Building Bridges: Earn the Trust and Buy-In of Your Athletes


Author: Zane Guadagnolo

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The great leaders in history were masters at moving people not just physically toward a common goal, but emotionally as well. How is it that these individuals were so convincing in their ability to persuade others? Some chose authoritative leadership, using fear and consequence to force action from their subjects. However, there are more advantageous ways to convince people to do what you charge them with, and like it too. The truly great leaders used transformative leadership principles such as selflessness, authenticity, and honesty to inspire and connect with their followers. As coaches, we can use these tools to create strong bonds with our athletes and build bridges that could last a lifetime.

Be genuinely interested in them.

Possibly the easiest and most effective way to get people interested in you is by being wholly and genuinely interested in them. By showing interest in others, you are far more capable of winning them over than if you tried to generate interest in yourself. Dogs are a wonderful example of this. Dogs make their living by showing you absolute love without any ulterior motives and are masters at this principle: You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you. At some point in your life, whether it be at work, school, or on a sports team, you’ve been told to do something by someone in charge who doesn’t show any interest in you. How did you approach the task that was charged to you? More than likely, you went about completing the assignment with no drive, some complacency, and very little enthusiasm. On the other hand, think about your favorite boss, teacher, and coach. How did these people approach you when assigning a mission to you? They greeted you enthusiastically, began the conversation by talking about your interests, and let you know you were the perfect person for the job. How then did you respond to the task appointed to you? You started working immediately with energy, focus, and commitment to producing the best outcome possible. In other words, you gave everything to the task they assigned you. As coaches, if we want full effort and complete focus from our athletes we must get them excited to do the things we ask them to. I want you to think about how you greet or address your athletes when they arrive for practice or training. Do you check their name off on the clipboard and move on to the next one? Consider taking some time, doesn’t have to be more than ten seconds, to ask how your athlete is doing. Go further and inquire about their school, family, business, or the music they’re listening to. Even these micro-conversations can start building the bridge between you and your athletes. However, the importance of being genuinely interested can not be overstated. A show of interest, as with every other principle of human relations, must be sincere. It must pay off not only for the person showing the interest (read: coach), but for the person receiving the attention (read: athlete). It is a two-way street and both parties benefit.

Write down 2-3 strategies in which you can show genuine interest in your athletes

and start building the bridge. Then place these strategies somewhere you will see

them often (bathroom mirror, desk, car).

Principles for building trust.

Showing genuine interest is the foundation to building trust between you and your athlete, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Developing principles that reinforce and continue to establish the relationship are vital as well. They are the walls and roof that protect the relationship from exterior forces.

  • Goal-Oriented Practice

Few things will build more trust and buy-in from your athletes than providing them with sound, goal-oriented training programs. The very reason they come to us as coaches it to help them improve their sport abilities. Because of this, we must make it a priority to establish what an athletes personal goals are and be honest about how our training program will help them accomplish those goals. When your athletes being to recognize the positive results of your program, it reduces their desire to look over the fence and see if the “grass is greener” anywhere else. Some athletes may still choose to take their business elsewhere and this is sometimes our of our control. Don’t be discouraged by this, rather continue to reevaluate your program, determine what is best for your athletes, and don’t follow the crowd without a legitimate reason.

  • Laugh it up!

If you aren’t using humor to connect with your athletes then you’re missing out on an incredibly powerful tool. Humor can enhance engagement, rapport, and learning regardless of the setting in which you find yourself. Many coaches have adopted an authoritarian approach that represses their athletes personalities and uses strict rules to build discipline. If you’ve spent any time talking with your athletes, you ought to know how much pressure they can feel from schoolwork, family/relationship issues, or even paying bills. Our athletes really aren’t that different from us when it comes to the things we stress over. By using humor, we can help ease the mood, create a supportive environment, and allow them an escape from outside pressure even just for a short time. Until a relationship is established between you and your athletes, be sure to use appropriate and non-disparaging humor.

  • See the world from their viewpoint

Trading shoes with someone doesn’t seem all that meaningful from a literal meaning, but consider the figurative meaning and you get to see the world from their perspective. Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within the other person’s frame of reference. Empathy creates strong support beams that the bridge between you and your athlete rests upon. We can’t expect to ever truly connect or get the most out of our athletes unless they know we understand things from their point of view. So often we see a disconnect between a coach and their athletes. We’ll see a coach bark orders or give technique instructions as the athlete stands there bewildered and unsure of what to do next. Avoiding situations like this in your program requires an understanding of where your athlete comes from before any instructions are presented. Grasping empathy for your players is not a passive action. It demands that you make the choice to put the other person first if you want the relationship to truly last.

How the coach-athlete relationship effects collective efficacy.

Last time we discussed how a leadership mindset in coaching roles effects collective efficacy. Remember, collective efficacy is defined as a group’s shared confidence in their conjoint capabilities to successfully organize and perform collective tasks. Using a democratic style of leadership enables everyone's’ voices to be heard and considered when making decisions. We determined that this style enabled ideas to flow freely, strong social support, and exponential growth in our programs. This time we will assess how the coach-athlete relationship effects collective efficacy in a positive manner. Research shows that athletes who feel close to their coaches and predict long-term commitment to their development feel more united and confident in their abilities as a member of a team (read: increased collective efficacy). In other words, coaches who desire to have buy-in from their athletes should seek to develop meaningful relationships with them that will last. When built upon a democratic leadership style, a quality coach-athlete relationship increases the likelihood that team cohesion and task completion will be successful. Another interesting aspect that results from significant coach-athlete relationships is the understanding that leadership responsibilities can be shared. No longer does the idea that a coach must be the sole leader of a program hold true. When quality coach-athlete relationships are developed, the workload becomes collaborative and the relationship symbiotic. Athletes are unlikely to produce top-level performances without the support of their coaches and coaches are unlikely to be successful without the athletes’ talent, commitment, and enthusiasm.

Being genuinely interested in your athletes lives, providing them with sound training programs, giving them humor to ease the stress, and empathizing with their viewpoints are essential tools to use when bridging the gap between you and your athletes. You say you want buy-in and trust from your athletes, so meet them where they are by building bridges one support at a time.


Carnegie, D. (1981). How to win friends and influence people. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Bartholomew, B. (2017). Conscious coaching: The art & science of building buy-in. Omaha, NE: Bartholomew Strength.

Hampson, R., & Jowett, S. (2012). Effects of coach leadership and coach-athlete relationship on collective efficacy. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports,24(2), 454-460. doi:10.1111/j.1600-0838.2012.01527.x