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How to Create a Relational Coaching Environment

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To be a technically good coach is one thing, but what gives the coach the “edge” (i.e., the extra effectiveness) in this unforgiving and relentless competitive sport environment is the connection developed between the coach and athlete.

It is this connection that makes a difference to technical coaching because it supplies us with the key to opening the door to our athlete’s capabilities, capacities, and potential.

This unique partnership or relationship developed between a coach and an athlete, we call relational coaching. Relational coaching is the ways coaches and athletes connect to bring about performance success and personal satisfaction.

successful coaching image

Over the past 15 years we have studied in depth the content, quality and functions of the coach-athlete relationship. We found that there are three key properties that correspond with the definition’s main characteristics of the interdependence of coaches and athletes’ feelings, thoughts and behaviours:

  1. Closeness
  2. Commitment
  3. Complementarity

In this blog I have provided some tips to help you build better relationships with your athletes/participants for these key properties, which will help you to create a relational coaching environment.

  1. Tips for building closeness in the coach-athlete relationship

Closeness reflects the affective bond developed between coaches and athletes and is manifested in mutual trust and respect, emotional caring and support, as well as interpersonal liking and appreciation. In our research affective closeness was thought of as the bedrock of the sporting partnership.

  • Be open – offer information, show you have nothing to hide, don’t omit, mask; openness is reciprocated
  • Keep confidences – keep secrets imparted to you. No gossip is allowed. NEVER blab someone else’s story.
  • Display loyalty – protect your athletes, be on their side both in their presence and absence
  • Be competent - display your skills to gain your athletes' admiration and respect
  • Be neutral when placed in difficult situations – don’t choose sides until you have all the facts
  • Be reliable/consistent/predictable –  if you cancel or fail to follow through it will create cracks in your trustworthiness      
  • Honour your promises – if you make promises you cannot keep your athletes will think you are not dependable
  • Do not belittle the promise – however small you think it is your athletes may think it to be significant
  • Be honest – not always easy
  • Speak from the heart – focus on the person by doing this you make clear you don’t judge the other
  • Speak your feelings – people who only convey facts come across as cold and distant (be compassionate/understanding)
  • Pay attention and notice your athletes doing good things – give/receive recognition (purposeful appreciation):

    – Focus on individual accomplishment – it is much more powerful than acknowledging the whole group. Acknowledge an athlete in the team or squad who has done a good job in front of others
    – Be as specific as possible – when you offer appreciation – describe the impact of what has been done. (For example, “You did a great job – getting the team together, organising the equipment in ways that can be more effectively be used by all. I appreciate took the lead on that…it is making a difference in…)
    – When you see it, say it – timeliness is important don’t wait
    – Be sincere – don’t fake it.

    2. Tips for building commitment in the coach-athlete relationship

Commitment reflects the intentions of coaches and athletes to maintain a bond or a connection that is both close and long-term. This long-term orientation toward the relationship is considered important as it takes time to develop skill and bring about success.

  • Map out individual developmental plans for each one athlete in your team or squad (they need to feel there is a plan for them) – it motivates them to stay and to work hard
  • Have a programme of performance based on well-defined and mutually agreed goals
  • Make athletes’ committed to team’s goals
  • Create opportunities for development/advancement
  • Involve them in the coaching process by

        – Asking  them what do they need to be more effective

        – Asking them what will it make them more committed

  • Communicate - make effort to continually exchange information

    – Asking them what do they need to be more effective

    – Asking them what will it make them more committed

  • Listen and learn from your athletes
  • Need to be seen to take action, making changes to improve, prioritising
  • Ensure responsibilities (roles and rules or expectations) are clearly defined
  • Spell the benefits of staying with you (coach)
  • Make sure everyone knows is valued and understood
  • Commitment and responsibility are associated – it is both coach and athlete’s responsibility to make things better/resolve issues – this can be achieved with continuous dialogue and working hard for improvement.

3. Tips for building complementarity in the coach-athlete relationship

Complementarity reflects coaches and athletes’ behaviours that are complementary or co-operative. Accordingly, there are two sets of complementary behaviours that coaches and athletes show:

(a) corresponding refers to the same behaviours that the coach and the athlete are expected to display in training and competition such as, responsiveness and openness (see Jowett & Ntoumanis 2004)

(b) reciprocal refers to different behaviours that the coach and the athlete are expected to display in training and competition such as, when the coach directs or instructs and the athlete follows or executes instructions in training (see Yang & Jowett, 2013).

