Health, Sports & Psychology

Coach, confidant, carer

Updated Friday 11th July 2008

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

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.”

Conclusion

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.

 

For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?

Other content you may like

What do sports authorities have to do to take account of transgender competitors? Creative commons image Icon Santeri Viinamäki under Creative Commons BY-SA 4.0 license video icon

Health, Sports & Psychology 

What do sports authorities have to do to take account of transgender competitors?

Transgender people are now able to compete at the Olympics - but there are some who worry this might create opportunities for cheating. Katharina Lindner explores the questions.

Video
5 mins
Sport media and culture: Who's calling the shots? Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission free course icon Level 1 icon

Health, Sports & Psychology 

Sport media and culture: Who's calling the shots?

The media plays a huge part in sport; we find out what's happening and how our team is doing, and it creates great sporting moments and sports celebrities and stars. This free course, Sport media and culture: Who's calling the shots?, looks at the role played by the media in sport and how this has changed with the development of internet and satellite TV. Who calls the shots: athletes, teams or the media moguls? How do social scientists explain this relationship between sport and the media?

Free course
5 hrs
How Amelia Mauresmo smashed the glass wall Creative commons image Icon Carine06 under CC-BY-SA licence under Creative-Commons license article icon

Health, Sports & Psychology 

How Amelia Mauresmo smashed the glass wall

Andy Murray has confirmed that his coach Amelia Mauresmo will be at his side for Wimbledon 2015, and that expecting her first child in August won't stop her doing her job. As Curt Rice explained in 2014, simply having a woman coaching a man is remarkable in itself.

Article
Games without frontiers: Sporting events which cross national borders Creative commons image Icon Teo's 86 under CC-BY-SA licence under Creative-Commons license article icon

Health, Sports & Psychology 

Games without frontiers: Sporting events which cross national borders

The Giro D'Italia isn't the first sporting event to move beyond the country where you might expect to find it. In fact, there's a long tradition of fixtures, teams and even entire leagues taking up residence in a different territory...

Article
Chris Hoy’s experiences of using sport psychology Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: The Moment/ Channel 4 video icon

Health, Sports & Psychology 

Chris Hoy’s experiences of using sport psychology

Chris Hoy discusses his mind-set to Olympic success and how seeking sports psychology can allow athletes to be as prepared as possible when going for gold.

Video
5 mins
How Team GB cyclists peaked at the Olympics and owned the velodrome Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: By Adam.J.W.C. (Own work) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons article icon

Health, Sports & Psychology 

How Team GB cyclists peaked at the Olympics and owned the velodrome

While Great Britain celebrates Team Gb's wins at the velodrome, it seems other countries' coaches are baffled by their success. This article explains how Team GB's cyclists peak at the Olympics. 

Article
Working with young people in sport and exercise Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission free course icon Level 2 icon

Health, Sports & Psychology 

Working with young people in sport and exercise

This free course, Working with young people in sport and exercise, examines the special considerations of coaching or instructing young people in sport and exercise. The physiological differences between children and adults will be considered along with the practical implications of coaching young people.

Free course
6 hrs
Keep on running Creative commons image Icon Elvar Freyer under CC-BY licence under Creative-Commons license article icon

Health, Sports & Psychology 

Keep on running

Oscar Pretorius is nicknamed "the blade runner". But where does assistance for disability end and cheating begin?

Article
‘Super-human’ athletes are at risk from the post-Olympic blues – here’s why Creative commons image Icon By Fernando Frazão/Agência Brasil [CC BY 3.0 br], via Wikimedia Commons under Creative-Commons license article icon

Health, Sports & Psychology 

‘Super-human’ athletes are at risk from the post-Olympic blues – here’s why

How do the successful Olympians cope with the aftermath of the games? Are they more prone to depression because of the sudden celebrity status? 

Article