Coach/Player Relationship

One of the most crucial parts of a successful program is the coach/player relationship.  Not coincidentally, it can also be one of the most rewarding parts of being a coach. Coaches who can draw up X’s and O’s are a dime a dozen but I’ll always believe coaching starts with the ability to motivate and get buy in from players.  

Assuredly, whatever schemes a coach believes in will most likely work and ironically, so will the opposite.  Teams have won championships playing full court defense and playing half court defense, fast tempo and slow tempo, man and zone…the list keeps going.  However, I believe few teams have won championships without healthy coach/player relationships and, for sure, many have overachieved because of a positive coach/player relationship.

In this entry of Coach With A Purpose, I will give my thoughts on the ingredients I believe are crucial to developing and maintaining a healthy as well as productive coach/player relationship.

  1. Be Who You Are   

There are all types of coaches who have led successful programs but I believe the most successful coaches have one thing in common, they are genuine…they don’t try to be someone they are not. You can put whatever label you want on a particular coaching style, whether it be “old school”, “player’s coach”, “animated”, or “reserved”, you must coach to your personality.  Coaches who worry about how fans or parents perceive them are fighting a losing battle…you’re not going to please everyone. Be who you are and be genuine with your players. That way, you don’t have to try to remember each day who you are trying to be and the players don’t have to figure out which coach will show up today.

  1. Set Boundaries

You are their coach, not their friend.  This sounds harsh to some but a relationship involving two people, where one is the authority figure, will only succeed with boundaries.  There must be a dividing line. I believe “player’s coaches” tend to struggle with this concept the most, especially young coaches. They want to be liked when respected should be the goal.  Consequently, “player’s coach” many times is code for “friend”.

One of my assistants the past two years, Tanner Thiel, is a good example of how it is possible to be a “player’s coach” while still maintaining boundaries.  He has a fun, out going personality which allows him to show he cares for his players through their interaction, but he’s also consistent with his expectations on the court/field.  He may laugh and joke with them in the halls, in the locker room, or on the bus ride home, but he’s going to hold them accountable when they are between the lines.

Without boundaries, players often get confused on expectations because there tends to be a lack of consistency. They need a coach not a friend.  As I have outlined in other entries of Coach With A Purpose, once they have turned the tassel, they should not have a more loyal friend than their coach.


  1. Differentiate Between Player & Person

At the beginning of school in my U.S. History class, I always found it interesting to see kids reaction to me being their teacher, especially the girls.  All some of them knew of me up until that point, was the maniac they might see yelling and screaming at practice when they walk through the gym or at our games.  Over time, my students and players, figure out that my demeanor was much different outside the lines than between the lines. For this reason, I have always believed it is important for a coach to be on the same campus as his team so that players can see them in different settings.  

Here are a few of the things I tried to incorporate to show my players there was a difference between the player and person.  First of all, they knew during practice or games, I was all business…very few had trouble figuring this out. However, as soon as practice or the game was over, I wanted them to know not to take things personally, especially if I had to get on them sternly.  

One of our requirements was that all players must see their coach after practice or games before leaving for home.  I may have been in the office or out in the gym, but by having them come by before leaving, I could make sure they leave hearing what I wanted them to hear.  Most often, it was just a fist bump (for us, the fist bump symbolizes 5 playing as 1) and a “good job today”, “see ya tomorrow”, “keep your head up” or “let’s do better tomorrow”.  Sometimes, it was difficult for a player to come by after not playing in a game or after having your butt chewed out 5 minutes ago, but that’s why it was important. It’s part of them growing up and learning how to deal with adversity as well as knowing what happens between the lines is never personal.

Occasionally, a player might actually forget to come by or intentionally “forget” to come by.  If this was the case, I would either text them or call them so they understood this was a requirement and not an option.  

Secondly, I rarely talked basketball with my players during the school day because I wanted them to have their time to be a student.  If I had a player in class, I wasn’t going to say, “hey, you need to keep your elbow in on your jumper today” or “I need to talk to you before practice today”.  I always tried to respect their time for being a student.

Finally, on the court, I had to do what was best for the team.  Off the court, I always tried to do what was best for the player.  Sometimes this was compassion and other times it was tough love but they must know that you have their best interest at heart.  Always check on players that are sick, find ways to keep injured players involved in practice and games, and let them know the person is always more important to you than the player.

  1. Be Honest

I always tried to be honest and upfront when dealing with my players because that is the way I always wanted people to deal with me.  After each season, whether in the spring or summer, I tried to meet with each player for a few minutes to go over their strengths and areas that needed improvement.  For some players, this was merely a way of verifying that we were on the same page but for others, it might require me to say things that were not pleasant for me to say or for them to hear.  However, I believe this was the best time to put all the cards on the table.

I believe some coaches are guilty of painting a picture for players that they know is not there because it is the easy thing to do.  They believe it will either please the kids, their parents, or any other number of outside influences. In my opinion, if a coach plans to stay at a school and build a program, it must be built on strong principles and honesty is one of those.  Ultimately, players will appreciate your honesty even though they may not always agree with it. At the end of the day, I had to be accountable for how I dealt with my players and, even for the players who decided to do something else, they knew I did my best to be upfront and honest in our relationship.  

  1. Be Consistent With Discipline

Our program was based on 5 Standards (I‘ll discuss these in a later entry)….Be Responsible, Be Respectful, Be Disciplined, Be Trustworthy, and Be Accountable.  Within these 5 standards we also had specific program rules and consequences for violating these rules (I’ll discuss these in a later entry as well). These rules are enforced equally across the board though I always reserved the right to have the final say but there were rarely exceptions.  I believe standards should be enforced as equally as possible though on occasion there could be an exception…ultimately, fair trumps equal. However, exceptions should be rare.

Our players were expected to be a cut above in the community, classroom, and on the court…that’s the standard.  Because of the consistency in upholding these standards, once our program was established, we had very few discipline issues because those who didn’t want to measure up didn’t play.  

I know some coaches don’t believe in written rules and consequences because they don’t want to “tie their hands with a bunch of rules“. Some may be able to take this approach and still be consistent with discipline which is perfectly fine. However, in my opinion, this approach often leads to inconsistent discipline and players lose respect for the program as well as the coaches involved when discipline is not present or is selectively enforced.  Ultimately, we all function better when accountability is present and discipline is consistent.

  1. Be Loyal

Lastly, players must know that you are loyal.  I have gone into great detail in other entries of Coach With A Purpose to describe the ways our program exhibits loyalty to our players so I won’t rehash all of those methods again.  However, loyalty is one of the most important aspects of the coach/player relationship.

One of the greatest rewards of coaching is the development of lifelong relationships with the young people in which we share a common bond.  As I’ve stated in earlier entries, my won/loss record wais not near as important to me as the number 111 because it’s with these 111 that I’ve been blessed to forge an unbreakable bond.  To some degree, they will always be my boys and I’ll always be their coach.

Thanks for reading and Coach With A Purpose!


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