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Coaching Effectiveness Begins and Ends With Relationships

Building quality bonds with the people you coach, teach, and parent.

Key points

  • Coaches have the potential to make a lifelong impact on people.
  • Research demonstrates that high-quality relationships are crucial to successful coaching with trust, communication, and respect as key elements.
  • Successful coaches care about their athletes as people and facilitate life-skills learning and the moral development of their athletes.
 Christ School, used with permission
Coach, you have impact—use it.
Source: Christ School, used with permission

“Never underestimate the valuable and important difference you make in every life you touch for the impact you make today has a powerful, rippling effect on every tomorrow.”

I love quotes, and this one serves as a reminder of what’s at the heart of coaching—to make a difference for people. The same holds true for your efforts as a parent, teacher, sport psychologist, etc.

Who said it?

Leon Brown, a former Major League Baseball player, spent 13 years in pro ball. His MLB career consisted of 74 plate appearances and a meagre .214 batting average with the New York Mets in 1976.

Forgettable career, unforgettable wisdom.

The point

You can make a lifelong difference for people—especially youth. Having such profound influence begins and ends with the relationships you cultivate with them.

Not only will those relationships be a springboard for long-term impact, but ultimate success as a coach, teacher, parent, leader, etc., depends on them.

Sometimes we get so caught up in our daily tasks—practices, meetings, deadlines, or winning the game—we lose our grip on the most important thing we’re doing, building effective relationships and improving lives.

Do yourself—and the people in your life—a big favor and remember your unlimited potential to make a valued difference. Take the time and effort to cultivate and maintain quality relationships that actualize that potential.

What the experts say

Influential research investigating the art and science of effective and successful athletic coaching—“Coaching Life Skills through Football: A Study of Award-Winning High School Coaches” (Gould, Collins, Lauer, & Chung, 2007)—demonstrates the crucial role relationships play in the coaching process. Those same lessons apply to parenting, teaching, leadership, and anything else you do involving people.

The study examined highly experienced coaches identified by a National Football League award program honoring quality, respected, and winning high school football coaches. These coaches emphasized the importance of facilitating life skills and the moral development of their athletes in addition to performance excellence.

They identified the ability to build quality relationships with their players as the key to their success in developing life and performance skills. Crucial ingredients to solid coach-player relationships—according to these award-winning coaches—is the establishment of trust by means of strong, ongoing, coach-player communication, and treating their athletes as young adults.

“Maintaining high expectations and performance standards and (consistently) holding athletes to these standards” was another factor identified in this study as critical to building top-notch relationships with their charges.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T, as Aretha Franklin once sang.

Adam Jones, Ph.D/Wikimedia Commons
No matter what age you coach you can make a difference.
Source: Adam Jones, Ph.D/Wikimedia Commons

Where to begin

It starts with all the above. And do not forget the little things that in so many ways are the big things.

"Kids," many now 30 years or older, that I coached, taught, or mentored often reach out to me. Somewhere in our conversation, I ask what they remember about me. Their answers almost always surprise because it is usually something seemingly small that somehow stuck with them.

For one former athlete of mine—now a California physician—it was a discussion we had when he was 12 about an influential book he was reading at the time. Others reported something humorous that I said or did.

“When we saw you walking down the hall towards us at school, we thought, ‘what’s he going to do this time?’“ a special education teacher in Vermont recounted from his days as an eighth-grader. “You always took us by surprise and made us laugh.”

“What I remember best is your sense of humor,” reflected Tom Modly, former Secretary of the United States Navy. “That, and you knew all the TV show theme songs. I especially remember you knowing the lyrics to the theme song from The Real McCoys (an oldie TV show).”

I can still recite those lyrics if you want. I promise not to sing them.

Hopefully, those humorous moments were not my biggest contributions to their lives. They were fundamental to the building of quality relationships to position me to make a long-lasting impact.

Remembering birthdays, sincere listening, and encouragement are other examples of the little things that are the big things when forging quality relationships.

Knowing what to do and awareness of appropriate timing are crucial elements for making those little things work.

The big things are also big

Speaking of timing and awareness—plus a lot of caring—there are those big things that have powerful, rippling, lifelong impact, as Leon Brown might say.

Recently, I received a heartfelt email thanking me for what was termed a “life-saving” gesture I made when the author was a 14-year-old high school freshman. Surprising and deeply gratifying to receive such a message after so many years.

Here’s what he was referring to.

Back in 1984, I was visiting home from graduate school. Hometown kids I had coached shared their concerns about a pair of boys I had a solid relationship with that were getting deeply into alcohol and marijuana use. Deciding to act, I called both boys and requested they meet me at a neighborhood playground.

Showing up on their bicycles, they listened nervously as I confronted them with the hearsay. I emphasized how their alcohol and drug use could affect their high school athletic careers and lives. They were not pleased, riding off in a huff when I was done. That was the last time I heard from either boy until that email arrived—37 years later.

The person who sent the thanks explained how my chat triggered deep self-reflection and a decision to stop his chemical-abusing ways. He shared that the other boy died of a drinking-related incident in his early 20s. Hence, the survivor’s belief that my confrontation saved his life, insisting he had been headed in the same direction as his deceased friend.

One more point

An interesting discovery of the Gould, Collins, Lauer, and Chung study. Many of the interviewed coaches emphasized the importance of protecting the self-worth of their athletes when disciplining or reprimanding them. As quoted from the study:

“These coaches indicated that at times they were hard and reprimanded players on the field, but made sure players never left the football experience not knowing that their coaches cared about them as people. Thus, when these coaches ‘got on’ players they also conveyed to their players that they were attacking their performance or behavior and not their personalities.

This is something I always strive for, not only as a coach, but in everything else I do. Why destroy a relationship over something that in the total scheme of things isn’t worth it? I have a personal mantra when it comes to dealing with people: “find a way to turn a bad thing into a good thing.” You might find that useful in your own endeavors.

That mantra has preserved valued relationships and had a lifetime impact on many of the people dealt with over the years. A recent encounter served as a reminder.

Turning a really bad thing into a really good thing

An unrecognized man in his early 40s shouted out a friendly greeting in my direction recently at a noisy lunchtime shopping mall food court. He introduced himself, and memories of a summer baseball team I coached 28 years ago came flooding back.

Back then he was a troubled 14-year-old struggling with family difficulties and an emerging drug and alcohol problem, showing up to team practices and games under the influence, late, or not at all.

We had a strong relationship and I desperately tried to help him out with little success. He had become a destructive, unreliable, distraction to his teammates—and a danger to himself—forcing the decision to dismiss him from the team.

Quite a “reprimand,” but a necessary disciplinary action for the good of the team and the boy. There was no way, however, that I was going to let the situation destroy our relationship.

He was sad and angry about the dismissal, but my efforts to stay connected in the aftermath showed compassion and caring, thus, preserving the relationship and playing a role in his eventual turnabout.

After the tough going in his youth, he has managed to piece things together, living happily and productively. Today he understands and appreciates the dismissal from the team and its impetus in helping turn his life around. Our positive relationship had a life-changing impact and survived the trials of time.

A final word

As you head off to practice, game, classroom, or home, please pay careful attention to your relationships with the people in your life and never underestimate the important difference you can make in every life you touch.


Coach, you have impact--use it. Source: Photo compliments of Christ School

Gould, D., Collins, K., Lauer, L., & Chung, Y. (2007). Coaching Life Skills through football: A study of award winning high school coaches. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 19, 16-37.

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