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At the heart of effective coaching leadership lies the dyadic coach-athlete relationship | Welcome and General | ConnectedCoaches

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At the heart of effective coaching leadership lies the dyadic coach-athlete relationship

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In the wake of the Olympic Games in Rio, I consider the role and significance of the coach-athlete relationship within sport leadership for performance success. I propose that the relationship binds coaches and athletes together making them both accountable and responsible while producing “out of the box” performance plans that are necessary for extraordinary sport successes. In performance-orientated environments, good quality coach-athlete relationships are the best form of coaching leadership in the 21st century.

There are numerous examples of extraordinary coaches in elite sports displaying in a rather convincingly way the pivotal role the relationship with their athletes played to performance success. These coaches have had the capacity to develop and maintain functional relationships – in other words relationships that were supportive, caring, satisfying and purposeful. The relationships in turn became a vehicle to creativity and resourcefulness both of which were necessary ingredients for these coaches and athletes performance success. Thus, it appears that a strong coach-athlete bond allows coaches and athletes to think “outside the box” whereas a weak coach-athlete bond can be limiting, distracting and consuming.

Think outside the box

Strong ties between coaches and athletes can also promote a great deal of understanding. When coaches and athletes are connected with one another are more likely to want to listen to one another, to pay attention to the needs, aspirations and goals of one another, to engage actively while being responsive and receptive to one another. Mutual understanding about personal and team performance goals, training and competition aspects as well as specific roles individuals take and rules that are in place, create a sense of similarity – a sense of having established a “common ground” where everyone feels “on the same page” and pulls in the same direction. Lack of mutual understanding (misunderstanding) is often expressed in terms of differing views, opinions, values, preferences and priorities and can substantially reduce both the quality (quantity) of communication and relationships.


Coach Mike Krzyzewski stated “2 is better than 1 if 2 can act as 1”. The dyadic coach-athlete relationship can impact on important group dynamics such as feeling united and capable as a team. This sense of togetherness has been shown to be an instrumental aspect to teamwork (cooperation) and in turn to sporting success regardless of whether coaches and athletes operate within a team or individual sport setting. When a performance team is united, it is more likely that each and every one holds the belief that they can successfully execute tasks and achieve important performance goals together.


When a coach and an athlete are locked into a unit relationship, successes and failures are equally shared. Subsequently, it is not just about the coach and it is not just about the athlete – what is at the centre of leadership and coaching is the unique collective of the coach and the athlete. As neither the coach nor the athlete “can do it alone” in this contested, mostly intensive and exhaustive environment of competitive sport, the leadership applied or the coaching delivered is best described as coach-athlete-centred. A coach-athlete-centred leadership or coaching implies sharing responsibility and accountability – a notion that underlines that a coach and each one athlete in the team or squad are in it together!


What differentiates effective and successful relationships from ineffective and unsuccessful ones is the emphasis on creating shared vision or purpose where coaches and athletes’ expertise, skills, interests and experiences are utilised to their fullest to determine leadership positions each are responsible for. What is important here is the appreciation that each and everyone takes leadership positions that firmly lie in the specific roles each member assumes within the relationship (coach or athlete) and within the wider team context (captain or junior/new member). Gone these days where coaches were perceived to be the sole drivers of athletic performance. Coaches and athletes who have the capacity to lead and be led in harmonious or complementary ways are the Olympic champions of tomorrow.

Relay image

To conclude quality coach-athlete relationships have the capacity to directly determine the leadership or coaching effectiveness and ultimately sporting success. Thus coaches and athletes will do well to act intentionally and strategically to strengthen their relationships. Over the past 20 years our research at Loughborough University has shown that a coach-athlete relationship characterised by high levels of closeness (e.g., trust, respect, appreciation, liking), commitment (e.g., intention to maintain a close bond to develop performance), and complementarity (e.g., interact in ways that are co-operative, collaborative, responsive, receptive, friendly as opposed to hostile) can positively affect athletes’ and coaches’ performance (e.g., motivation, competence) and wellbeing (e.g., vitality, satisfaction) as well as team dynamics (e.g., team cohesion, collective confidence).

3 Cs Model of Relationships

Overall, the coach-athlete relationship provides a vehicle that steers, guides and moves coaches and athletes from A to B (B is for Better Performance) or …GB (GB is for Great Britain representation – an ambition many coaches and athletes wish to fulfil). With the Olympics Games in Rio in a couple of months, such relational properties as respect, belief, trust, loyalty, commitment and co-operation as well as mutual understanding and similarity can form the backbone of quality relationships that can empower coaches and athletes to make the impossible possible. When it comes to personal growth and performance outcomes both of which require lateral thinking, resourcefulness and creativity, 2 is better than 1. The relationship binds coaches and athletes together making them both accountable and responsible while they are producing together “out of the box” performance plans for marginal gains necessary for dominance at the highest level of competitive sport as so eloquently applied in British Cycling by Sir David Brailsford in the last Olympic Games in London. Athletes are more engaging than ever before with their own development and thus distributed leadership, where power is shared and relationships are valued is the most effective type of coaching leadership in the 21st century.

What did you think of this article? I would love to hear your views. Please leave a comment below.

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Comments (2)

Fantastic read. I still feel this is an element of athletic success coaches can continue to develop to positively impact outcome. Raising awareness around the powers of the coach-athlete relationship and educating coaches to fully understand its potential are great starting points. http://www.leapwithus.org.uk/events/power-and-the-coach-athlete-relationship/
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Dr. Jowett,

I am a big fan of your work and regularly read your articles. In your professional opinion, do you think coaches can be taught how to develop higher quality relationships with their athletes? In my short career as a throwing coach at a Division III College in New York State, USA, I have found that the athletes who tend to perform better (throw farther in the discus, hammer, javelin, and shot-put) have a had a better relationship with me than their peers have. If the quality relationship is a predictor of success, can those relationship skills be taught?

It seems that, in my opinion, a quality relationship cannot be forced upon a coach and athlete. They have to occur naturally, and need to be nurtured and developed, which in turn may lead to higher quality athlete performances. Your thoughts?

My best,

Charles J. Infurna
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Hi Charles,

Thank you for your comment. It is the realisation that the quality of the coach-athlete relationship plays a significant role in performance success (or failure) that has motivated over the past 20 years our research. Your experience adds to the evidence that the coach-athlete relationship matter. The relationship is a medium that can help coaches get the best out of their athletes. The relationship is an active ingredient in successful and effective coaching. Thus coaches will do well to pay attention to the relationships they form with each one athlete in their squad or team. Our view has been that “relationship” is a skill and like any skill it can be taught/learned. The 3+1Cs (Closeness, Commitment, Complementarity and Co-orientation) model has allowed us to tangibly capture a rather complex and illusive concept such as the relationship coaches and athletes develop. With the 3+1Cs model in mind, strategies or guidelines have been developed to enhance closeness (via trust, respect, appreciation), commitment (via sacrifice, accommodation), and complementarity (via collaboration, responsiveness, receptiveness) as well as co-orientation (via communication - being on the same page). As we all know relationships require time, effort and energy – they won’t be developed or maintained if the coach and athlete (!!) don't pay the necessary attention.

With best wishes,
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