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Developing The Coach-Athlete Relationship

Updated: Oct 22, 2021

Written By: Jonty Skinner

If we look at the people who might play a direct hand in the development of young people, you might consider family, friends, teachers, and coaches as the main actors. Outside of that you have institutional environments, cultural norms, public personalities, and the various forms of media as indirect players who shape our thinking and direction. Although the indirect actors can have a significant influence, it’s the direct actors who are or should be the most instrumental in helping our young shape who they are, what they stand for, and through that process the ability to develop the tools that will help them be successful in everything they do. In my mind the key players on the direct side are the teachers and coaches. I don’t mean to minimalize family or friends when I say that, but athletes seem more amenable to what teachers and coaches say and regardless of whether mom or dad had the exact opinion, the athlete will respond to the coach/teacher persona more readily than they will their parents. This doesn’t make the teacher/coach the exclusive deliverer of life advice since it should be considered a shared responsibility, but the coach/teacher has to accept the role they play and be respectful in an inclusive way when developing the young student/athlete. With social media creating an exponential expansion in the arena of indirect influence, I think it’s more important than ever that coaches recognize the role they play in societal structure. I think that every person who chooses to fill the role of being a coach should recognize that developing athletes should always take a backseat to developing people. In my mind if you develop the person, you increase their ability to perform on game day and understanding how to develop that strong, respectful relationship between an athlete and a coach is a multi-faceted process that starts when they are young and continues well after their retirement from their sport.

How does a coach cultivate that respectful relationship with an athlete and are their steps involved that develop the fabric of their mutual respect and trust? It all starts with the path any coach chooses to follow with regards to how they coach athletes. In looking at the coaching spectrum, coaches have a choice of employing training/playing environments that produce a fear-based or a collaboration-based reaction to their delivery style. If your athletes are worried about being yelled at, getting playing time, being called out in front of their peers or being asked to do disciplinary activities because they fail or mess something up during training or competition, then your style is fear based in nature. This style might have limited success at the elite end of athlete spectrum but has absolutely no place at all at the development end. Control based programs where athletes worry about what the coach thinks of their technical or tactical skills can still produce enough apprehension to where the training environment will cease to be fun based. I fully understand that pushing athletes to the limit is what gets the best out of them, but I disagree that it has to be enacted at the expense of those athletes who don’t meet training standards or expectations. In my mind there is no place for a fear-based option in today’s world and I would urge coaches to follow more of an inclusive control based or full collaboration-based environment that helps athletes feel comfortable with developing ownership over their genetically endowed dispositions. Assuming the coach accepts the more inclusive option, the following are my steps to developing the trust and respect of all your athletes. I’ll start by sharing a table that illustrates how the relationship can be developed based on the age of the athlete and then provide more detail as to how the relationship can be cultivated.

Understand the person inside the athlete. All initial conversations should have nothing to do with their sport and works best if you take the time to listen to them without injecting opinion. Get to know their likes and dislikes, their current career goals, what music they listen to, what shows or movies they love to watch. Ask them to relate their “why” as a person and how they see themselves within the world around them. The pace of these discussions will differ since some will be careful before they trust you, but as you find common ground with them they will begin share more and more of their harbored thoughts. When appropriate share an anecdote from your life that relates to what you’ve heard. It doesn’t need to impressive or soul baring; it just needs to help them feel like your journey at their age was similar. That common ground is important because it illuminates a shared path that might calm the fear of sharing inner thoughts with a “stranger”. In that initial getting to know the person inside the athlete period, small mistakes can undermine earned ground, so ALWAYS take notes, try to put yourself in their shoes during quiet thinking time about them, and remember it’s better to prompt and listen versus interject and say the wrong thing before you know that they trust you.

In my first meeting with an athlete, I asked them what they did when they really wanted to unplug and get away. The answer was to visit their local national park and walk the Gettysburg battlefield. I asked why and what it meant, and his reply was one I thought well beyond his years and belied his grades in school. I asked him how such an insightful person could have average grades and with a small smile growing on his lips he said that he’d never found anything interesting to study. That small smile told me that he knew that I’d seen something in him, and he liked the fact that I’d paid enough attention to notice that. That led to what might interest him and as we evolved the friendship, I really grew to admire his peace of mind at such a young age. The result of this first meeting was a much stronger more respectful coach/athlete connection and subsequent meetings with the athlete explored poetry and books that had no connection at all with sport. This human side might take several conversations to establish a strong report, but the key is allowing it to happen by listening more than talking and always keeping notes that can be reviewed prior to later discussions. As you get to know your athletes you will need these notes less and less to refresh memories and thoughts until you know the athlete as a son or daughter. Allow them to take ownership over their career path.

