Many coaches think that coaching is all about the X’s and O’s, but the truth is that it is all about growing great relationships. The secret to great coaching and a successful performance by one’s team isn’t simply tied to technique, or tactics, or fitness.
Most coaches only look at potential and behaviour (genetics, hours and quality of practice, attitude, coaching, fitness, etc.). These are incredibly important components, but they are not the whole equation.
While sports offer transferrable skills to one another like hand-eye coordination and building an awareness of the playing field, the same theory can apply to coaching habits too. Along with fitness and strategy, the third component that is crucial for coaches to communicate and develop with their players is trust.
Chantal Vallée is a five-time national champion head coach of the University of Windsor Lancers women's basketball team, leading her teams through good times and bad through her 11 seasons at the helm. With pressures on the court and on campus, Vallée spends her time acting as a coach and a counsellor to her student-athletes.
“The art of coaching is the intangible,” said Vallée. “It’s building the team, it’s managing people, it’s discovering relationships and building your leadership style as a coach. That entire piece is often what is missing. Some of the top coaches are great tacticians, technicians or physiologists but they’re missing that part.”
The key word is trust. And it goes both ways.
“Building trust is very important and it is the basis of the relationship between the coach and the athlete. There’s two things that I always explain. Most of the time, the feedback I hear from parents or players is ‘You don’t trust my daughter,’ or ‘We came from this program and we didn’t like the coaching because the coach didn’t trust my kid.’ I always say that trust is a two-way street. It must start with the athlete and the parent. They need to buy into the coach, they need to trust the coach. They need to understand that the coach is there to raise their kid and bring them up into a greater understanding of what performance means.”
Vallée emphasizes that trust and playing time are two independent things and understanding the distinction between the two is critical for a coach-athlete relationship. Coaches hold their players to fitness, strategy and talent standards but players can feel it’s a breach of trust if they don’t see the field. That’s where the frustration can come in.
“Standards are standards. As coaches, we are accountable to hold our athletes to higher standards. That has nothing to do with the relationship of the trust and often that’s where things break down because either parents or athletes don’t understand that there’s a difference between being a coach and holding a team to standards and still liking the athletes and still enjoying the relationship with the young women or men that they are as people.”
Taking ownership and being accountable for your actions as a player are most important. It’s about being able to turn negatives and comfortability into pushing yourself to become better. Keeping the communication lines open with the coaching staff builds on the trust between the two parties.
“An athlete needs to go talk to the coaches if they don’t feel good about something. That’s the most important thing. A lot of athletes think that shows weakness… but in fact that’s probably one of the greatest mental strength qualities that a human being can have.”
If an athlete shares what they are thinking, the leaders need to be open and receptive to this and not view it as criticism.
“There is no room for pride when we are a leader and a coach. The end goal is to bring this athlete to become the best it can be. We must be able to receive criticism, to listen to what the athlete is telling us. We must be able to say ‘okay, I’ve got to be better for you and that’s my commitment’ and then go back to square one and continue to work on that trust.”