Understanding Coach-to-Player (and Player-to-Coach) Roles and Relationships
Achieving championship success doesn't rely solely on the strength of the team or the talent of individual players. Although these factors are important, what's truly fundamental is the relationship between player and coach. When there's a true understanding between the parties, a team can become unstoppable. (See Communicating With a Coach.)
The best example I can think of is the player-coach duo of Tony Parker and Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs. What can athletes and coaches learn from this fiery and intense relationship?
Just how bad was it? Early in Parker's career with the Spurs, Popovich's criticisms of his point guard's performance were sometimes absolutely brutal—so harsh that even his teammates questioned why Parker would continue to put up with it.
Why does Pop coach Parker so aggressively?
The answer to this question is the "Care Factor," as Pop calls it. He is ruthless to Parker during every practice, constantly pointing out everything that needs improvement. At the same time, the coach takes his star player out to dinner 15 to 20 times a year to discuss life outside of basketball. "You can't get on a player and ignore him until the next time he plays a game," Popovich explains.
As a sports psychology consultant, I work with coaches to help them understand this concept. Players respond better if they have an understanding of who you are and what you're trying to do for them. They want to know that you actually care about the person behind the number on the jersey. The younger the athlete, the more important this becomes, because developmentally, young athletes are still building their sense of trust.
Widely regarded as one of the best coaches in the game, Pop understands this, which probably has a lot to do with why he's been successful and respected by his players. (Read 3 Tips on Providing Feedback to Your Players.)
Why does Parker put up with it?
Simple. He agrees with the criticism and understands that Pop is right—regardless of how much he hates being singled out and criticized. The ability to put your ego aside and focus on becoming your "best self" is one of the greatest mental skills a player can learn. Coaches' words are often loud and harsh, but they contain important instructions and insights. Learn to hear the instruction and tune out the volume and tone.
Coaches ask you to do the very thing you need to do to become the "best you" that you can be. You as a player must keep that in mind, despite the fact that it may be the very thing you're most uncomfortable with. Learning to embrace this as a challenge is exactly what you need to do if you want to improve and maximize your ability. Never be too proud to think that you can't grow, learn and improve. We should all accept the fact that we're on a lifelong journey of improvement and knowledge. Your coaches are your teachers, put in place to help you understand lessons—about your sport and about yourself.
The overarching points here are:
- Coaches need to understand that each player is a person, no matter how talented, old, young, strong, fast, short or tall. Treat the player as a person first and athlete second, and you'll establish a deeper connection in how your words will influence the player.
- Players, never end the process of improvement. Remember, you are never a finished product, but always a work in progress, forever on a journey towards your own personal best. Often, coaches pinpoint the exact skill or behavior that you absolutely need to work on in order to take your game to the next level. By letting go of your ego and being willing to stretch beyond your comfort zone, you're more likely to take your game to where you may not have thought possible.