Why do coach-athlete relationships matter?

In sport, the coach-athlete relationship is at the centre of coaching. Coaching is viewed as a process and practice within which both coaches and athletes are expected to engage, interact and communicate. It is this combined interrelating between coaches and athletes that define the effectiveness of coaching and ultimately determine the success of coaching. While the coach and the athlete need one another to bring about change in performance (as neither of them can do it alone), they also need one another to experience a sense of personal fulfilment and satisfaction in the pursuit of performance accomplishments. Good quality coach-athlete relationships matter not only because drive better results but also because they create a social environment within which both the coach and the athlete feel positive, happy, energised, determined (gritty) and strong (resilient). The relationship promotes a social environment that is functional within which coaches and athletes are prepared to strive and thrive!

Why mastering the coach-athlete relationship matters

Sophia Jowett

There are so many examples of high-profile coaches who have embraced, understood, and applied the notion that we call “relational coaching environment” where building good quality relationships is at the heart of it. For example coaches across the world who have achieved the highest sport accolades with their athletes include Pep Guardiola (football), Mike Krzyzewski (basketball), Lisa Alexander (netball), Mel Marshall (swimming), Ans Botham (athletics) among many others have talked openly about the role and significance of the coach-athlete relationship. It becomes immediately apparent that these coaches care a great deal for their athletes…love their athletes and want to support them to become the best they can be. Such coaches become talent magnets… because athletes want to work with and for them!

What does a good quality coach-athlete relationship look like?

Our research at Loughborough University has shown that a good quality coach-athlete relationship comprises 4 dimensions: Closeness, Commitment, Complementarity and Co-orientation. These dimensions are briefly described below:

Closeness refers to the affective or emotional tone of the relationship. It captures such feelings as trust, respect, appreciation and liking. Coaches who convey their respect, showing they respect and appreciation or gratitude by being prepared to support, by wanting to know and understand, by considering their viewpoints and indeed by trying to see the world through their eyes are central in developing emotional closeness or strong affective ties.

Commitment refers to the willingness and intention to maintain a stable and secure relationship over time. Sport throws to coaches and athletes numerous challenges that have to be overcome. Commitment becomes a vital ingredient to the survival of the relationship especially during difficult and challenging times that may be sport-related such as injury, deselection, performance decline as well as personal-related such as school exams, work dismissal, school/work underachievement, family bereavement or divorce. If there is commitment from both the coach and the athlete, then it is more likely to overcome difficult and challenging situations. Commitment becomes the glue that keeps coaches and athletes together over time through highs and lows.

Complementarity refers to coaches and athletes’ levels of cooperation, coordination and collaboration. It reflects the degree to which coaches and athletes are responsive, receptive, open, friendly, approachable during training and competition. For example, if a coach readily responds to their athlete following the execution of a movement with constructive and genuine feedback, then the athlete may more readily receive and use this feedback (and even seek out further feedback from the coach). If there is complementarity, the likelihood of athletes feeling intimidated, humiliated and manipulated is low because athletes have experienced coaches’ positive, supportive and helpful behaviours. Complementarity also captures the specific roles coaches and athletes take in this type of relationship. On one hand, coaches are leaders, orchestrators, instructors and on the other hand athletes are followers, executors, doers, and makers.

Last Co-orientation simply reflects the degree to which coaches and athletes understand one another and outlines the degree to which coaches and athletes have developed a common ground. It is a measure of the extent to which coaches and athletes are trying to see the world through each other’s eyes. Co-orientation relates to the notion of empathy and perspective taking.


Perspective taking is the ability to look beyond your own point of view, so that you can consider how someone else may think or feel about something. To do this successfully, you must have some understanding of others' thoughts, feelings, motivations, and intentions.

Our research has also shown that Communication is a dimension that is instrumental to good quality relationships. Here is, an analogy that I use to pull all Cs together: The quality of the coach-athlete relationship (defined by the 4Cs) is viewed as a vehicle that takes coaches and athletes on a journey where A is their starting point and B is their destination. The relationship as a vehicle requires fuel to transport both coaches and athletes from place A to place B (a “Better” place). Communication is the fuel, the energy and power of coach-athlete relationships. Communication as a fuel can accelerate/speed up or decelerate/slow down the journey. Communication powers the relationship and empowers coaches and athletes within their “working” sporting relationships. COMPASS is an evidence-based model that encompasses 7 strategies of communication: Conflict Management, Openness, Motivational, Preventative, Assurance, Support and Social Network. We have found that coaches (and athletes) use these strategies to maintain good quality, functional and healthy working relationships. The use of these strategies is found to promote closeness (increased mutual trust, respect, appreciation), commitment (enhanced eagerness to continue the relationship) and complementarity (improved capacity to work together in responsive and friendly manner).

While coaches’ overarching goal is to support athletes achieve their goals, meet their athletes’ needs, support athletes develop and grow physio-social-psychologically, some coaches fall short. One important reason for this may be their focus on performance issues and less so on relationship issues. The coach-athlete relationship is at the heart of coaching and in turn the quality of the relationship can define the effectiveness (process and practice) and success of coaching (destination). Thus, a conscious and deliberate effort to invest in building good quality relationships (4Cs) and communicating competently can have long-lasting and cumulative effects on coaches’ and athletes’ performance and wellbeing including on their growth and development, personal success and satisfaction, as well as mental and physical health. Failing to notice the relational side of coaching, is failing to notice yourselves as coaches and what you represent (values, goals, expectations), as well as failing to notice your athletes – the people who you so desperately want to support and develop.  

Reference: Jowett, S., & Felton, L. (2024). Understanding the coach-athlete relationship. In L. Davis, R. Keegan, & S. Jowett (Eds). Social Psychology in Sport. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Social Psychology in Sport-2nd Edition – Human Kinetics