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Coaching Mental Performance: Developing Rapport

It has been established that a good coach-athlete relationship is paramount for positive performance outcomes at the elite sport level (Gould & Maynard, 2009; Jowett & Shanmugam, 2016; Werthner & Coleman, 2009). In fact, the foundation for this has been well documented in the Counseling profession, wherein the client-therapist relationship accounts for half, if not more, of the growth of the client alongside the interventions utilized during session. Building a relationship in which the athlete’s autonomy is preserved, is treated equitably, fairly, and with equality, in which you honor commitments and keep promises, deals truthfully with your athletes, and promotes mental health and well-being alongside athletic excellence, and becomes their foundation to grow and develop.

Rapport building is about speaking to your athletes about their schoolwork, ambitions, stressors, interpersonal relationships, interests and hobbies. It’s about understanding that your athletes will have a tendency to carry their day with them into the practice gym, ultimately negatively impacting their training performance. It may not be that the athlete is “lazy”, “lacks energy”, “isn’t good enough, or quite there yet”, it may just be a factor of the increasing demand of their other obligations interfering with their ability to be fully present during training. In short, meet the athlete where they are at.

Professional Boundaries

When building rapport, boundaries are set to establish a professional relationship between coach and player. This becomes tricky knowing that we are at the mercy of how our players interpret this relationship. There is an age-old saying in Counseling wherein we want to, “leave no room for misinterpretation.” Speak clearly, succinctly, authentically, and without malice. With that in mind, you can be friendly to your players and still keep it professional. Topics to build rapport are their interests and hobbies, their successes and strifes, their interpersonal relationships, aspirations, regrets, etc. Be careful, your own beliefs will impact their relationship with the world, advice will be taken literally, and there always exists a power-differential as the one in power. We have an obligation to facilitate growth, avoid actions that cause harm, and adhere to the athlete’s right to control their own life.

Transfer of Skill

The more you know about your athletes, the more unique and appropriate your feedback becomes. Athletes who feel cared for will buy into your philosophy and strategy. Knowing your athlete has a specific affinity to types of video games, arts, music, and other sports and organizations will help you connect what they are doing to something they have already done before. Transfer of skill works best when the skill they are drawing from matches the physiological and psychological demand of what they are trying to accomplish. Amongst the myriad of sports references, players that have memorized multiplayer maps in video games can visualize scenarios and imagine where players are standing. Players that sing understand tonal changes, projection, and diction when communicating on the court. Players that engage in the arts can understand the creative process based on feel behind setting an offense or the instinct to make a play.

Where to Start

Rapport building can happen any time you are not giving direct technical/tactical feedback to your athletes. Rapport building can be both in the ways you non-verbally interact with your athletes (like a dance, celebration, or handshake), as well as verbally. Consider the time during water breaks, when athletes are switching between drills, during their warm-up before training, and in their cool-down afterwards. Consider your time in-between matches at tournaments, when your athletes are not taking time for themselves, as an opportunity to check-in with them. If you are looking for an activity for your athletes to engage in that would help build rapport, consider “speed meetings”: View this speed meeting guide.

View more mental training resources

About the Author

Rob Samp is the Mental Performance Coach for MOD Volleyball, a JVA member club in Chicago, Illinois. He currently holds the title of LPC within the State of Illinois, utilizing EMDR and Brainspotting to work with complex PTSD, Depression, and Anxiety around Cook County, IL.  Samp has nearly a decade of coaching experience at the junior and collegiate level. He is grateful to be continuing his pursuit for facilitating performance excellence within MOD, as well as the universities around the Chicagoland area. Click here for Samp’s contact information and website.

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