These two sets of behaviours are thought to determine the efficient conduct of interactions between coaches and athletes.

  • Work together through well-co-ordinated actions
  • Lead/follow by example
  • Improve communication
  • “Simple communication” is best and more impactful
  • Ensure all members in the team/squad know one another (group spirit)
  • Clarify roles and reinforce rules
  • Explain consequences if rules are not met
  • Meet regularly
  • Address issues quickly
  • Be well prepared for training/competition (mentally and physically)
  • Create an environment that is positive, engaging, motivating, creative and innovative
  • Make an impression by showing your competency and expertise
  • Create a friendly and supportive environment
  • Provide structure, challenge and organisation – instil a hard work ethos
  • Show flexibility and adaptability (adopt a flexible management style)
  • Display responsiveness
  • Clarify and recap the goals each individual wants/needs to accomplish
  • Promote individual goals
  • Promote team goals and make sure everyone knows
  • Celebrate every success (large and small)
  • When “failure” – don’t see it as liability but as a learning opportunity
  • Exhibit, and expect from each athlete, responsive, patient, determined, driven, ambitious, enthusiastic, disciplined and focussed behaviours.

Did you find this post helpful? Please add a comment to let me know your thoughts.

If you enjoyed this you can find all my other ConnectedCoaches blogs here. It is also available as a podcast on a number of platforms including Itunes. Listen here.

This blog is based on Jowett, S., & Shanmugam, V. (2016). Relational Coaching in Sport: Its psychological underpinnings and practical effectiveness. You can read the full contents of the research here.

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Comments (9)

   
charlesinfurna

Dr. Jowett, do you think relational coaching may at times outweigh the "technical" coaching? Are there certain sports in which you think that may be the case?

My best,
Charles

16/12/16
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sophia

Dear Charles,

Thank you for your question. I really feel that the "technical" aspect of coaching is as paramount as the "relational" aspect of coaching. Coaches need the technical aspect to develop athletes, performers; coaches who are technically (tactically, strategically sound) are more likely to develop athletes who are competent enough to achieve a good level of performance success in their chosen sport. How athletes train, play the game and perform often reflect what (and how) coaches have taught them...this is something I would like all coaches to ponder about. The relational aspect can support coaches to transmit the technical-related information to their athletes. Coaches who connect, develop a bond, a unit relationship with their athletes (e.g., trust, respect, like, appreciate them as well as commit to them through the ups and downs) are more likely to transfer information across to their athletes that they can understand (trust, respect) and want to work with. The relational aspect of coaching gives a very powerful message to both coaches and athletes...I AM Here because I Want to Work With YOU. As coach K said: "2 is better than 1 if 2 can act as 1".

With best wishes,
Sophia

19/12/16
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skitson

A really good piece that compliments the ethos of the new coaching strategy emphasising the importance of relationships. Good technical knowledge/coaching coupled with good relationship skills - what a winner. I shall be sharing with my coaches and mentors.

05/01/17
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sophia

Sion, if you'd like to see the chapter that this blog comes from, then please get in touch. The chapter has more detailed information and provides a fuller context of the ideas presented in the blog. Good to hear you like it. Thank you.

08/01/17
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robertkmaaye

Great blog that we’ve now produced easy to share infographics from which you can find in the ConnectedCoaches infographics album here https://www.connectedcoaches.org/spaces/10/welcome-and-general/album/2805/Blake/connectedcoaches-infographics

08/02/17
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Nollzer

IT strikes me how a good coach athlete relationship is so similar to a great parent son/daughter relationship. This piece which is excellently written, provides insight and clarity into a very complex area. The real coaching challenge is to take the suggestions and put meat on the bones. The difficulty for some will be what does this look like in a coaching context. What does honesty look like? How do you clarify roles and responsibilities with a team or athletes? While the suggestions are excellent, the implementation of simplicity takes coaching effort, talent, consistancy and perservance. As a coach fascinated by the HOW, this article provides huge challenges to coaches and coach educators. The content covers all aspects of the coaching relational ship and provides material content for many invigorating workshops, practicals and conferences.

03/05/17
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sophia

As one would expect, I totally agree with you Val. The purpose of the research we, and others have conducted, around coach-athlete relationships and related areas (communication and conflict etc) is to inform action. I thus hope that we soon have workshops and practical sessions that support coaches in developing better working relationships, effective communication patterns and conflict management techniques with each one athlete in the team or squad. These are all active ingredients of coaching - they can directly make a positive difference in coaches and athletes' performance and wellbeing. Relational coaching can contribute to better practices and processes. They can help coaches become feel fully engaged, motivated and satisfied, as well as experience a sense of control and power for the greater good!!

