The interaction between a coach and an athlete reflects a very dynamic relationship. When you are involved as a coach in an athlete’s life, the complexity of your non-verbal agreement is of great magnitude. You’re not just agreeing to instruct the athlete or make him or her bigger, faster and stronger. You’re also agreeing to build trust, care about their hardships, help them overcome challenges and ultimately take an interest in them as a person as well as an athlete. This is called the holistic approach and it should be the only approach.
The holistic approach looks at all aspects of the individual—physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. We have to keep in mind that athletes have other things going on in their lives besides the sports they play. You never know when they could be experiencing family issues, a breakup, academic stress or something else that could be difficult to deal with. If the dynamic of your relationship is strictly coach-to-athlete, you will never be able to truly make an impact, and the athlete will be less likely to trust you on any platform.
Our job as coaches is not only to influence our athletes in the short time we have with them, but to create an impact that can last a lifetime. The holistic approach shows you that things like wins, effort and attitude will take care of themselves. Be the coach the athlete wants to play for, wants to work for and wants to win for. The athlete will be less likely to want these things if you have failed to nurture the relationship past its infantile stage. In this article, I want to revisit some personal experiences and discuss how to go about fulfilling the holistic coaching approach.
Trust can be established in many ways. The first step to gaining trust is to know the person on a first name basis (Yes, I have worked at institutions where coaches didn’t know players’ names.) The most beautiful word you can utter to a person is their first name. This shows you care and makes them feel as if they know you on a deeper level.
In addition to knowing the athlete’s name, I can’t stress enough the importance of being transparent. As coaches, we can’t be afraid to leave ourselves open and vulnerable because we have nothing to hide. By doing this, we extend an open invitation to be trusted and we allow the athlete to choose to do so on his or her own time. Be transparent! Expose your inner being to the athlete by being loyal, competent, morally strong, fair and above all consistent.
A few things will change in your team when transparency is present. Your athletes will also be transparent, which will allow your relationships to become authentic. This will allow problems to be prevented or resolved quickly, because everyone knows each other inside and out. When problems are non-existent, a strong cohesive unit is created, which translates to success.
“Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.” President Roosevelt hit the nail on the head with this one-liner. The fact of the matter is you can regurgitate years of information you’ve read in textbooks and talk about past job experiences until you’re blue in the face, but none of it will hold weight with the athlete if you don’t care.
One of most powerful things you can do to show that you care is listen. In society today, we are programmed to ask someone how he or she is doing even if we truly don’t care. “How are you?” Those three little words can make a huge difference in the relationship between you and your athletes. By asking this question, you make a small investment in the athlete’s happiness—but only if you honestly care and listen to the response. The athlete could have something he or she really needs to let out, and you have agreed to care about their hardships and challenges.
When you convey a consistent caring attitude to all of your players, it becomes infectious. You may have a player who never sees the floor, but it’s your responsibility to care for him the same as you do the starters. All eyes are on you. The players will pick up on your consistent energy and will treat one another in the same manner, making your team inseparable.
Communication is obviously a big part of any relationship. But it is especially true of the relationship between a coach and an athlete or team. The balance between talking “at” the athlete and talking “to” the athlete is of the upmost importance. I won’t deny that there are times where you need to come down on an athlete or team. When talking to the athlete, you have to be able to wear their ears and think about how you would receive the message. Here are a few ways to ensure effective communication and how to balance talking “at” and “to” the athlete effectively.
If you have been trying to drive home a point to your team and it sticks with one of your athletes, praise him or her. But don’t stop there. Have him or her demonstrate to the group why this was what you were looking for. By doing so, you positively reinforce the athlete for correctly performing the task and reiterate it to the entire team. This is considered the “double positive” approach to communicating.
Another respectful way of communicating is to ask questions. Instead of honing in on the same mistake over and over, simply ask the athlete a question. For example, if I’m teaching an athlete how to swing a kettlebell, and he or she keeps bending at the knee, I might say something like, “everything looks good, but should you bend at the knee or hinge at the hip?” Nine times out of ten, the athlete will answer correctly, because you have used the cue “hinge at the hip” repeatedly. In contrast, if you continue to say “Seth, hinge at the hip” and point out the mistake by talking at the athlete, he might become discouraged and begin to fear the task.
A coach who doesn’t understand the holistic approach might look at the word relate and think of relating the sequence of events to an athlete. On the other hand, a coach who understands this approach realizes the true meaning of the word, which is connecting or identifying yourself with the athlete. Believe it or not, relating to people is an acquired skill. If you can relate to your athletes, they will gravitate to you, which increases your level of impact. Typically people who relate to each other have similar experiences in life, but there are other ways to do it.
My first piece of advice is to discover why the athlete does what he or she does. You have to know the goals of the athlete, because knowing a person’s goals will allow you to understand why they do what they do. Also, understanding the person’s goals will help you help them achieve them.
Perhaps a player comes to you and says he or she wants to perform better in a certain aspect of their game when it matters most. You would take a step back and evaluate the person’s personality and help the athlete scheme to achieve his or her goal. It could be something as a simple as telling him or her to become a better practice player.
Finally, you have to know where the athlete comes from. You have to be aware of hardships, setbacks and impactful events that have occurred throughout their lives that are still present. You can never help athletes get to where they want to go if you don’t know where they’ve come from.
When you have shown that you care and continued to improve your relationship with the athlete, you are able to motivate at a whole new level. There are hundreds of ways to motivate, but it is important to note that different things motivate everyone. This is where knowing the player and having an authentic relationship with him or her is important.
As coaches we have to show the players they are improving. At this point, the athletes trust that we have their best interests at heart, and we have to show them this is true. In strength and conditioning, it is typical protocol to get a baseline test on important lifts like the Squat, Bench, etc. Periodically re-testing the athlete to show strength gains motivates them and helps them buy into your goals. This trickles down to my next two methods.
Always celebrate success no matter the magnitude. If a player does something as simple as finishing hard through a drill, celebrate it. If the athlete finishes the semester with an exceptional GPA, celebrate it. The aim is not just to pat the player on the back and make him or her feel warm inside. When you celebrate success, you’re more likely to see the same success down the road. You get back what you reward!