By the nature of their position, coaches are leaders, although some coaches struggle with that leadership at times. Coaches read the athletes’ non-verbal signals to know what is working and what is not working on the field or court.
Coaches also thrive on competition, and that can bring out the best and worst in coaches. Coaches agonize in defeat and celebrate in victories. That is how they relate to the athletes; that is the common connection between player and coach – the love of the game.
Now let’s take two steps back. Let’s take away the practices, competition and celebrations. Let’s take away the in-person contact. How do you reach the players and build trust with them when all the commonality is gone? Nothing has opened coaches’ eyes like coaching virtually for the first time.
Steps to build trust are the same whether the coaching is virtual or in-person. It is just more evident in a virtual setting if you don’t have that trust with student-athletes. There are many articles about building trust, but there are four basics that need to occur to build trust.
Coaches need to communicate with parents, students, other coaches and the athletic director, and the communications needs to be timely. It also needs to be more than one way. Emails, tweets, apps are all tools that are very beneficial for communicating, but communication needs to be done in multiple ways, which also includes reaching out individually.
For those who are coaching virtually, the first communication cannot be about X’s and O’s. Coaches need to acknowledge student disappointment. They need to acknowledge their own disappointment about coaching virtually. Taking the time to reach out and honestly share will be a huge step in athletes and parents trusting coaches as coaches show care by communicating.
What have coaches done that show they have an interest in an athlete’s life outside of sport? Are their athletes big pizza eaters? Have they done something that helps the coach understand them better? This can be a group supper with pizza or sideline individual talks. Has the coach taken the time to not talk sports and just talk and listen?
If coaches are in a virtual situation, individual conversations are great. The challenge virtually is connecting with an athlete. Sometimes, athletes do not like talking on the phone, or they do not answer emails. Coaches must keep trying because they are telling them that they care. There is also texting or reaching out on Instagram, although coaches should never underestimate the power of a letter sent through snail mail.
This does not mean coaches have to be available at all hours of the day. However, if coaches say they are going to open the gym, they need to open the gym. If they say they are going to be in the office, they need to be in the office. Coaches need to be approachable, especially off the field. Are they around at lunch? Do they stay after practice and hang out until the kids leave? Coaches should set guidelines for the athletes and suggest times they can be contacted, but then coaches must respond when contacted. If coaching is virtual, then coaches should be on time for meetings and available to “chat” when requested.
This does not mean that coaches can never yell or become frustrated. What it does mean is that coaches go back after the situation and follow up with genuine positiveness. Sometimes, coaching involves becoming frustrated with a play. After the yelling, coaches should respond with something positive that the athlete did. Nothing deflates trust more than when an athlete goes home with the coach furious at the team.
Coaching virtually has its own challenges. Motivating kids to work out on their own is one of them, as well as not becoming disheartened with the lack of a season as a coach and as an athlete. The coach is the one who needs to build up each athlete.
Trust between a coach and an athlete is immeasurable. The results will not only show up on the field, but in the personal lives of coaches and athletes. A coach needs to find the balance to let his or her guard down and still push the athletes to be the best they can be.
The COVID-19 pandemic has allowed coaches to get out of their comfort zone to reach more student-athletes on a much deeper level than competition. The impact of trust built during virtual coaching will be an interesting benefit to watch as teams come back to play together.
Lisa Myran-Schutte, CAA, is the athletic/activities director at Pine Island (Minnesota) High School after serving in a similar capacity at Houston (Minnesota) High School for several years. She is a member of the High School Today Publications Committee.