What makes a coach a good one? Are the best coaches the ones with the most technical knowledge, the most popular or trendy training theories, or the ones who get the best results? Or maybe there’s something else that makes a coach truly great.
I’ve been pondering this question a lot lately. I’ve had my share of coaches as a high school athlete and then as an adult. My children are now in sports and have their own coaches. I’ve coached adults and recently I started coaching kids too. Knowing what I’ve experienced, I’ve felt a crushing sense of responsibility and I’ve wondered what I can do to ensure I’m upholding my duty to my athletes.
As I’ve contemplated this I’ve realized there’s a more important question that needs an answer: what is a coach’s duty to his or her athletes anyway?
A Coach’s Power
I have never played soccer in my life, but I figured I knew enough to coach a bunch of six and seven year-old kids. While I won’t go into the embarrassing process of realizing the extent to which I underestimated the learning curve, the struggle was well worth it and I now know when to do a corner kick and when to do a goal kick. Progress!
My seven girls and I are the Mighty Cheetahs. We are one of four girls teams in our league and, as the only female coach, while I might know the least about soccer, I take my duty to my little athletes very seriously.
While the other coaches help them and me with the fundamentals, I’m the coach who knows the most about being an active little girl. When the other coaches tell a player who’s been kicked in the shin to shake it off, I know it’s not that simple. When parents get irritated with their daughter for not being aggressive enough, I know how hard that message is to rectify with the rest of what she hears every day. And when we’re pushed off our field because the boys league scheduled a make-up game during our practice time and didn’t tell us about it, I cringe at how they might interpret that.
I was once a girl with a coach myself.
In high school, my track and cross country coach was a high school phenom who came back to his alma mater as a teacher and coach. As a teenage girl without a father in my life, my coach’s attention and belief in me fostered my love for running. But, shortly after I graduated, when he asked me to have an affair with him, it crushed me. I quit running for years.
In September of 2016, almost two dozen years after I graduated from high school, as I was taking pictures of the North High School girls cross country runners on the starting line of one of their races, I focused my camera and there he was, my high school coach. It took my breath away. Yes, it reminded me of what happened to me, but being with girls who were about the same age I was then, doing the same thing I did then, I was struck by the power a coach has. I could feel the hurt all over again — still. And, perhaps worse, the thought of a coach doing this kind of thing to these high school girls on that very starting line, or to my soccer girls, or my own children in this way, enraged me.
The Coach-Athlete Relationship
A coach and an athlete have a relationship. In any relationship there is a balance of power. Sometimes, one member of a relationship has more power than the other, like the relationship between a parent and a child or a boss and an employee. Other times, relationships are, at least theoretically, among equals, like many modern marriages or friendships or business associates.
As we consider coach-athlete relationships along a spectrum, the power disparity between athlete and coach begins to approach parity. A high school athlete will have more power in a coach-athlete relationship than an elementary student, a college athlete more, and then an adult athlete, theoretically should have equal power in a relationship with her coach. But I wonder how prevalent coach-athlete relationships really are, in which the athlete views herself as an equal in her relationship with her coach. In most cases, a coach tells the athlete what to do; it’s hard not to view a coach as an authority figure rather than a partner.
I think it’s this nature of the relationship between coach and athlete that determines the duty a coach has. As a professional, an authority figure, and as someone who likely has power over his or her athletes, a good coach recognizes the responsibility that comes with this authority — to use it to better athletes’ lives. That means a coach both has a duty to provide his or her coaching services for the purpose of bettering those athletes, and not intentionally or negligently harming them. Also, a coach must never use that authority over an athlete for personal benefit at the expense of the athlete.
Of course not all coaches’ training or methodologies will work for every athlete and sometimes athletes fail to hold up the bargain on their end. And of course, a coach isn’t a psychologist, a doctor, or a miracle worker. A coach’s duty isn’t to produce results in his or her athlete’s sports performance or enhance the athlete’s life, but it is to provide coaching with that aim in mind. In this case, because a coach can’t always control the results, it really is the thought that counts.
A Coach’s Duty
A coach’s duty is to provide a training program and advice for the purpose of improving the athlete’s sports performance, while enriching the athlete’s life (or at the very least doing no harm).
Choosing a Dutiful Coach
While my high school coach story is not nearly as disastrous as others, it echoes a far too common theme. I’ve heard of high school or collegiate coaches secretly (or not-so-secretly) dating their athletes or attempting to. I’ve heard more friends than I can count tell me about high school, college, and even post-collegiate coaches who picked apart their diets, their weight, their appearance, their friendships, relationships, or even their emotions.
Sometimes a coach seems great at first, but over time, that coach seems to disavow this duty. Some coaches seem to coach to prove his or her training theories are right or are better than someone else’s, even when training according to those theories isn’t in the best interest of the athletes. Some coaches seem to coach for the power trip. And then some, like my high school coach, shirk their duty and abuse their authority for immediate personal gratification.
How do we know if a coach will honor this duty? Sure, we can’t always pick our coaches. High school students are pretty much stuck with whatever the school gives them and my soccer kids didn’t really get a say. But if you’re ever in a position to choose a coach, here are some things to consider.
Why is this person coaching?
Is this person out to make some money? Is he or she looking to be respected as an expert? Does he or she love the sport and helping others be the best they can be? It’s ok for a coach to make money and want to be an expert, but are those the primary reasons for wanting to coach or are they secondary to a passion to help others improve?
Of course you can ask a coach this and the coach will probably give you the “right” answer. But thinking about this as you consider these next questions might help you see beyond the sales pitch.
What do athletes say about this coach?
We know to take the reviews on a coach’s own website with a grain of salt. But if you know someone who has been coached by someone you’re considering hiring, ask! If not, google the coach or peruse social media for independent reviews or remarks.
Another more indirect way to assess a coach’s motivation is to consider this: are athletes bragging about the coach all over social media? If so, why? Is the coach enjoying this social media attention or is the buzz created independent of his or her involvement? Some people coach for the attention and the accolades. Again, that alone is not a big deal, but if that’s the coach’s primary motivation, then his or her primary motivation is not about the athletes — it’s about him or herself.
How does this coach talk about athletes?
Like any professional, a coach should not share information learned about athletes while coaching! If you see or hear a coach doing that, run!
How does the coach talk about her athletes’ successes? Does the coach take all the credit or do they lavish praise on the athlete? Of course, this alone is not solid evidence, but if the coach praises the athletes, the coach is more likely to coach for the purpose of bettering athletes.
Another important thing to consider is how the coach talks about athletes who have not thrived under his or her care. Does the coach take some responsibility for “failures” or does he or she blame all failures on the athletes?
Sure, sometimes an athlete deserves the blame, but what if there are multiple athletes who have not done well with the coach and the coach blames every one of them for it? Not taking responsibility for any of the failures or non-success stories should be a huge red flag that the coach does not understand or respect a coach’s duty to his or her athletes.
Realizing what my duty as a coach is has helped me gain confidence as a coach, and it’s helped me know what I want in a coach next time I’m in the market for one.
Have you had a great or not-so-great coach? What do you think makes a good coach?