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Understanding Relationships

Develop and deepen your relationships to evolve your coaching

In this theme of the Coach Learning Framework, you will find resources on:

  • Building positive relationships. Consider how you can express a genuine interest in each participant as a person. 
  • Connecting with participants. Explore strategies for building positive connections and developing trust with your participants.
  • Crucial conversations. Develop an approach to handling difficult conversations that prioritises positive action.
  • Building your networks. Consider how you can build a network that can support you to achieve your goals and maximise your potential.
  • Effective communication. Build your skills to become an effective communicator, including by considering the needs of each individual.
  • Interdisciplinary thinking. Learn how combining thinking from different disciplines can help you enhance your coaching practice.
  • Peer to peer relationships. Consider your role in cultivating an inclusive culture and encouraging a sense of belonging.

Why is Understanding Relationships Important in Coaching?

Central to the success of your coaching is your relationships. Coaches work with a wide range of people who have different motivations and experiences. Your role is to connect with each person, understand their wants and needs, and support them on their journey, whatever their role and level of experience.

Communication is the ‘oxygen’ to relationships, keeping them full of life and healthy. To establish a relationship, take the time to connect and listen to the individual. Everyone wants to be listened to and feel valued and cared for.

By understanding who they are, what they want to achieve and what is important to them, you can also gain the opportunity to explain what you expect as a coach, discussing what is important to you, and the expectations you have within your coaching sessions. These are valuable boundaries to establish.

Importantly, you need to consider the age and stage of the groups and the individuals at your sessions, as, naturally, a discussion with a U8 hockey team won't be the same as a conversation with a women's coach to 5K run group. That said, the principles remain the same.

Once you have developed a connection, you can begin to enhance the relationship and truly understand one another. This involves building a knowledge of what they enjoy and what drives their commitment and will be unique to everyone. These are the foundations for a strong relationship as a coach and participant (the Coach-Athlete relationship) but also will have an impact on the way you communicate, how often you connect, and the long-term establishment of collective goals.

Once you have established a solid relationship, you will find that you have created an environment of openness, regular communication and trust, the cornerstones of an environment that enables you and the participant to thrive and develop.

Challenges are inevitable and won’t vanish even in the face of a great relationship, but if you operate under the key principles of honesty, connection, and open communication, you will be able to easily overcome each challenge, conflict and disagreement and move forward as a ‘team’ with shared goals and understanding.

Through the pillars below, find resources to help you on your journey to understanding relationships.

Building Positive Relationships

Theodore Roosevelt said: "People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care."

Coach the person first, then the participant. Take a genuine interest in each participant as a person and in what motivates, inspires and interests them beyond training and sport, and in their family and life.

To achieve this, you need to make yourself available, setting boundaries so that both you and your participants know when and how you will communicate. Showing that you are open and available can pay dividends in developing a strong relationship.

These informal coaching conversations will enable you to build mutual respect, create support, develop trust and positively influence your participants.

Positive and robust relationships are based on thoughts, feelings and behaviours; sometimes referred to as closeness, commitment and complementarity. Taking the time to develop an effective bond with your participants will create a sense of loyalty that will only grow as you assist and support one another. This will be indispensable in supporting the people you coach to maximise their potential.

Connecting With Participants

Taking the time to connect and understand where someone is coming from, their views and their starting point will make it easier to help them on their journey. Establishing a connection isn’t a one time thing when a participant joins your sessions. Connecting regularly enables you to adjust the session, consider their personal circumstances and ultimately ensure that you can maximise their experience.

When you understand the individual, you can empathise with their circumstances. This helps build trust and positive relationships, ensuring that the participant feels heard and understood. They will then be motivated to invest in the session and your relationship.

When two people have a good connection, they travel the journey together. Your participants will also play a more prominent role in their development and show increased loyalty to you. It’s the difference between two people and a dyad, working in synergy.

Crucial Conversations

A crucial conversation can occur from a simple conversation in a matter of minutes when emotions are strong, opinions vary, and the stakes are high (something to win/something to lose). The issue with crucial conversations is that people avoid them, hoping that the situation will simply go away or resolve itself.

As a coach, you are likely to encounter a number of crucial conversations, including around selection, dropping players, discussing injuries, talking to participants about their transitions and confronting behaviours, to name a few. The important thing is to face and then handle them. 

Make sure to consider what you want from the conversation; prioitise safety first (for everyone); manage your emotions; let the facts lead; look from within; listen; don’t judge; explore others' views and find mutual purpose.

Finally, move to action. Whilst this may not be in consensus and agreement, you must close out the situation with a clear and shared action.

George Bernard Shaw said: "The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place."

    • Supporting a Sense of Belonging in the People You Coach

    • Establishing Trust in Your Coaching Environment

    • The Importance of Trust Within Your Coaching Relationships and Environment

    • Understanding Unconscious Bias

    • How to Cushion the Blow of Delivering Bad News

    • Top 10 Qualities You Need to be a Coach

    • Understanding Unconscious Bias

    • Top 10 Qualities You Need to be a Coach

    • Building Successful Coach-Athlete Relationships


Free Resource Picks


Expert Opinion 


Managing 'Over-Ambitious' Parents

Insight from Kath Fitzpatrick on managing parents, developed in partnership with Spond. An archery coach for over 30 years, Kath runs the Arrowhawks Archery Academy in York, which is part of Archery GB’s National Talent Development Programme


Expert Opinion 


How to Build Stronger Relationships with Your Athletes

The coach-athlete relationship plays a central role in ensuring both athletes' and coaches’ needs are being met. Professor Sophia Jowett highlights the four 'key dimensions’ of a good quality coach-athlete relationship, and UK Coaching’s Chris Chapman poses key questions to help you reflect on your relationships with your athletes

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Expert Opinion 


Questions and Connections to Build Rapport Quickly

Richard Cheetham MBE – Senior Fellow in Sports Coaching at the University of Winchester – highlights some important factors coaches should consider when moving to a new club, or when welcoming new athletes to their group, to help them establish trust and respect




Managing the Doting Parent

Parents who ‘dote’ on their children are extremely, uncritically fond of them and tend to spoil them terribly, which can have consequences for the child and impact on the coach’s own relationship with the parent. So, how do you react and respond appropriately?

Coach Learning Framework

The Coach Learning Framework has been created to help you design memorable and engaging great coaching experiences that meet the needs of all your participants, regardless of your sport or physical activity.

Understanding Relationships is one of nine themes that comprise this insight-based framework.

Continue your journey through the framework to learn more about the other eight themes and the key attributes of high-quality coaching environments, and how you can demonstrate the skills, qualities and behaviours that will empower the people you coach to achieve their personal goals.