04/05/17
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skitson

The HOW is such a fascinating concept, the possibilities are endless yet these decisions can be crucial. Interestingly Leap (Bucks & MK Sport & Physical Activity Partnership) are delivering workshops on this topic, a topic that I personally feel is immensely important for coaches and should not be overlooked. We delivered a workshop in partnership with Bucks New University to a small group of talent coaches on 'power' and the different types of power and HOW to use them to build and advance trust between you as the coach and your athlete(s). We are now working with The OU to deliver something similar but looking a little more at the environment you build and wrap around your athlete(s) to enable a productive coach athlete relationship - what does this look like and HOW do you shape it. This will be aimed at coaches working in the talent pathway from Bucks & Bedfordshire but the concepts are very much for all coaches and will be delivered in November. Here is a link to a YouTube video we created on the workshop from last year (very much a try and see DIY video). Hope it helps a little. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pO67sOepPzQ&t=287s

04/05/17
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sophia

That's good to know. If you need any support with development the HOW concept, you know where to find me ;-)

09/05/17
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Nollzer

Great replies. Would it fair to say that coaches' relationships reflect their value and moral frameworks? If true, coaching coaches to foster good relationships and environments, maybe harder to achieve. How many coaches are aware of their value systems and coaching philosophies? How do you influence deep seated values if they are inappropriate?
Fundamentally, is How to coach coaches to develop the skills and techniques to create both the correct environment and relationships? Has anyone produced research into the process involved? Any relevant books or educational sources?
One of the best, I seen is a coach who has a degree in theology, not surprising. A believer in the Wooden coaching school and his actions genuinely driven by a profound holistic coaching outlook. A great area, complex, difficult but absolutely central to the coaching process.

07/05/17
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sophia

I actually have a lecture tomorrow on the ethical and moral side of coach-athlete relationships. I refer to the notion of duty of care (including policy documents from NGB codes of conduct and DSMC) and argue that coaches' character (who am I?) and coaching intentions (if coaches coach to feel good, then they are likely to fail developing lasting relationships that have purpose and meaning OR if coaches coach to develop and grow, then they are likely to develop good quality relationships because they are prepared to invest time and energy in them) are important to consider in the formation of coach-athlete relationships. I use Aristotle's thesis of ideal relationships where at the heart of ideal relationships is the people who form them (i.e., people with character can relate in ideal ways; and people of character have ideal relationships). Moreover, I explain the role of coaches' "power" as I think we need to redefine this concept in coaching and in particular within the context of coach-athlete relationships. As the great English philosopher Bertram Russell explained power is fundamental to human relationships in the way that energy is to physics. Thus, coaches' power in relation to their athletes should be seen as making a difference in these athletes' life (sporting life and beyond). Power is about understanding, compassion, warmth and enhancing the other person's wellbeing. Thus, coaches need to be supported to reflect on their character, intentions and views of power as well as evaluate the nature and quality of their relationships (communication and interaction) with each one athlete in the team/squad. Drawing parallels between reflections and evaluations may shed light on how values translate into actions...

08/05/17
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Nollzer

Looks like I am firmly in the Aristotle camp when it comes to relationships. The word POWER when used in terms of relationships, for me, imparts a strong negative feeling and outlook. As they say, all power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. My point being that if we are to facilitate coaches develop skills to improve and cultivate great relationships, our thoughts should be directed towards the concepts of honesty, integrity, empathy, compassion, communication and understanding. Power differentials do exist in relationships but perhaps a good relationship is defined by the minimisation of this differential. Maybe this is the end point for the coach athlete relationship development spectrum

09/05/17
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sophia

I wonder if I could ask coaches to (re)consider the notion of power. What is your coaching power? How do you understand power as a coach? My view is that you need to feel powerful (not powerless) because after all your athletes want you to be empowered by you! If power is defined as coaches having the power to make a positive difference in an athlete's life then this is an extremely meaningful and purposeful power. If we look at power in these terms, then this power has the capacity to empower and enrich...

I would also like to ask coaches to think of the power athletes hold. Yes, athletes have power (just like their coaches)! Remember they are the ones who decide to come to training and sometimes more than once a day, spend hours and hours of hard work either with their coaches, teammates or by themselves; they decide to listen to your instruction and advice (or dismiss it) etc etc. Athletes have as much power as you have and we need to educate them to realise that they are responsible and accountable for their training, progress and overall performance.

09/05/17
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