Building genuine relationships with athletes By Kevin Sutton, contributing writer

Genuine relationship building takes time, and coaches today have to make a conscious decision to forge these relationships with their players.

The ability to communicate with players is an invaluable skill. These relationships allow coaches to earn the respect and trust of their players. Once these genuine relationships are established, teaching can take place. And after proper teaching takes place, improvement will surely follow.

Today’s student-athletes use a variety of methods to communicate through social mediums and platforms. However, that variety does not necessarily make an individual a great communicator. I’m a firm believer that coaches must reach their players on a level where they are most comfortable to truly develop a genuine relationship. These can be on emotional, spiritual, academic or social levels. It’s also important to choose a location where the student-athletes are comfortable, such as their dorms, the coach’s home, training table or during the team meal.

In high school, I struggled learning geometry. One day, my geometry teacher attended one of my basketball games, and it made a huge impact on me because she saw how much the game meant to me. In class the following day, she told me that I knew more about geometry than most of my peers. I was sure she had lost her mind.

She then gave me a piece of paper with the dimensions of the basketball court on it. She started to ask me geometry questions using the lines and angles of the court, and I answered all the questions correctly. She met me on my level, and she created a teachable moment that I will never forget.

Here are some ideas that I have discussed with other coaches and have personally used during my coaching career to develop genuine relationships with my players. I’m confident that if you try to implement some of these ideas, you’re already moving in the right direction toward establishing a meaningful connection with your student-athletes. Theodore Roosevelt said it best: “They don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.”

  • Get to know their five ‘Hs’ — history, hopes, heartaches, heroes and honey.
  • Work them out and help them to improve their skills.
  • Invite your players into your home for a meal.
  • Set aside time for 1-on-1 film sessions.
  • Go to their homes to make a connection with their circle of influence.
  • Discuss current events to capture their attention, especially if the event touches them personally.
  • Choose books that you can read with them, and discuss the books when you’re finished.
  • Create a group chat with players via social media.
  • Throw out a topic, and encourage the players to speak freely and openly about their feelings on it.
  • Be observant of what your players do, what they say, what they wear — use it to connect.
  • Be a great listener, and allow your players the opportunity to express themselves.

Becoming a better communicator and investing the time to develop genuine relationships with your players helps lead your team to incredible success. We all want our players to “buy in” to our programs and what we’re trying to accomplish, but to achieve this you must first get them to believe. Believe in you, your genuine interest in them, their success and what’s important to them. That belief is earned through trust, and trust takes time and effort.


Kevin Sutton is an assistant coach with the University of Pittsburgh men’s basketball team, and a member of the Winning Hoops Editorial Advisory Board.





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