Warrick Wood MSc.

The Coach-Athlete Relationship

Invest in the Coach-Athlete Relationship

This connection becomes the foundation for interpreting coaching behaviors

Posted Mar 14, 2019

I spend a lot of time working with and observing coaches at various levels and find the various ways in which they engage with their athletes fascinating.  The coach-athlete relationship is a complex dyad grounded in social interaction and is an area that continues to receive attention within the sport psychology literature; such studies often looking to deepen understanding of what constitutes effective coaching.

The complexity of sports environments and the uniqueness of each setting makes defining and describing effective coaching challenging.  Whilst significant research has been conducted and identified various coaching behaviors as being effective, ineffective, autonomy-supportive, and/or controlling, it seems that, in reality, effective coaching is much more complex than enacting particular behaviors and avoiding others.

From my experience in sports, as well as backed up by a growing body of research, the coach-athlete relationship plays a pivotal role in determining the effectiveness of coaching behaviors.  An athlete’s perception of a coach and their relationship with them becomes the lens through which coaching behaviors are considered and interpreted.  For instance, Coach X who is highly competent and trusted by his/her athletes may provide direct instructions at the beginning of a training session, and be viewed as being positive, clear, and supporting.  Coach Y on the other hand who lacks credibility and, as such, has been unable to connect with his/her athletes, could employ the same behavior but be viewed as controlling. 

Likewise, Coach X may start the following training session by allowing a degree of freedom and scope for athletes to identify and work on areas needing attention; likely interpreted by athletes as empowering and autonomy-supportive.  However, if Coach Y employs a similar approach, it may be viewed as a sign of the coach’s lack of planning, incompetence, or indifference.

Such observations have reinforced the premise that the coach-athlete relationship, as well as the athletes’ interpretations of coaching behaviors, are both more important than the behaviors themselves.  Recently appointed Chicago Bulls head coach, Jim Boylen, has been criticized by his players for utilizing several coaching behaviors that he had seen San Antonio Spurs head coach, Gregg Popovich, successfully employ.  Such a response highlights the notion that the coach-athlete relationship will, ultimately, determine the effectiveness, or ineffectiveness, of coaching behaviors.

Now, what comes first – positive and supportive behaviors or a strong relationship?  It seems logical that it would be a blend of the two.  My next post will provide a collection of strategies that have been shown to potentially nurture strong coach-athlete relationships.

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