By Liz Masen – Client Director of Athlete Assessments

Is this a question you’ve debated in your head or with other coaches?  This is a question I find coaches interested in and keen to have an opinion about!  So, do you have to like the athletes you coach?  I was reminded of this very question while I listened to an interview between the late Coach John Wooden and Anthony Robbins recently.  Here is a relevant part of the transcript of that interview:

“Well, the coach whose philosophy I admired was Amos Alonzo Stagg and he once made the statement he never had a player he didn’t love. He had many he didn’t like and he didn’t respect, but he loved them just the same. Well, in my early years of teaching I would tell my players I like you all the same, I’m going to treat you all the same. Now I never did. I was thinking I was, but I wasn’t. I didn’t like them all the same. They didn’t like me all the same. They didn’t like each other all the same. And yet I was saying that.”

-Coach Wooden

He differentiates between liking and loving/caring/doing what’s best for the athlete.  So from one of the most successful and admired coaches, the short answer to do you have to like your athletes, is no but you must put them first and do everything that is best for them.  Although in practice, it is likely a lot easier if you do like them!

What is important to get right, whether you “like” your athletes or not, is to have an effective coach-athlete relationship with them.  The research is clear:

  • The 2009 study by the Canadian Olympic Committee found the most significant contributor to a medal winning performance or a personal best performance at the Beijing Olympics, was a strong coach-athlete relationship.
  • According to the American Football Coaches Association player survey, 90 percent of players stated, the coaching staff was very important in determining which college to attend (AFCA Study 2003).
  • The 2007-2008 Barriers NCAA study found that 42% of the 9000 student athletes surveyed would not consider a future in college athletics because of the poor relationship with their college sports coach or their coach just prior to college.
  • The Australian Government said this in 2008:  “It is often the case that a junior athlete’s commitment and enthusiasm for a sport is based almost entirely on the quality of their coach. In many ways Australia’s future sporting success is up to our coaches and training officials.”

So if you want the best results, you do need to have a quality relationship with them.  And that is much easier if you find a way to like them.  I overheard a group of people (ok, they were middle-aged women) talking the other day about how to dress for any body type.  Now I’m probably losing all my male readers at this point but stay with me.  I heard them discussing a fashion stylist they’d seen who recommended that instead of dressing to cover up all the bad bits, dress to emphasize the best bits. You can apply this strategy to any athletes you don’t like.  Focus on the bits that you do like about them and don’t be distracted too much by the bits you don’t like about them.  It’s an effective strategy that works and can also be applied to mothers-in-law.  (Ok, enough about that and my lame jokes, next time, I’ll come up with a better analogy but hopefully I didn’t lose any readers!)

Coach Wooden went onto say in the interview I mentioned earlier:

“And I never treated them all the same. I didn’t want to show favoritism, but I think the surest way to show partiality and favoritism to treat everybody alike.  I think that’s the surest way. I say I’m going to try to give you the treatment you earned and deserve. And I have to make the judgment on that and I know that I’m imperfect and I can be wrong, but if I am I’m the one that’s going to get caught up for it because this is my vocation and if I don’t do things properly it’ll be found out and then I’ll be somewhere else. So in many ways it’s little things like that which help you do well in the end more than the techniques of the game.”

The above is an example of another of the key remarks made about Coach Wooden about how he would tailor how he coached to the individual athlete.  I believe nothing is more important than that.  Not only does that support the individual development of each athlete, the mere act of putting in the effort to coach to the individual has many flow on positive effects such as the athletes noticing your ‘care factor’ and committing more to your program, improved loyalty and higher discretionary effort by the athlete.  Sometimes it is the ‘by-products’ of your actions and coaching approach that have the biggest impact.

Probably my favorite part of the interview was when Coach Wooden was asked about how he physically and mentally prepared for a game. Coach Wooden said:

“We may not be able to be better than others because maybe the other fellow is trying to do the same thing. But we do have control over our own conditioning. We must make the effort and it’s a combined effort. I have a responsibility to devise drills and I study and analyze each one of you and have drills individual and some drills will be good for all and some drills will be good just for certain individuals. I must know how to apply these drills in practice. I must not continue them too long. I must know as the season progresses how they’re going to change and I know I must devise new ones to prevent monotony and all of those things that I must do, but young men you have a responsibility too. Your responsibility begins everyday when practice ends until you return because you can tear down more between practices than we can possibly build up during practices. And I know that many of you are probably thinking I’m speaking of immoral conduct and certainly that isn’t conducive to the best physical condition, but we must just practice moderation in all things. And if you practice moderation in your eating and rest habits and others things then with my living up to my responsibilities we’ll come close to realizing the physical condition that we’re capable of. We can’t do it perfectly because no one can be perfect, but let’s toward that end.”

Coach Wooden describes the time and effort he went to, to devise the best practice for each athlete.  Before you can tailor your coaching to individual athletes, you need to understand them.  And that doesn’t necessarily prove to be an easy task without help.  In the survey of sports coaches at the Evolution of the Athlete Conference (October 2008), the top three challenges for coaches were identified:

1.  50% rated “Understanding individual athlete’s personality and how to best motivate them”
2.  46% rated “Personal life balance – managing sport, career, home and social etc”
3.  31% rated “Team/squad dynamics and managing relationships within the team/squad”

So, do you have to like your athletes?  Well no, but you do have to care about them and do the best for them.  It is easier if you do and you can increase their likability by focusing on the aspects of them you do find more endearing.  What is of most importance if you want the best results, is to have a quality relationship with them and this includes understanding them as individuals and tailoring your coaching to meet their needs.

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