To feel comfortable taking ownership over their sport, they need to understand the underlying physiology and mechanics of the sport. Ownership requires making decisions, and since it’s hard to make decisions about something you don’t understand, you need to teach them the foundations of technical side of performance. Since athletes are blessed with different shapes, limb lengths and sizes, they will eventually need to find their organic technique, and they can only do that if you teach them the foundations associated with any skill they might want to master. It takes a few seasons to seep in, but once they understand the cornerstone fundamentals, they can then explore all avenues available to them. By teaching them about the sport and to some degree the physiology behind the sport, they can take ownership of what they do and in time become a positive influence in helping design how they prepare for competition. By giving them ownership and a full share in the outcome, they become invested in what they do and by learning how to make decisions they begin the process of using sport as a steppingstone into their lives as adults. Many years ago one of my swimmers did an internship for Swimming World and she decided to write an article on Freestyle. She framed the article as how she learned to swim the stroke from scratch as a freshman in college and illustrated all the steps she took and how each step impacted her adaptation. My only involvement was a sit-down interview with her and she did the rest on her own. The piece was so professionally written that coaches came up to me and complemented me on “my” article on freestyle. Hearing that led me to smile inside because I was immensely proud of her, and when I told her about those interactions, she reacted with a huge smile on her face and used that experience as a major self-belief booster going forward. It was a huge reward moment for her. Teach them how to think and encourage them to explore. Some sports require a combination of technical and tactical components that are played in a quantum environment, and some are simple linear expressions that are primarily technical with a light tactical flavor. Regardless, when the training environment is boring, athletes will switch off and their sportbrain will wander off into playing music or dealing with current social issues. Even when training environments are focused on team based or sprint-based events, if the training is repetitious or lacks stimulation, the athlete will still prefer to switch off and go somewhere else. Always keep the training stimulating and use that stimulation to ask your athletes what they think. If you ask one athlete what they think within a group structure, they will all begin thinking so that they are prepared when you ask “them.” This kind of interaction enhances the coach-athlete relationship, and the more you ask questions and get their answers, the more you leave open ended questions on their mind, the more they will remain engaged in what they are doing. Teach them how to use intrinsic reward to enhance their self-belief.

If you ask a room full of young athletes or adults who their worst enemy is, you will get the same answer. They will all agree that it is themselves. Why is that, and why aren’t we all working extremely hard to combat that fact? As coaches it is our duty to help young people combat that enemy daily, and if you don’t make that one of your highest priorities as a coach, then you’re in the wrong business. Self-belief flourishes when you recognize or reward yourself after having achieved something worthy or having done something worthy. It’s a good thing when you master a new skill or help an older person at a grocery store, but something else completely when you actually take the time to say WELL DONE to yourself. That last step where you use intrinsic thoughts to pat yourself on the back has to be done with an intense level of pride, and you have to feel that sense of awe or warmth in your “gutbrain” when it happens. Athletes don’t do this readily on their own, and not only do coaches have to teach them the process of how to do that, they have to create training sessions where they can help the athlete learn how to use “wins” as a development tool. I coached competitive soccer for many years, and rather than stopping play during practice, I’d simply call out the athlete’s name and pat myself on my back. They’d know what they’d been recognized for and as they learnt the art of rewarding themselves for their wins, I began to see those wonderful smiles as they enjoyed that glow inside their gut after getting recognized for the way they executed a move or a skill.

Make them teachers.

It’s one thing to execute a skill and something completely different when you teach it. Teachers see far more through the process of teaching than they ever will by simply doing something. Once I’ve taught my athletes the foundations of every skill, I TRUST them to be able to articulate it to their teammates. I’ve been in this business for over forty years, but I still believe that athletes do a better job of relating things to each other than you do with them. Often sharing how they solved the initial challenge is far more illuminating to a teammate than any descriptive vocabulary I might use. Many years ago, I had a swimmer who was naturally gifted off the starting blocks. During a session on starts I asked him to explain to the group how he executed his start, and all I got was a scrunched brow and a blank face. His eventual answer was… “I don’t know how to explain it, I just do it.” After a period of learning, he began to fully understand the dynamic and in time became a great teacher. Early in the season during the first start session, I’d simply send the weakest athlete to him and he’d teach them one on one. A few years ago, I was teaching the tumble pop skill off the wall to a new group, and a few lessons into their learning process a new athlete was added to the equation. Rather than taking the time to start from scratch I trusted an athlete in the group to take the new athlete into a different space and teach her the basics. They went off on their own and I never paid them any attention until they came back to the group 20 minutes later. I stopped what we were doing and asked the new swimmer to show us what she’d learned. As she approached the wall her teacher, with the look of an expectant mother watching her child, craned her neck above the surface to see if she did it well. She was spot on and not only did I reward the skill execution, but I rewarded the teacher as well. Teaching helps athletes understand more about the subtleties associated with the sport specific skills, helps them take a stronger interest in the sport in general, and helps them become more invested in their team and the outcome of the team. When you allow your athletes to become teachers you tell them that you trust them, and that trust is another major building block in the relationship between an athlete and a coach.

