The Coach-Athlete Relationship is a Performance Factor

The research backed non-negotiable when it comes to getting the best and sustained performance out of your athletes.
Bo Hanson
4x Olympian, Director, and Lead Consultant

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The impact of being in a team can have an enormous effect on an athlete, far beyond their actual time in the team. Their experience in the wider program as well as within their team can have a profound influence on them and shape their future. Through their sporting experiences, athletes will develop skills such as teamwork, communication, conflict management, resiliency, and leadership, all of which are fundamental performance skills built on understanding people. As a coach, it’s important to recognize this and value the impact that relationships within the team, and specifically your coach-athlete relationship, can have. There are numerous athletes who haven’t had a positive experience in their sporting career, and it has such a profound impact on the rest of their life. They can find it difficult to reconcile their negative experience, and it just doesn’t have to be that way, as a coach the role you play in this is critical. 

If I reflect on my own experiences with different coaches throughout my sporting career, I can see my performance mirrored in the relationship I had with my coach at that time. Thinking back to my Olympic coach for my three medaling cycles, he often spoke about how many relationships co-exist within a rowing team, between nine different people and a coach. It is not just the relationship between each athlete and their other crew members that matters, but also the relationship between each athlete and the coach. Every relationship has to be evaluated from each individual’s perspective to truly understand the productivity level existing within the relationship. Understanding whether a relationship is currently enhancing or detracting from your performance or progression takes time and effort, however it has been proven to improve performance consistently. 

One of the most compelling studies of athlete performance was conducted by Penny Werthner on the 2008 Canadian Olympic team. The study found the most significant contributor to a medal winning performance or personal best was a productive coach-athlete relationship. The study consisted of interviews with 27 Olympic and Paralympic athletes and 30 coaches which were then analyzed. The study found there were five distinguishing factors which stood out and were exhibited by the athletes who delivered Olympic personal best or medal winning performances.

Five Key Themes Identified for Success

  1. The coach-athlete relationship: where a mutual trusting and respectful relationship exists between the coach and athletes. Each knows what to expect from the other (predictability), they understand how the other communicates, the environment they work best in, and how to maximize their strengths in the context of their sport.
  2. High level athlete self-awareness: the degree to which an athlete understands how they behave, what their strengths and limitations are, what motivates them, and how to adapt their behavior to produce more effective outcomes.
  3. Quality of the training environment: this includes aspects such as athletes’ equipment, strength and conditioning programs, and overall facilities used.
  4. The management of the competition environment: this relates to how well planned the competition environment was logistically, and how difficult circumstances were managed so they would not limit the athlete’s performance.
  5. Support mechanisms: people in the athlete’s life. Everyone from family and friends to staff surrounding the athletes such as doctors, massage therapists, nutritionists, trainers, and physiotherapists.

The coach-athlete relationship was found to be the most important factor and absolutely non-negotiable.

Clara Hughes, six-time Olympic medalist shared this about her relationship with her coach, Xiuli Wang, in the Canadian Olympic study titled ‘Own the Podium’, “Her ability to articulate technique is incredible, and she has a big heart. I never feel alone. I share my successes with her.”

Other factors outside of the coach-athlete relationship can vary, like having equipment or facilities which meet the threshold level acceptable for competition standards. Beyond this threshold level, no additional monetary investment delivers greater performance returns. Often, teams who have even had what many of their competitors would consider to be below standard facilities and equipment, can have a strengthened resolve to work harder, be tougher, or find an edge in some other way. This is referred to as the advantage of disadvantage and relates to why the struggle can significantly help a sports team or individual athlete.

As a personal example, I recall finishing in fourth place to the German Men’s 8 at the 1993 World Championships. On their way to the event, the German team had all been in their team bus when they had an accident, rolling the bus. While they arrived at the World Championships in bandages, that year they also redefined how the 8 person boat was rowed and were unbeaten in all of their races, which culminated in a World Championship Gold Medal. Their resolve was strengthened through their shared adversity and I am certain, they bonded over the experience.

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What does an effective Coach-Athlete Relationship look like? 

We define the coach-athlete relationship as a mutual trusting and respectful relationship that exists between the coach and their athletes. Each knows what to expect from the other (predictability), they understand how the other communicates, the environment they work best in, and how to maximize their strengths in the context of their sport.

Athletes who form close attachment to their coaches are more likely to feel secure in exploring their role in sport, pushing their boundaries, taking risks to improve performance, and being able to confidently give 100% effort. Like any other relationship, inside or outside of sport, the quality of the relationship is enhanced by the level of understanding, respect, trust, and predictability that exists between two people. 

In sport, we see examples of coach-athlete relationships that aren’t working every day.

For example, in all codes of football, you will often hear about a player being unsuccessful in their current team, so they transfer to another club and most importantly, a new coach. While the player is the same technically and physically, if they develop a quality relationship with their new coach, their performance improves substantially. 

Given that ultimately a coach is a primary caregiver for their athletes, particularly at an elite level, the coach-athlete relationship is more than just a ‘nice to have’, it’s a performance factor. Recognizing that it has a significant and pivotal impact on performance is not a new thing, successful athletes have always known that their coach is an integral part of their team, understanding the way that they engage and connect with them is critical to their overall athletic performance.  

