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How to Build Relationships with your Players

By Dr. David Hoch, CMAA, CIC

Classroom instructors work hard to learn their subject matter, plan for each class, and provide the information and details that prepare students to succeed academically. Since coaches are teachers, they essentially do the same thing in their practice sessions and during games.

However, being an effective teacher requires more than the ability to transmit knowledge to students. It also requires building relationships with them. Each student is a unique individual with a unique background and learning style. Different students also respond to different motivations.

To be successful, coaches have to appreciate this dynamic and work to develop individual relationships with all of their players. It is important to understand that one approach will not work with everyone. However, every athlete plays a role in the success of the team, and a team only functions well with contributions from each individual.

Consider this scenario. A basketball coach who was known for yelling (not abusively) at all players during practice sessions and games was approached by Chris, a senior, after a game. Chris offered this observation: “Jim didn’t handle you yelling at him very well tonight. He is quiet and internalizes everything, including your yelling. When you need to say something to Jim, why don’t you yell at me instead? Jim will still get the message, but he won’t become withdrawn. I’ll understand what you are doing, and it may help Jim play better.”

Wow! This remarkable observation and recommendation came from an 18 year-old young man. And after the suggestion was adopted by the coach, Jim’s play improved. It worked because the coach made an attempt to better understand an individual athlete and to create a better relationship.

Understanding individual players and building relationships is key. But where do you start? The following considerations should help:

Appreciate uniqueness. Coaches have certain expectations of players. You want them all to work hard and be receptive to coaching. But it’s equally important to understand that they are not all the same. Due to the differences among athletes, good working relationships are formed through efforts to understand each individual. 

Show that you care. Players, like most people in any type of relationship, respond better when they know that the other person sincerely cares about their welfare and success. Actions, words, and approaches do matter.

Listen to them. As a coach, you definitely do most of the talking, since you are providing instruction and making corrections. However, one learns much more by listening, and this skill is invaluable when trying to understand your athletes. To develop a relationship, you must create an environment in which athletes feel comfortable expressing their concerns and telling you about issues they are facing.

Remember to praise. While it is okay to offer constructive criticism during practice sessions and games, it is also important to provide balance. This means that you also have to encourage and praise your players when they do something well. Everyone wants to be appreciated and valued. Try using the formula of two compliments or words of encouragement for every correction.

Be someone they can trust. Trust is an important ingredient in relationships. If you make a promise or say that you are going to do something for your athletes, you need to follow through and do it! Your players depend upon you for support. In order to have a good working relationship, keeping your word is critical.

Teaching skills and strategy is the easy part of coaching. Forming good relationships with your athletes is a little more difficult, and it is an ongoing challenge. However, your players are counting on you to make a concentrated effort to understand and connect with them as individuals. Until you do, neither you nor they will experience the real value of education-based athletics.


David Hoch retired in 2010 after a 41-year career as a high school athletic director and coach.  In 2009, Dr. Hoch was honored as the Eastern District Athletic Director of the Year by the Nastional Association for Sport and Physical Education.  He was also presented with the National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association Distinguished Service Award, and in 2000 he was named the Maryland State Athletic Director Association's Athletic Director of the Year.  Dr. Hoch has authored over 460 professional articles and made more than 70 presentations around the country.

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