Sean Connor: Does a coach have to like his players?

On one of my recent visits to Twitter, I read a comment from a soccer coach in the United States talking about how he was telling his players that being likeable was now an important asset in their overall development as a player. This got me thinking about the relationship between coaches and players, and if it is important to like your players?

By Sean Connor
Monday, 13th December 2021, 5:48 pm
In his 'Journal' column, SEAN CONNOR asks, Does a coach have to like his players?
In his 'Journal' column, SEAN CONNOR asks, Does a coach have to like his players?

"More important than being able to correct a mistake made on the field, you must be able to have influence over the group, to be able to seduce, convince and understand them.’’ The words of the late, great Johan Cruyff and his view on coaching and leadership. So, are you able to have influence over the group without liking all of your players?

Cruyff was talking about the impact of the coach/athlete relationship as opposed to the mechanics of the coaching process. Within a sporting context there is no doubt in my mind that the relationships between coaches and players have a major influence on the performance and satisfactions levels attained by both parties. The coaching process and the coach-athlete relationship are dynamic social activities, requiring engagement from both and, as a result, the coach/athlete relationship is not only a part of the coaching process but the actual bedrock of the process, the conduit for the expression of both coaches' and athletes' needs and how they are fulfilled and expressed.

Sports UK has highlighted a number of key factors in the coach/athlete relationship: commitment, co-operation, communication, bonds, respect, friendship, dependence, power, dislike and distrust. You hear the phrase from time to time from coaches; "This is not my team," and I have to disagree with this statement. It IS your team. Your name is on the manager's door so no matter when you took the job, it's your team. The relationships you build with the players, individually and as a group matter, they shape your success or otherwise.

Historically, the coaching world has been absorbed with the improvement in athlete’s physical, technical and tactical skill. Now however, with the increasing understanding of sport psychology and its role in elite level sports, a spotlight has been shone on the relationships within the coaching environment. Modern players now want a manager who involves them and engages with them in the development of the vision, values and behaviours of the group. They want to be involved or, at the very basic level, feel engaged and listened to. How many times have we heard of a manager or coach losing the changing room, or a breakdown in relationship between a coach and a player?

Why is the coach /athlete relationship so important? Do coaches and players really have to like each other?

The simple answer is no, they do not but it certainly helps. The most important aspect of this relationship is about creating an environment to unlock your athlete’s full potential to maximise

their, and remember your, chances of success. This can only happen when both coach and athlete have a genuine relationship based on, trust, respect, belief, commitment and an agreed and common goal.

The relationship between a coach and his athlete or athletes is a dynamic one in which mutual trust, belief, communication, co-operation, support and understanding are key components within the relationship that lead to performance success and satisfaction. Sebastian Coe (Olympic Gold medallist) said, "When the relationship is in perfect harmony, great things can be achieved."

In a truly successful coach/athlete relationship both the coach and athlete have an influence and impact upon each other’s experience within the setting in which they operate. The lived

experience of both parties is symbiotic and enhances both their lives.

As with all relationships in life, there will a constant change in the status and condition of the relationship. The key here is good communication and listening skills by the coach to understand where the player is in regards to his understanding of the relationship. In contrast to this positive interaction, a poor-quality relationship with a lack of respect, trust and care, combined with a subservient obedience, along with a power/control construct which is coach dominated, will undermine, not only the performance and enjoyment but the welfare and mental health of the athlete. This sort of relationship has in the past led to sexual and mental exploitation of individual athletes at the very extreme. More importantly, many a coach has lost his job due to the breakdown in relationships between them and their players.

As I have stated the coach /athlete relationship is a socially constructed experience, impacted on by the individual, group and organisational cultural context within which the relationship is set. Understanding this social side to the coach/athlete relationship sets the very best coaches apart from their peers. Marc Weise, (three times Olympic gold medal coach) stated: "Coaching is discovering the capacities and capabilities of your players, finding the door that enables you to gain access to your player."

Being an excellent technical coach alone, is not enough to have an impact on athletes. The coach must develop behaviours which are autonomy supportive, provide structure and fully engage with the athlete in order to appeal to the basic needs of autonomy, competence and relatedness, which we all require to be at our very best.

For me it is obvious, the better the quality of the coach/athlete relationship, the greater the satisfaction of both coaches and athletes. In elite level and professional sport, it requires two to

collaborate and bring about advancement in skill development, performance enhancement, participation enjoyment and self-satisfaction. It is the dualistic nature of the relationship that

connects both coach and athlete and has the potential to become a key ingredient in both coach's and athlete's voyage to achieving their full potential.

Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola are just two of the top coaches in the world who understand and maximise the importance of the coach/athlete relationship. Neither the coach nor athlete can succeed alone, but do you really have to like the players you work with? It helps but mutual respect and trust are a more important starting point.

For me it is more important to build a genuine, meaningful relationship based on a set of core values, behaviours and a shared vision. You do not have to be liked or likeable to commit to this, but you must be engaged. In time it will lead to a bond and satisfaction of being connected and in touch and, yes, you may even really like them all.