Friends or foes? The coach-athlete relationship

Have you ever heard Betreuung_13of Bob Bowman? Bowman is famous for having coached Michael Phelps since he was 11 years old. Under his coach, Phelps has won numerous titles and medals and became the most decorated Olympian swimmer of all time. Although Phelps stated that Bowman is a very disciplined and strict coach (he might have used the term “drill sergeant”), he repeatedly mentioned that Bowman is part of his family, that his relationship with Bowman is key to his success and that he would end his career being coached by Bowman. Phelps and Bowman are a perfect example of a relationship that is successful with regard to performance measures but that is also based on mutual appreciation, trust and friendship. On the other hand we have former football player David Beckham and his Manchester United coach Sir Alex Ferguson. These two were successful with regard to objective performance measures, however, they did not get along at a personal level (Sir Alex Ferguson allegedly said that Victoria [Beckham] stopped David Beckham from being one of the greatest). Think of your own relationship with your athlete/coach or any other coach-athlete relationship you know: how could you evaluate the quality of this relationship?

Evaluating coach-athlete relationships

The literature provides us with three key constructs which help us to assess coach-athlete relationships: the 3 Cs of closeness, commitment and complementarity.

  • Closeness refers to the emotional tone of the relationship. Do the coach and the athlete trust each other? Do they respect one another? Do they find each other likeable?
  • Commitment pertains to the intention and desire of the coach and the athlete to maintain the relationship and to be willing to continuously work on it to maximize its outcome.
  • Complementarity describes the communication and interaction within the relationship. Are the relationship partners willing to interact and communicate? And if so, is their way of communicating complementary, effective and positive?

But why is it so important to evaluate and understand the nature of coach-athlete relationships, you might ask? Well, I have some very persuasive arguments for you: high scores on the 3 Cs in coach-athlete relationships are associated with high satisfaction with the sport performance, a healthy passion towards the sport activity, low levels of role ambiguity and high cohesion in sport teams.

Maintaining the quality of coach-athlete relationships

Let’s say you have a good coach-athlete relationship (like Bowman and Phelps) and would like to maintain it or you actually do not have a good relationship (like Beckham and Sir Alex Ferguson in the old days) and want to improve it. What could you do?  Two well-known researchers in the field interviewed several coaches and athletes and inquired their strategies to maintain the quality of their relationships. The collected responses are the foundation for following tips for coaches and athletes (referred to as the COMPASS-model):

Conflict management –Be proactive (clarify expectations and avoid misunderstandings) and reactive (show patience, empathy and the willingness to cooperate during disagreements).

Openness – Be willing to disclose your feelings and be open to the disclosure of feelings of the other party, also regarding non-sport topics. Furthermore, try to be aware of and empathetic towards the emotions of the other.

Motivation – Put forth effort during trainings and competitions; motivate the other and be willing to be motivated. As a coach, you should show that you have the knowledge, skills and abilities to help the athlete achieve his/her goals. As an athlete, you should demonstrate that you have the abilities to meet the expectations of the coach.

Positivity – Make sure that your interactions and communication are based on positivity and fairness and do not let them be compromised by external pressures.

Advice – Provide positive and constructive feedback. When you receive feedback, be open-minded and think about how this feedback could help you to improve yourself.

Support – Show that you are committed to the relationship and support the other party regarding sport-related as well as personal issues.

Social Networks – Try to spend social time together outside of the sport arena and share a mutual social network.

I am pretty certain that at least the last advice is a topic of great controversy among both coaches and players, as some prefer to separate their sport and private life. But whatever your thoughts are on this matter: it can’t harm to evaluate your own coach-athlete relationship, and the 3 Cs and the COMPASS-model might help you in this endeavor.

I would like to close this post with a quote by Herman Hesse about relationships: “It is not our purpose to become each other; it is to recognize each other, to learn to see the other and honor him for what he is.” And this should be the case for all coach-athlete relationships, don’t you think?

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2 Responses to Friends or foes? The coach-athlete relationship

  1. Anders says:

    A very interesting read. Thank you for sharing.

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