The Role of Relationships in Sports Coaching

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The sports market in North America is estimated to reach $73.5 billion by 2019. With advertising, endorsements, media coverage, and salaries in the millions, athletes are under a glaring spotlight. The stakes are high, and the pressure can feel overwhelming. That’s why an athlete’s relationships are critical. The guidance of a coach, the unity of a team, and the support of family contribute to an athlete’s success in the game.

To learn more, check out the infographic below created by the Ohio University’s Online Master of Coaching Education program.

How coaches and families support student-athletes through positive relationship-building strategies.

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The Athlete-Coach Relationship

The dynamics of an athlete-coach relationship influence not only the individual athlete’s performance but also the success of the coach and team. The coach must be aware of how the athlete perceives the coach’s overt behaviors and how this affects the athlete’s attitude toward the coach, and they must also be able to influence the athlete’s behavior in a way that satisfies both individual and team needs. While every coach strives to win games and championships, it’s important that they also strive to maintain good relationships with team players.

This is not necessarily easy to do. According to a study on NCAA Division I coaches published by The Sport Journal, coaches are heavily pressured to win, which translates to the coaches having higher expectations of their athletes. The survey revealed that these coaches are less likely to explain their action to their team players and are more likely to be dictatorial.

However, it’s crucial to develop solid coach-athlete relationships. Doing so not only helps athletes achieve performance excellence, it also helps coaches achieve professional excellence.

Male Coach vs. Female Coach

There tends to be a vast divide regarding how male coaches are perceived compared to their female counterparts. Male coaches are perceived to be more likely to be focused solely on achieving performance goals. Female coaches, on the other hand, are perceived to be more forgiving and supportive. They’re also thought to be more interested in settling conflicts among team members. Additionally, female coaches are perceived to be more encouraging of both formal and informal relationships with athletes. Finally, female coaches are thought to be more confiding, emotionally expressive, and intimate when coaching female athletes.

The coaching style between males and females are also perceived to be different. Male coaches often prefer an autocratic leadership style. Conversely, female coaches often prefer a democratic leadership style.

As far as athletes go, female athletes often prefer a qualified coach regardless of gender. Male athletes tend to prefer a male coach regardless of a female coach’s qualifications.

The Athlete-Team Relationship

According to an article published by Psychology Today, team culture “is the expression of a team’s values, attitudes, and goals about sports, competition, and relationships.”

Team Culture

Attitudes lay the foundation of team culture, which in turn supports values and ultimately, goals. Team culture influences all aspects of team performance and functioning, and whether explicitly or implicitly, it establishes acceptable behavior, communication, and methods of conflict resolution.

Team Cohesion

In addition to team culture, team cohesion is also critical in sports. Team cohesion can be observed by a team player’s attraction to the group’s task, their perception of the team’s unity surrounding tasks and goals, their perception of the team’s closeness to each other, and their social attraction to the group. Studies have shown that a team’s cohesion positively correlates with team success.

Forming Team Culture

Team culture is formed one of two ways. It can either be formed organically through the players or through a coach actively influencing and creating the team culture via a collaborative leadership. The latter involves steps like appointing team leaders, defining team attitudes and goals, soliciting feedback, providing team-building opportunities, and developing team rituals.

Strengthening Team Cohesion

Team cohesion can be strengthened through team-building activities like team goal setting. Interventions to improve team cohesion can also be effective, as they can address teamwork, interaction, communication, group structure, group environment, and both individual and mutual accountability.

The Athlete-Family Relationship

An athlete’s performance is strongly influenced by a host of factors including the relationships they have with family members and previous sports participation.

There are two dimensions of family communication that parents should know about: conformity (CF)-oriented communication and conversation (CV)-oriented communication. CF-oriented communication emphasizes allegiance to the parent or guardian as part of an attempt to control the child’s learning environment. Family relationships demonstrate more aggressive behavior and less frequent interactions discussing feelings, private thoughts, and activities. CV-oriented communication focuses on supporting children’s independent development through their preferred behavior.

CF-oriented communication typically has greater influence on a student-athlete’s levels of self-efficacy – that is, a child’s confidence in their ability – than CV-oriented communication. This is crucial for parents to know, because an emphasis on CF-oriented communication tends to lead to poor student-athlete self-efficacy.

However, there are ways for parents to promote CV-oriented communication. These include pursuing other orientation in communication by speaking more about others, empathizing with the student-athlete and expressing positive communications, and asking the student to share highlights of their performance.

Athletes, coaches, and family members are all part of a complex dynamic relationship that affects athletes on and off the sports field. Understanding the ways relationships impact an athlete’s performance is critical to success in sports and other areas of life.

Learn more about Ohio University’s Online Master of Coaching Education.