| Building Your Athlete’s Trust: Part 1

Author / John Durrett

5-7 min read

“Buy-In” is tossed around a lot in the coaching industry. When athletes don’t have enough “buy-in” everything falls apart. They won’t do the program, they put in less effort, they show up late, and Thanos keeps the Infinity Stones. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard coaches bemoan their athlete’s lack of buy-in, without understanding that what is really lacking in the coach/athlete relationship is trust. If you want to truly level-up as a coach, you need to be an expert at building and maintaining trust with your athletes. If an athlete trusts you from the bottom of their heart, you will be in a position to unlock their potential like no one else. You will be able to push them to succeed in moments when they would otherwise fail. I have a term I use for these moments built on great trust with an athlete: “Aladdin Moments.” Remember when Aladdin asks Jasmine to step out onto the magic carpet? Read on and learn more about growing your ability to guide athletes to a whole new world of success.

Why Build Trust?

Trust is the quality that gives access to all others. If your athletes don’t trust you, you can’t effectively communicate with them. You will not be able to motivate them. An athlete who is lacking faith in a coach or a program is less likely to show up and give their best effort. If they don’t trust you, they won’t believe you have their best interests at heart, and they may begin to see your constructive criticism or cueing as personal attacks. They will disregard coaching cues that you give them, especially if they are contending with cues they’ve seen or heard from a coach they trust more. A coach is a guide, someone to help point the way up the mountain, and no one is going to ascend a treacherous peak following behind an untrustworthy guide.

Many athletes come to you with self-limiting beliefs. Any coach who’s been on the job for more than a couple hours has seen this. For the sport coach it’s something along the lines of “I’ll never be able to make this shot” or “there’s no way I can defend that opposing player.”

For the strength and conditioning coach, it can be as simple as “I’m not strong enough to lift that weight” or “I’ve always been uncoordinated/lack balance.” If you’re in the private sector and working with a more general population for fitness, it can be even more insidious: “I can’t lose weight, it’s just my genetics” or “I can’t lift weights, I’ll get bulky.”

If you go against these beliefs but haven’t built trust with your athletes, they will see you as a liar. Telling an athlete who doesn’t trust you to “put some more weight on the bar” is about as helpful as offering them unqualified advice on how to fix the transmission in their car: they might smile and nod to be polite and humor you, but they won’t follow through. Their belief system will defeat whatever positivity you try to bring, until you’ve created a system of trust. You can employ every fancy methodology, every “proven” communication tactic in the book, and they will all fall short.

Trust allows athletes to borrow confidence. As coaches, we see the potential that lies within the people we work with; potential they don’t yet have the ability to understand. When we push them to access that deeper potential, it is their trust in us and our vision that gives them the confidence to go beyond their current perceived limitations.

We create a sort of bank account with our athletes when we invest in trust. Various acts can create deposits into that account, which we will discuss later. But, there are also moments when withdrawals will be made. When an athlete fails, plateaus, or suffers a setback in their progression, withdrawals are made from their trust in the coach. If we have a strong account balance with that athlete, we can convince them to stick with things for the long haul, engendering long term relationships that allow greater success. Trust softens the blows of failure and encourages athletes that we are with them for the long haul and will find solutions together.

In order to spend time building this trust, you need to be investing your time in coaching. Too many coaches get bogged down with the programming side of things and try to let exercise selection and fancy progressions replace the connections they should be building by coaching movement, not movements. If programming is bogging you down, check out the many different programs offered by Power Athlete. You’re sure to find one that meets your athlete’s goals, no matter how diverse they may be.

Whether you’re coaching at a top Division I university or have a squat rack set up in an abandoned shipping container, you have to build a culture of trust. Your athletes will build trust by referral: if you’ve built a strong enough culture, trust will be contagious amongst your athletes when they train together. Newer additions will look to the old guard and see their belief in you, inspiring their own faith.

If you work in the private sector, trust is also communicated via business referrals: your athletes become your best marketing strategy, speaking to others about how much they trust you to do a great job. If you work as part of a larger coaching team, trust is also transmitted: if the strength coach is worthy of trust and has their back, athletes will come to expect that the rest of the faculty has their best interest at heart as well. In this way, the culture feeds itself, and trust compounds.

When you can get this full cultural change, magic happens. Athletes who buy into a culture based on trust believe in the coach’s mission, and it will affect not just who they are on the court/field or in the weight room but who they are when you can’t directly influence decisions that make a difference in their games. Athletes will make sacrifices for programs and coaches that they trust and believe in.

How to Build Trust

On day one with an athlete, you have something we can call “name tag” trust. When you go into Starbucks to order a coffee, you expect the person behind the counter to have some idea of what they’re doing: they’ve got that green apron on, but they’ve also got their name on their chest. There’s some skin in the game there, with them putting their literal name on the line and saying, “this is the job I’m here to do.”
However, the second they screw up your half-fat, triple whip, caramel rainbow unicorn macchiato (shaken over ice), trust is immediately diminished. While this is just another reason to drink black coffee, there’s another important lesson here: every athlete comes to you with their own particular “order.” If you want to keep that name tag trust, you need to be ready and willing to fulfill that order.

You can’t just ask someone to trust you. Trust has to be earned, and it is earned in the beginning by small acts. The first and simplest is an investigation of their goals. Ask your athletes what they want to accomplish. Do they believe they can do it? If not, why not? What can you do to help change their minds? How can you help them to do all the things they want to do? This chain of inquiry creates a bond between you and your athlete. They see that you care about their development and what they want to see out of their training, not just your own agenda or the completion of the fancy spreadsheet programs you’ve made. You become someone who will walk alongside them towards their future instead of dragging them along. You begin to become someone they can trust.

While we’re off to a good start, this is just the beginning. Check back for Part 2 of this blog series, where we’ll take a much deeper dive into what actions allow us to build trust with our athletes.

Related Content:

Blog: Drop the Dogma, Make an Impact by Andy Holmes
Podcast: PA Radio Ep 613: The Platinum Rule of Performance
Blog: Coaching Kids to Fail by David McKercher
Podcast: PA Radio Ep 610: The Good, The Bad, The Coach
Podcast
: PA Radio Ep 602: Building Humans for Sport and Life

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AUTHOR

John Durrett

John is a Coach at Underdog Mixed Martial Arts in West Hartford, CT, where he teaches both martial arts and strength & conditioning. For over a decade, Underdog has built several professional fighters, even sending some to the UFC and Bellator. John began training martial arts at a traditional Karate dojo at the age of 6 years old. This was the start of a lifelong journey which has seen him log countless hours in a myriad of styles, including Muay Thai, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Wrestling, Kali, Eskrima, and Jeet Kune Do. In addition, John has spent over a decade working as a professional strength and conditioning coach, coaching at the High School and D-III Collegiate Level. Along with over a dozen other certifications, he holds the distinction of being a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the NSCA and is honored to be counted as a Power Athlete Block One Coach. He is intensely passionate about empowering athletes to find their max potential and explore their body’s unique capacity for the martial arts.

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