Connect sport to real life.

Sport is this amazing opportunity where we can immerse ourselves into a non-threatening environment and learn how to cope with real life situations. That only happens if the teacher is willing to help connect the dots for the athlete so that lessons learned in training or in competition are absorbed as real-life learning experiences. I’ve always said to my athletes that if they’re not failing on a regular basis, they’re not working hard enough. Failure is the best teacher in the world, and in my mind the more lessons you learn the more robust that “sportbrain” of yours will become. There are no end of opportunities in the coaching world where athletes can be told… “look at how well you managed that, and one day you will be able to wow a boardroom using that same technique.” Wins and failures are part of the fabric of their physical and emotional development and it is your job as their coach to relate how those teaching moments will help them get better as an athlete and in time give them the confidence to live a strong and meaningful life.

Encourage them to become innovators. The athletes mind or “bodybrain” knows more about themselves than any coach can ever know, and as you get to know them, allow yourself to trust their sense of where they are. Trusting their instincts is an important step in your relationship with them and as their “sportbrain” expands its capacity, encourage them to think outside the box and develop new ideas, concepts or drills. In my training environment, if an athlete comes up with a drill that is adopted by the group, the drill gets named after them. All it takes is naming one drill after an athlete, and you immediately have every athlete in your group thinking about something new. When I was exploring the concept of Hydro Freestyle, one of my athletes played a huge role in how that stroke was developed. He was at meet on his own and started playing around with a Finis alignment kickboard and had a huge “aha moment.” The net result of his playing around with a new tool at that meet resulted in the main drill I use to teach “hydro” freestyle. If you teach your athletes the foundations of the sport, give them the license to teach the sport, they will in time teach you more about the sport than anyone else in the sport. The is no question that I have learned more from my athletes than any other source, and by encouraging and trusting them as innovators, you increase the wealth of institutional knowledge and you add another layer to your relationship with athlete as their mentor and coach.

Encourage them to become collaborators.

When athletes become fully vested in the teaching side of the sport, they become knowledgeable enough to make recommendations with regards to their adaptation side. Even before they become teachers, I give them full responsibility with regards to how they prepare for competition, so collaborating on the adaptation/development side is simply an extension of that process. It should be noted that this is the peak of the athlete/coach relationship and occurs at the elite level, but everything prior to this is part of that steppingstone process. It just doesn’t happen automatically when the athlete becomes a professional, it happens because you’ve both put in years of talking, teaching, and sharing everything you know and feel about the sport you love and respect.

How this is developed at the Age group level.

Everything about this level should be immersed in “fun and adventure.” Their development process should follow this fairly simple sequence. Teach them how to feel comfortable when immersing themselves in the water; teach them how to float and balance in the water; teach them how to kick and manage their shape in the water; teach them how to develop a body-based harmonic in the water, and finally introduce the full swimming strokes to them. This period should be a lot less about competition and a lot more about learning while playing a sport. As they follow that basic development structure, get to know basic things about them. Simple likes and dislikes, pets, colors etc. Stuff that helps them feel that you know them. Athletes at this age should be taught the basics of the reward system; they should be encouraged to explore and think for themselves and they should be recognized when showing ANY level of improvement. Things like using them as a demonstrator or allowing them to pick a skill or a game to play is a huge steppingstone to helping them feel value in what they are doing, and more than that, that you care about them as a person. Young people can be very trusting when taught by adults, so respect that trust and as their coach find value in the shared excitement you get when teaching athletes something new. Their “sportbrains” are literally unmapped, so its your job is to help them find value in what they are doing and learn to love and respect the sport as they lay down the foundation of their career. How this is continued at the teenage level.

At this level athletes begin to see the world around them. They start out thinking they are going to take the world by storm and as they open their eyes, reality sets in. Helping them find value in who they are and what they are doing is vital with regards to staying involved in a sport. Because they now have a much clearer picture of where they fit, it’s your job to help them find a sense of meaning regardless of where they fall inside the performance spectrum. As a species, we are extremely competitive by nature, so as their coach you not only have to create a strong bond with every swimmer in the group, you have to help them love who they are, and what they are doing. Sport shouldn’t be as much about winning as it should be about improving and getting better and through that process understanding how a team based environment helps everyone understand the differences between each other. They should be cultivated to recognize and respect the fruits of their labors and during this period your relationship with the athlete will help them understand how what they learn while training for competition will help them become very productive as a human being. Your person inside the athlete discussions should have more depth to them, and at this stage they should be able to formulate a “who” as a person, and a “why” as an athlete. They should be taught how and why the reward system works; be taught about the technical side of the sport; begin to be used as teachers within the team to help them find value and be given a much higher level of responsibility as to their performance and outcome. Athletes regardless of their level in the spectrum, will stay in a sport if they fall in love with the value they get from their sport. As their coach, your relationship with them, will be a key element with regards to whether they continue or quit entirely. Regardless of their ability level, they should be taught that their performances in competition will never define them as human beings and that sport should always be a fun activity where they can put their commitment and training on the line.

