The Importance of Knowing Your Players

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Experts coaches know how to balance winning games with a positive environment that enables athletes to grow.

No matter what level of athletics, whether it be a peewee league to the professional ranks, there is one core skill that every coach must have to lead their team to success. This skill is the coach’s ability to know their players and an athletic director to know his or her coaching staff.

X’s and O’s knowledge is, of course, necessary, but if the coach doesn’t really know the players, then this assembled group of players is just that- a number of players, plugged into positions, all expected to perform and act in a fashion dictated by the acts of the coaching staff. But coaches need to recognize that no two players are really the same. Recognition of several variables, and the effective implementation of the methodology in addressing these differences, is crucial to the success or failure of this vital element of coaching.

Coaches need to learn how to listen, and to observe the situations around them. Coaches that are successful are able to learn as much as they lead. Learning what motivates their athletes enables coaches to provide players with the tools that they will need to bring out the best in themselves. To ensure the welfare of athletes, coaches need to create a sound program. And the foundation of any sound program begins with getting to know the players.

Coaching is Not a Static Position

Coaching a team is really a job that is ever-developing, changing on a constant basis. Game plans and strategies can change dramatically from game to game, even changing considerably within one game itself. The coach that has a good understanding of their players will be better able to make adjustments with player personnel as needed, maximizing their chances for success.

Coaches need to look beyond the “big picture”, and to try to get to know each player on an individual basis. This can be quite a challenge for a coach with a larger squad of players (football is a good example), but with the dedication of time spent with players on an individual basis, the dividends do pay off.

Some Traits may be Obvious

Some individual traits that players exhibit will be clearly evident from the very start. Physical strengths and weaknesses can be pretty well defined early. This may be the easiest part of a coach’s job. From there, the coaching job really begins to take on a whole new dynamic.

Some Traits Are Harder to Discover

Coaches, by way of talking, listening, asking questions, and by observation, can learn many traits of the individual player, traits that may well define the players’ role on the team. The quicker the coach can effectively make certain determinations in these areas may help them to build a framework for the roster earlier, a goal each coach strives to achieve.

How Can You Motivate?

One important factor to look for in a player is the player’s motivation. Do they have the desire to win at all costs? Are they out to become All-Conference, All-State, or All-American? Or are they there due to parental or peer pressure, or perhaps joining the team to fit into a certain social circle? Knowing what drives this athlete can help the coach know what motivational techniques to use to drive this athlete to perform at their optimal level. Athletes will respond to motivation from coaches in different ways.

Outside of the standard “let’s go out and play our best to win this game” boilerplate mantra, athletes have individual factors that motivate them to do their best. Coaches need to determine what this motivation is for that particular player and use it to keep this player-inspired.

Practice Role Playing

Does the player know what their role on the team is? The outstanding players will know that the team may very well rely heavily on them. Game plans may be developed to take advantage of those players’ specific skills or specialties. Beyond these skilled players, the stars and the starting units, players vital to the ultimate success or failure of the team on game days are those ‘secondary’ players. Players are not necessary in the limelight. Players that may not play at all in any real game situation all year.

The players that know their roles on the team, whether it be the star player or the scout teamer, who go out and perform their role to the best of their ability, constitute the backbone of the entire squad, the cohesiveness that makes a bunch of individual athletes a team.

Confidence is Key

Is the player confident in himself or herself? Coaches need to know player personalities as much as anything else about the game. The coach needs to know how far he can ‘push’ that athlete (read: motivate) before their confidence becomes affected. And once that happens, it may be difficult, if not impossible, for that athlete’s confidence to be restored. This is one area where a very fine line can be drawn, a line which coaches don’t want to approach too often with any athlete. For when the confidence goes in a player, so does their performance. No one can succeed at any given task without the confidence that they can indeed succeed at what they’re doing.

Can your Players Handle Pressure?

Many players can excel when there is little or no pressure in a given situation, but have great difficulty in performing when “the heat is on”. It’s easy for a quarterback to throw for 300 yards in the 4th quarter when his team is down by 35 points and second and third-stringers are facing him in a prevent defense. But what happens in a game where the QB needs to lead the team 80 yards in less than 2 minutes to try to tie the game?

Knowing players’ specific ways that they handle pressure can be an important determinant in how games can be played out. In the previous scenario, if the QB has thrown his last 4 passes in the red zone for interceptions, that could certainly play into what the coach may elect to do down by the goal line. Pressure on any given player may be difficult to quantify, but when done so, it can be a considerable variable to consider in many game situations.

Coaching goes well beyond guiding a collective group of athletes into action on any given game day. Coaches are teachers, mentors, counselors, disciplinarians, and friends, all in one collective package. All throughout history, brilliant minds have tried and ultimately failed, at bringing knowledge of their game to the sideline. Knowing the game, but not all of what goes INTO the game. Coaches that enjoy success are ones who are able to meld all these jobs into one collective focus. And this focus must all begin with getting to know the players better. Once that is done, success should invariably follow.

Above and beyond everything else, this is a team game we’re talking about, with the emphasis here being ‘game’. It’s supposed to be fun for everyone involved. It should all be about going out and competing as a team and win or lose, just having fun. When that happens, everyone truly does win.

About Ohio University’s Online Master of Athletic Administration Program

Ohio University, a leader in athletic education, established the first specialized academic sports program in the United States in 1966.

The online Master of Athletic Administration program is designed for professionals looking to advance their careers in athletic administration. Graduates are eligible for the National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association (NIAAA) certification. On average, students can complete the program in two years and develop the skills to run a successful interscholastic athletic department that meets the needs of student-athletes.


Amateur Athletic Union, National Policy (PDF)

Additional Reading

The British Psychologist, “The The coach-athlete partnership”
Ohio University Blog, “The Benefit of Mentorship for Female Coaches”
Ohio University Blog, “6 Tips for Coaches when Communicating with Athlete’s Parents”