Coach, confidant, carer

Olympic coaches have a vital role in nurturing athletes: coach, confidant, carer

By: Caroline Heaney (Department of Education)

  • Duration 5 mins
  • Updated Friday 11th July 2008
  • Introductory level
  • Posted under Sport
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Coaches of sports such as football are often depicted in the media as being dominant characters. We see images of coaches on the sidelines giving instructions, and often getting very emotional about the game. We rarely see such footage of Olympic coaches. Coaches of Olympic sport appear to be a lot more hidden, but their role is no less important.

On the path to success an Olympic athlete will have spent a vast amount of time working with coaches. This journey can be seen as a partnership between the coach and the athlete, the quality of which can be highly influential on the results achieved.

So what constitutes a successful coach-athlete relationship? Many people have tried to answer this question and have identified several characteristics that are important. These include:

  • mutual trust
  • commitment from both parties
  • mutual understanding
  • confidence in each others abilities
  • good communication
  • a sense of collaboration

The coach-athlete relationship is important at any level of sports participation, but for the elite athlete who trains on a full-time basis it’s a core part of their everyday life. Such an athlete is likely to spend several hours per week working with coaches and thus the importance of the relationship becomes more prominent.

In order to further understand the coach-athlete relationship, one group of researchers interviewed a number of Olympic medallists and their coaches. Not surprisingly all of the athletes and coaches stressed the importance of the bond and re-emphasised the characteristics mentioned above.

The Olympic athletes also described their coaches as having roles that extend beyond sporting boundaries, describing their coaches in terms such as ‘surrogate parent’ or ‘good friend’. This suggests that to coach an athlete effectively, particularly at an elite level, a coach needs to understand the person as a whole. In relation to this it has been suggested that the coach-athlete relationship has two dimensions: one related to the enhancement of sports performance and one related to caring and wellbeing.

The importance of a close professional relationship between the coach and athlete is illustrated in reports of the relationship between American Michael Phelps, winner of seven medals at the 2004 Olympics and his coach Bob Bowman. Bowman describes his role as a coach to Phelps as extending to being a friend, confidant and counsellor, whilst Phelps reportedly said that Bowman knows him better than anyone, aside from his mother.

It’s important to recognise that successful relationships can take many different forms and what one person wants and needs from a coach or athlete can be very different to what another person wants or needs. It seems that good coach-athlete relationships are those that involve an element of matching. This is where the right coach finds the right athlete, or where the coach adapts his or her style to match the individual needs of the sportsperson. This is echoed in the following quote from one of the Olympic coaches:

“You have to look at athletes as individuals; you have to recognise their strengths and weaknesses.”

So far the description of the successful coach-athlete relationship has been painted as a picture of tranquillity and happiness. In reality, as with all types of relationship, this is not the case. Even the most successful relationships are sometimes tested and involve an element of conflict. Conflict isn’t necessarily a bad thing within a relationship. It can, in fact, be an effective communication and development process. What separates a successful coach-athlete relationship from an unsuccessful one, though, is perhaps the ability to come through periods of conflict unscathed.

In a relationship that lasts for a long period we would expect to see changes. A coach-athlete relationship will naturally evolve over time, particularly in the case where a junior athlete matures into a senior athlete.

The evolution can take one of two directions. The coach-athlete relationship might grow and develop over time and continue to be successful, or what was once a successful relationship may become an unsuccessful one over time (for example the athlete may outgrow the coach) and may lead to termination (where the athlete moves on to a new coach).

The following quote from an Olympic athlete illustrates how an athlete may need different coaches at different stages of their development:

“I think the coaches I had at different times were good for me. The coach I had during my adolescence was good because he was tough and kind of forced me to be tough or tougher than I thought I was. My later coach was nurturing…he gave me certain triggers for me to get focused and keep me in the right frame of mind.”


It seems clear that the coach-athlete relationship is of vital importance to the success of the athlete. However, what constitutes a successful coach-athlete relationship varies greatly between different athletes and coaches.

Further reading

'How coaches moulded Olympians' by K Dieffenbach, D Gould and A Moffett
in Soccer Journal, January-February 2008

'Psychological characteristics and their development in Olympic champions' by D Gould, K Dieffenbach, and A Moffett
in Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, number 14

Understanding the coach-athlete relationship by S Jowett and A Poczwardowski
in Social Psychology in Sport edited by S Jowett and D Lavallee, published by Human Kinetics.

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