Improving the Coach-athlete Relationship: How Does this Help with Mental Barriers?

No one has ever drowned in sweat.

-Lou Holtz, Football Coach

Relationships are the foundation of coaching. Even though every relationship is a two-way street and requires the involvement of both sides, coaches are more responsible for its effectiveness than the student-athlete. As a leader with influence on the athlete, a coach can steer the coaching relationship in a direction that benefits the personal development of the athlete, or one that stifles their progress. Even more so, a dysfunctional coach-student-athlete relationship can create additional mental barriers for the athlete by making it difficult for them to ask for the support they need.

In this article, we will address a crucial topic in every student-athlete’s career: the coaching relationship. As you already know, behind every successful athlete there is a coach or a mentor that impacted their mindset, motivation, and personal growth. Very few people in the world are able to get very far in their life by themselves: there usually is a strong support system that allows them to overcome their mental barriers in sports. Considering this, the current article will examine potential ways in which your student-athlete can improve their mental barriers through an effective and positive relationship with their coach.

Positive relationship

Coaches who build effective personal relationships with their athletes will see more progress regardless of wins simply because they mirror positive qualities in the athlete, alongside positive moral and ethical behaviors. Through a strong alliance with their coach, a student-athlete develops self-confidence and becomes a better team player. They will master critical components for being part of a group, such as empathy, collaboration, and altruism. In response to showing and embodying those qualities, the student-athlete will have a larger support network to rely on, which makes a big difference in their resilience level. A resilient student-athlete has fewer mental barriers to success. They are able to navigate difficult times and challenging emotions because they know they’ve got people to depend on. They know how to ask for help and open themselves to people. While relational abilities might not seem like an important asset in athletic success, they represent a key ingredient in the athlete’s ability to go through challenging times.
Student athlete having self doubt
Therefore, when building a coaching relationship, remember that you are mirroring the qualities of any effective relationship. The student-athlete can take this relationship model you offer and embody it to form successful relationships with others, which is a great tool to use when trying to figure out how to overcome mental barriers.

Modeling self-confidence

A huge mental barrier to success is lack of self-confidence. A young athlete needs external feedback and validation to build a healthy sense of self. They don’t become confident overnight or by themselves. Since a coaching relationship is one of the core relationships in their lives, they will take everything they experience in it and build a positive or negative self-esteem. If, as a coach, you are highly critical or use demeaning language, your student-athlete will internalize the idea that they’re not good enough and can’t live up to your expectations. Even if they have a confidence base built in their family, the student-athlete can quickly lose faith in their abilities when repeatedly exposed to harsh criticism, humiliation, comparison, or other forms of negative motivation. Because of this, a critical approach to coaching will reinforce further someone’s mental barriers to learning.

A coaching relationship should not exclusively focus on winning a game or beating an adversary. Instead, it should make the athlete’s personal development its primary purpose. A major part of personal development is learning to trust oneself and having confidence in one’s skills and knowledge. Unfortunately, many young athletes struggle with that. Competitive environments, exposure to social media, and high standards from family and society make student-athletes vulnerable to low self-esteem. They can remain in a vicious cycle where they doubt themselves and avoid taking action, which, on the long term, impairs one’s growth and personal development. The result? More psychological barriers in sports.

A positive coaching relationship should improve a student-athlete self-esteem, not deter it. The athlete can look up to their coach as a role model who embodies confidence and a “can do” attitude and who can teach them how to break through their mental barriers. A confident coach will empower their student to work with their own skills and create a context for them to bring their natural talent to the surface.

Resilience during stressful times

The way in which a student-athlete evaluates a stressful situation has a strong influence on how they respond to it. If they anticipate the event to be unmanageable and complicated, the athlete’s resilience in the face of the stressor will greatly diminish. On the other hand, if they approach the challenge with optimism, confidence, and a toolbox of personal resources to use in their fight, the athlete will be better equipped to handle it. Herein comes the role of the coach: as a mentor, the coach can help student-athletes appraise the stressful event in a manner that allows them to take action, not just worry about it. The coach’s supportive approach will empower the student-athlete to find those inner resources and skills that help the athlete breeze through the difficult event.

Besides being a source of support, the coach can model a healthy attitude to stress by seeking solutions and identifying their own coping mechanisms. In this respect, the coaching relationship can be a tool against barries to mental health conditions like anxiety. If the student-athlete has a positive relationship with the coach and looks up to them, their relationship can serve as a tool against their mental barriers. The coach can, solely through their own presence around the athlete, enhance their self-confidence and promote a framework for success.

The coach-athlete relationship is the foundation of the athlete’s support system. It can represent the first thing the athlete can go to when they need support and guidance.

How to improve the coach-athlete relationship

If you are an athlete, you probably realize that reaching your goals by yourself is almost impossible. You need a coach to guide, support, and mentor you. But since all relationships involve more than one person, you and your coach need to work and improve the coach-athlete relationship. Here are some tips on how you can achieve that:


  1. Show commitment. If you’re a coach, you can do that by always showing a genuine interest in the athlete’s progress. Don’t just approach them as yet another student-athlete you have to coach. Show them that you want them to succeed as much as they do. Listen to their feedback and needs and do your best to integrate those in your coaching practice. As a student-athlete, you can show commitment to improving the coach-athlete relationship by attending all training sessions, being present during them, and giving your best to follow the coach’s instructions. Be prepared to give up your time to your coach by staying longer on the sport field to practice and scheduling extra session when you need them.
  2. Develop closeness. Even if the coach-athlete relationship is a professional one, it doesn’t mean that the people involved shouldn’t make an effort to improve it. Both the athlete and the coach should take time to provide praise, encouragement, support, and constructive feedback to each other during training, competition, and non-sport-related contexts. They can also engage in small talk, remember each others’ birthdays, and show interest in activities that take place outside of sports. Teambuilding and social activities are also good opportunities for the coach and athlete to trust each other more — these can even involve other people such as teammates, assistant coaches parents, etc.
Student-athlete thinking about failure
3. Set healthy rules and boundaries. A strong coach-athlete relationship does not mean it is free of healthy boundaries. Since the relationship’s primary aim is to improve the athlete’s personal development and sports performance, it needs some rules that ensure the aim is met at all times. Coaches — as the main authority figure in the relationship — have the responsibility to establish clear team rules and expectations (like a code of conduct that coaches and athletes know and understand, as well as the consequences if rules or codes are not followed). Rules and boundaries ensure that both coaches and athletes provide input and actively participate in training sessions. The aim of these boundaries isn’t to constrain the communication between the two: instead, they aim to achieve a balance between order and freedom by providing clear training and competition guidelines and structure.

Athletic progress lies in an effective coach-team relationship

Stronger coaching relationships create stronger athletes. They can be an effective tool against mental barriers in themselves — as they provide a context in which the athlete can grow and learn to trust themselves. If you’re a student-athlete, don’t minimize the effect of a dysfunctional relationship with your coach. It might be a subtle reason why you can’t trust yourself or why you hold back from taking risks. If you’re a coach, make sure to prioritize the way you relate to your athlete just as much as you prioritize the training sessions. When communication, trust, and openness are flowing in the coach-athlete relationship, winning becomes just a byproduct of it.

Therefore, if you‘re looking for tips on how to push through mental barriers such as low self-confidence, stress, or nerves, have a look at the quality of the relationship with your athlete. There is a possibility that some of the athlete’s internal struggles will improve if they find enough safety, trust, and openness in their relationship with their coach.