6 Ways to Build Stronger Relationships With your (Student) Athletes

Posted by Gabe Sanders

Along the way to becoming a better coach and educator in track and field, I’ve come across (in both academia and in real life) six traits I hold to be true of quality coaches that build not only strong individuals in body, but in mind and spirit as well. In turn, the athletes will, in most cases, meet these approaches with a stronger investment back in you; the coach, the program, and in their own personal value and ability to contribute to the team and group.


1.   Acknowledge Them – This can take the form of simply a greeting or welcome at the beginning of practice and can go even further if coming back from an illness or injury. Taking the time to converse with each individual member of the team goes a long way as well in acknowledging personal presence and value. I go out of my way to be sure each athlete I work with every session receive at least 1-2 rounds of personal, formal instruction… all 20+ of them.

2.  Value Them – This can be bled into/from acknowledgement, but goes a step further by communicating high, realistic goals for individuals, showing interest in them as a person beyond athletics, and also being readily available to give your own time to them. Have you ever been blow off by a friend, teacher, counselor, or worse yet, a coach who couldn’t make time for you? That’s how the athlete will feel as well.


coach with athlete.03

“Yeah, I guess you’re cool.”


3.  Respect Them – Specifically, you must, in a sense, honor the athlete for the individual they are. While in many cases athletes are parts of very large groups, there will be a multitude of needs surrounding that group. Allow for the expression of opinions (in a proper setting) without the fear of being judged or put down. Very importantly here, your word is your most powerful tool, if you say you’ll do something, you’ve got to do it when it comes to agreements and commitments. Do not betray the athletes trust.

4.  Demonstrate Fairness – Unless athletes perceive a coach as being fair in making decisions that bare upon them, they cannot begin to like or respect him or her. Not worried about being liked or respected? Then don’t worry about your athletes going the extra mile in training, conditioning, and following through for you. It won’t happen. Success will only be, at best, cyclical.


Training Resource:  Discover a Step by Step Blueprint for Helping Your High School Sprinters Set All New Personal Bests This Season


5.  Exhibit Realness – Being in the position of authority can easily distance the athlete from the coach as a person. Only when we reveal parts of ourselves can athletes begin to acknowledge us as fellow people whom they can have a stronger feeling of trust and respect towards. Sharing anecdotes and experiences from our own lives enable the athletes to see us more as real people, not figures.

6.  Being Open to Humor and Having Fun – This one is almost self-explanatory. Bear in mind for all of you out there screaming that while this may lead into a gray area of loosening a small grasp of authority, it says be OPEN to humor and having fun. There are absolutely times and places for this to take place, and to be honest, while there are inappropriate uses of humor on both the coaching and athlete side, its strength is based in its timing and it fitting into one’s own personality.


Saphier, Jon, Mary Ann. Haley-Speca, and Robert R. Gower. The Skillful Teacher: Building Your Teaching Skills. Acton, MA: Research for Better Teaching, 2008. Print.


Gabe Sanders - Sanders has completed three years as Stanford's sprints and hurdles coach, having joined the Cardinal staff in October 2015. Sanders previously coached at Boston University for seven seasons, where he was the program’s recruiting coordinator. Fifteen school records were set under his watch and Terriers’ sprinters and hurdlers combined for 16 Patriot League titles and 28 America East crowns. He also coached athletes to 10 conference meet records – six in America East and four in the Patriot League. Sanders was named 2012 USTFCCCA Northeast Region Indoor Men’s Assistant Coach of the Year and had 21 NCAA regional qualifiers and one NCAA Championships finalist. A native of Ann Arbor, Michigan, Sanders earned his degree in kinesiology with minors in sport management and communication from the University of Michigan in December 2005. In 2014, Sanders earned his master's in physical education with a specialization in coaching from Boston University.

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