happier is the next time you hear, “Hey, Coach….”


In an effort to benefit millions of youth athletes, parents and coaches, this article is among a series created exclusively for partners in the Liberty Mutual Insurance Play Positive program powered by Positive Coaching Alliance.

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