As a young boy, John Wooden’s father gave him a card with a Seven Point Creed written on it. Coach Wooden would go on to use the wisdom in each point as part of his personal and professional belief system. The fifth point on this creed was “Make friendship a fine art”. As a coach, Wooden didn’t always foster immediate friendships with his players, but his genuine ambition to teach skills that served his players well after their time on the hardwood certainly laid the foundation for lifelong relationships – many of which were recounted in eulogies after his passing. The notion that coaches can/should nurture personal connections with athletes is central to my own Coaching Constitution;
- Develop Relationships
- Have Fun while Minding the Details
- Learn Something New Everyday
I believe a personal relationship is more valuable than a physical adaptation. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy all the tactical components of designing, implementing, and adjusting training programs. But I’m most energized from coaching when I’m able to learn about an athlete’s life outside of the gym. Great coaches do this without even thinking about. Taking an authentic interest in others is just part of their DNA.
Because it’s first on my Coaching Constitution, building relationships with athletes is always at the top of my mind. Nevertheless, it also seems valuable to have some form of objective measure for these personal connections. Here are three examples of Relationship Barometers.
This is a concept I began using shortly after starting to work with young athletes. Prior to that, most of my coaching experience had been with collegiate athletes. Transitioning from college strength and conditioning to the business of youth athlete development took some getting used to. Quite frankly, it didn’t start too well for me. But then my boss at the time made a very specific comment to the coaching staff that changed everything. He said, “Remember guys, we aren’t here to be their friends, we’re here to coach them”. I think the point he was trying to get across was for us to always be sensitive to difference between being “friends” and being “friendly”. But at face value, he was wrong. Without fail, the young athletes and their parents (who footed the bill for training at our facility) that kept coming back to us were also the ones that had the strongest relationships (read also: friendships) with the coaches. That coach – athlete connection proved to be the strongest predictor of repeat business. And like I mentioned, it is also the biggest personal reward for me. What does all this have to do with birthday parties? Well, my goal was to develop such strong relationships with young athletes and their families, that I would get invited to their birthday parties. It might seem a little silly, but you show me a coach that consistently gets invites to birthday parties of his/her young athletes, and I’ll show you a great coach.
I stole this one from Martin Rooney. During his presentation at this year’s Perform Better Summit, Coach Rooney put up a picture of himself in high school at a track meet with a medal that he’d just won for javelin. He’s standing next to a man with his arm around his shoulders and Coach Rooney starts talking about that meet being a huge meet for him, and that day being one of the best of his life at that point. And, he didn’t want a picture with his Dad that day, or his Mom, or his teammates – he wanted a picture with his coach. And this was back in the day when a picture meant a little more, because you only had 24 on the roll and you had to take your film to a store to be developed. Coach Rooney then asked everyone in the audience how many of their athletes or clients ever want to take a picture with them. He said that he knows a coach is building relationships when he sees an athlete asking their mom to take a picture together with them.
Over the summer, a friend sent me an ESPN article about Paul Longo, the new strength and conditioning coach at Notre Dame. The article’s main focus is the increased importance and compensation of Division 1 head strength and conditioning coaches, particularly at prominent football schools (read the entire article here). But the author also slipped in a subtle reference to Coach Longo’s thoughts on building relationships;
‘That’s why I’ve been in it this long,’ Longo said. ‘The relationships are what keeps you going. Sometimes you’re the heavy, sometimes you’re the go-between. But it’s a great thing to be a mentor.’
This point is hammered home when you find out that Coach Longo was the best man in the wedding of one of his players. Clearly the two of them had a special relationship, and while it might be difficult to replicate that on a big scale, this is just another indicator of how great coaches can make a significant impact in the lives of their athletes.
Whether it birthdays, pictures, or weddings, you’ll know that you’re creating connections when your athletes want you to be involved in their special moments. If you can think of other ways to put coach – athlete relationships skills to the test, add them in the comments below.
– Coach Hall