If the coach-athlete relationship breaks down, or doesn’t develop for any reason, the resulting outcome is often underperformance. As was found in the 2008 Olympic Study, there needs to be a productive rapport between the coach and athlete. If mutual respect doesn’t exist, the coach-athlete relationship is compromised and negatively impacted. If there is no connection, there can be no engagement, and the result of this is poor commitment, disharmony, lack of enjoyment, and general distrust. Ultimately, poor performance is the outcome and no amount of money spent on better equipment, facilities, or support staff will overcome a poor coach-athlete relationship.

Researcher in Sport Psychology Matthew Barlow presented on the relationship between superelite athletes (multiple medal winners) and their coaches in 2015 at the World Class Performance Conference in London, sharing “They have a bond that goes beyond spreadsheets, power outputs and graphs… Superelites felt that their coaches fully satisfied their emotional needs by acting as friends, mentors, and unwavering supporters – in addition to providing superb technical support. High-performing athletes who were not medaled did not feel that way.”

He was further quoted as saying, “This turns on its head a long-held view that we must simply pair the best technical and tactical coaches to our best athletes to achieve ultimate performance.”

Developing an Effective Coach-Athlete Relationship

At the end of the day relationships grow out of understanding, shared experiences, trust, and predictability so whatever we can do to fuel those situations will help, right? Investing time within the training environment and outside of it can pay massive dividends, but it might be as simple as recognizing the opportunities when they present themselves, and sometimes you might have to create them; like team dinners, or social ‘get to know the team’ time away from competition and training. 

I know personally, when I understood what I bring to every interaction, people’s response, and their subsequent behavior became a lot clearer. I could own, and eventually change what I was doing to get the response I wanted.  The most efficient and effective way to develop that awareness of yourself is through profiling, and regardless of which Athlete Assessments DISC Profile you choose; the 40-page AthleteDISC, CoachDISC, or Sport ManagerDISC report will detail your natural preferences and the way you, communicate, approach tasks, build relationships, and contribute to the people around you. Having a high level of athlete self-awareness is measured by the degree to which an athlete understands how they behave, what their strengths and limitations are, and what motivates them, which contributes to the building of relationships and is a prerequisite for sporting success. 

Connecting and communicating effectively with a diverse range of people is certainly one of the biggest challenges in coaching, and it is still one that I enjoy every day. As a coach, building a productive relationship with your athletes does not always come naturally, and this is something we have written extensively about. We wrote a piece in response to a lot of conversations we were having with coaches about problematic relationships with athletes in their programs, which you can read more about here.

By detailing and providing an awareness of the things we say and do, Athlete Assessments’ DISC Profile Reports deepen our knowledge of ourselves, while understanding and sharing them with others offers clarity around when and how people are different to us. The act of sharing the information in each individual’s report alone can take relationships to the next level, before we even begin to apply what is in them.

Once we understand the way we and others absorb and relay information, we are in a better position to adapt or momentarily change the way we deliver our messages to ensure the person we need to understand us, is and can.

Adapting does not mean changing who you are or defining your preferred behaviors as wrong. It simply means slightly modifying the way we interact with an athlete to communicate most effectively, and improve their understanding of what we’re saying, with the ultimate goal of wanting them to want to act on it. In this two-minute video clip I go deeper into the explanation of behavioral modification. 

Being comfortable and able to regularly adjust the way you do things is the essence of creating effective relationships, but it starts with understanding what you currently do, what works best for the athlete, and how to sustain the modification. A modification might be as simple as taking a little more time away from the pressure of group sessions with some athletes, or framing the information up so that the athlete understands what benefit the change will deliver to the team as a whole. Knowing the most effective way to create change in an athlete’s behavior is 100% a performance modifying tool, but having the ability to develop this change starts with having an effective relationship with your athlete. 

Where to from here?

We encourage you to look through our extensive library of online resources.

At Athlete Assessments we’re here to provide you with excellence in service and to help you be your best. If there is anything we can do to be of service, don’t hesitate to contact us.

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In this video, Bo explores the importance of the Coach-Athlete Relationship, looking at research that has identified that athletes who are able to form close attachment to their coaches are more likely to feel secure in exploring their role in sport, pushing their boundaries, taking risks to improve performance and being able to confidently give 100% effort.

Coaches are always evaluating performance, it’s a critical part of their role in order to be successful. Whether it be through assessing the scoreboard results of their team, individual athletes’ statistics, or even through the lens of their team’s culture. However, when it comes to evaluating their own performances, who should coaches turn to when they are looking to improve their own efficacy and skills?

Let me ask you the most important of coaching questions, “What style of coach are you?” As coaches we occupy a special, even privileged place in our athletes’ lives. On the surface, we are just a part of their athletic journey, but really, we often spend as much, if not more time with our athletes, than their family and close friends.

In recent years, more attention has focused on the impact of the coach-athlete relationship on an athlete’s performance. Research from the 2008 Canadian Olympic Study showed that coach-athlete relationships significantly impact athlete performance.

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