Championship Coaching Starts with Relationship Building

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A great way to learn about quality coaching is to listen to coaches and athletes talk about the coaching styles they believe are most helpful for achieving success. Coverage of recent sporting events such as the women’s World Cup, and the NBA and NHL finals, provided many opportunities to hear some of the world’s most successful athletes and coaches share their insights on this topic.

Whether coaching females or males, and regardless of differences in coaching styles, these championship coaches all share one thing in common: they make building relationships with their athletes a top priority.

U.S. women’s national soccer team coach Jill Ellis, who led the American team to their first World Cup championship in 16 years, has been lauded by current and former players alike for her open and honest communication style. Moreover, she places great emphasis on learning how to connect with players in ways that are uniquely meaningful and relevant to each one of them.

Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel Quennville has gained the trust of his players, and led them to three ice hockey championships in the past six years, by keeping an open-door policy and showing a genuine interest in listening to his players.

Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr, in just his first year of coaching the team, built a culture of trust and engagement by making relationship building a regular part of his daily routine en route to the team’s first basketball championship in 40 years.

A quote from coach Kerr perhaps best summarizes the emphasis these championship coaches place on relationship building with their athletes: To me, the X's and O's ... they're an important part of coaching but a relatively small part. Eighty percent of it is just relationships and atmosphere.

Successful coaches have long known that the time and energy invested in building quality relationships with their players pays huge dividends. For example, one of the winningest college football coaches of all time Eddie Robinson proclaimed that showing genuine care for each of his players was the cornerstone of his coaching approach. More recently, Cameron McCormick – longtime coach of the world’s hottest golfer Jordan Spieth – revealed that building quality relationships with athletes was at the top of his the list for becoming a successful coach, based on his study of the world’s best golf coaches.

The surest way to show players that you care about them is to ask them about their lives and then give them your undivided attention. Never forget that you are coaching people first, and the sport second. Keep a file for each athlete to record notes about things and people that are meaningful to them. Regularly check in with each athlete and update their ‘life’ file.

Some high coaches like to give their athletes a survey to complete at the start of the season, with questions about their dreams, passions, favorite subjects in school, and family. Other coaches find that setting aside a few minutes before practices for ‘social time’ allows them to speak with athletes about their lives while athletes are starting to warm-up.

However, for relationship building to work, coaches must also be willing to share information about people and things that are meaningful to them. If you want your athletes to share with you, you must share with them. Ultimately, building relationships with athletes is an act of courage – both for the coach and for the athlete. Each must show the courage to be vulnerable.

Coaches show courage, and build relationships, when they create emotionally safe environments. Giving frequent encouragement and helping athletes pull the lessons from performance failures creates an environment where athletes feel safe to risk failure.

Ask any championship coach to reflect on what they cherish most from their career and they’ll tell you it was the relationships they built with their athletes along the way. Take a page from the playbooks of the world’s most successful coaches, and set aside time in your daily routine to make a personal connection with each of your athletes. This simple strategy not only leads to better performance, but makes for a more enjoyable and enriching sport experience.


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Longman, J. (2015, July 4). Women’s World Cup final: Jill Ellis, a serene and innovative tactician, leads the U.S. The New York Times. Retrieved from

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