Many years ago, I had a freshman athlete who struggled at the championship meet. Her adaptation journey was a rocky one and it took me months to gain her trust. Because I expect my athletes to take ownership and learn through an experiential format, she struggled with her confidence at the beginning of the meet and it took her till the last day to smile after a race. As a personal development exercise, the following week I asked her to research words associated with being confident. Every day she’d give me the word she was going to research, and then at the end of the day she’d share what she’d learnt. The words she chose were words like Trust, Courage, Belief etc. The one she researched that impacted me the most, was Belief. In sharing her thoughts with me she said that belief could mean many things, but the thing that really struck her, was the simple statement that “there is no thinking in belief.” It was a simple profound observation that struck as being very insightful, and right then and there, I asked her if I could use her words going forward. I have used the statement “there is no thinking in belief” many times since that day, and believe that it’s interactions like that, that are the true fabric of helping young people become dynamic athletes. She’d been out in the work force for a few years when I had lunch with her last year, and we talked for about 4 hours. It was a wonderful nostalgic moment with a former athlete, and although she ended her career as an Academic All American, my true pride as a coach lay in the fact that she’d started college as a hot mess and ended up being this wonderful human being. Too me, that is what being a coach is all about. We start out as young coaches thinking that performances are the most important thing because we can bask in their shine of the athlete’s glory, but the reality is that stories like this are the backbone of the coach/athlete relationship and helping a young person develop the strength and confidence to face anything in their path is our true purpose in life.

Jonty Skinner has been involved in the sport of swimming for over forty-five years. He is a member of the International Swimming Hall of Fame, and a member of the American Swimming Coaches Hall of Fame. He capped an illustrious swimming career in August 1976 when he broke the World 100 meters freestyle record in Philadelphia by over half a second and held it for five years. In his swimming career he is credited with holding both the 50- and 100-meter world records in swimming. At twenty-four, he entered coaching and has coached at all levels of the sport. In 1978 he started at the grass-roots level in Tuscaloosa, Alabama before winning junior and senior national club titles with San Jose Aquatics club in California in the 1980s. He worked as the head swimming coach at the University of Alabama in the early 1990s before coaching the Resident Swimming Team at the Olympic Training Center (OTC) in Colorado Springs from 1994 to 2000. During his coaching career, many of his swimmers won national and international titles, while his teams won Junior National titles and National Team Titles. At the 1996 Olympic Games, his swimmers won 9 Gold Medals and his best swimmer won four Gold Medals. In his career, his athletes won seventeen Gold Medals, and twenty-three overall medals in Olympic competition. In 2000, he stepped back from poolside, taking on the role of Director of Sports Performance and Technology at USA Swimming. That job involved overseeing all the testing, tracking and delivery of scientific concepts to the USA National Swimming Team. In 2008 he established a company called Athletic Intelligence Consulting to deliver information about how the brain impacted human performance. Between 2009 and 2012 he worked for British Swimming as a World Class High Performance consultant before he went back to the pool deck as the Associate Head Coach at the University of Alabama in 2012. Between 2012 and 2019 he worked primarily with the sprinters and his swimmers won numerous SEC titles & 4 NCAA titles. In 2019 he did a short stint in that same capacity at Indiana University before the Covid restrictions resulted in his ending his relationship with Indiana in early 2020. His swimmers won 4 Big Ten Titles and were actively involved in the team’s 4 relay Titles. In the fall of 2020, he coached the California Condors to a 6-0 record in the International Swim League season that culminated in winning the 2020 ISL team title for the first time. Throughout his career as a coach, he has been a leader in the use of performance science in day-to-day training. He has been instrumental in defining how science is delivered to the coaching population and helped develop the current USA Swimming approach to and use of scientific information. He has been extremely innovative in developing both tools and concepts used by coaches in the sport and is considered one of the leading experts on athlete adaptation. He is also the leading expert in how the physical brain impacts performance and has written articles illustrating how Brain Training is the next paradigm in human performance. He is currently developing the concept of Brain Training for Sport. In his semi-retired capacity he also volunteers his time as a coach for the Youth Golf Academy and the Tuscaloosa United Soccer Club U11 girls Academy.


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