2 Principles and a Bunch of Ways to Build Relationships!

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You coach for the relationships. Whether you are an individual trainer or a team coach, relationships are at the core of what you do and your success. The challenge is that relationships are two-way streets, and most people we coach are not as invested as we are. When it comes to building relationships, it often can feel like a one-way street as you do so much for others, only to feel taken for granted and unappreciated.

We crave authentic and genuine conversations, where our players ask how WE are doing, affirm us, and encourage us. But we are often left waiting, and it is often by the people we give the most of ourselves to. While it’s not why we coach, some affirmation would definitely help us to give more!

Well, just like some athletes need more help on their jump shot, work ethic, or leadership, athletes who struggle with interpersonal relationships need encouragement and instruction on how to build those connections.

Craving Authentic Relationships

Nearly seven years ago, one of the most humbling experiences in my life was the week I left Ireland. At a “goodbye party” thrown by friends, over 30 current and former young men I coached attended. FULL DISCLOSURE: I cried like a baby. Without a doubt, leaving Ireland was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do, and those relationships were a big part of that pain.

As I said my goodbyes, former players lined up, each giving me a hug, telling me through tears how much our relationship meant to them. We shared a lot of moments together, and those relationships changed us. Over the years those relationships continued: a few of these players attended my wedding, some flew over to visit me in America, and others just check in from time to time.

Fast-forward five years, my stay in Chattanooga, TN is over. Now, I wish I could tell you that my departure was tears and hugs, but it wasn’t. I would describe the relationships as good, players were kind and respectful, and a few of those young men were incredibly grateful and check in with me every so often. While I left on a very positive note with nearly every one of them, I failed to achieve the emotional bond and connection I had in Ireland, and that still eats at me. I’m left asking, “What was different in those relationships?”

For some time, I had believed that some kids are just too selfish and won’t ever genuinely care that much for you, but I can’t live with that. We CAN nurture selflessness and meaningful relationships.

Mirroring Emotional States in the Brain

Have you ever walked up to a group of people who are smiling and laughing at a joke someone made, and even though you didn’t hear the joke you naturally laugh and smile yourself?

In the Whole Brain Child, Dr Daniel Siegel gives this example to illustrate our ability to mirror other’s emotional states made possible by “sponge” neurons in the brain. We are literally wired to mirror other people’s emotional states, and what makes a big difference is that some of us have developed this area of the brain better than others. What this research suggests is that the inability to empathize with others can be just as much a developmental issue as a character flaw! Sometimes, it’s not that they are trying to be selfish, it is just that they are not wired to be selfless! People who struggle to connect to others, who are selfish, can learn to be selfless, caring, and empathetic by building healthy relationships with teammates and coaches.

So, we need to take a holistic approach to development. We need a growth mindset about selflessness, empathy, and love. Whether they are selfish and individualistic or needy and over-dependent, we can help them develop meaningful relationships with everyone within the team and ourselves.

So, how do we break through the selfishness to build meaningful relationships? Siegel gives parents some very practical advice which can be applied to coaching.

1. The Fun Equation: Fun Experiences > Conflict

The amount of joy experienced needs to be greater than the conflict they experience if we want to build meaningful relationships. Siegel sites research that the best predictor for good sibling relationships later in life is how much fun they have together in their younger years, even if there is a lot of conflicts, as long as there is fun to balance it out.

So often in transformational coaching we talk about setting standards and developing character, but as we work to live out that mission we can sometimes forget to have fun. Laugh! Be yourself, your real self, not just your coaching self, silly or goofy or whatever your personality is when you are at your best in life.

Engage in activities outside of your practices and games. Take team retreats or use trips away as times to just enjoy each other’s company. How do you have fun? How do they have fun? Play icebreaker games, card games, video games and board games. Go fishing, attend another sporting event, or just go get dinner together.

The bottom line is, they will value the relationships more if they enjoy the time they spend with you and the team. Why? As Siegel explains,

“The reason is simple. With every fun, enjoyable experience you give your children while they are with the family [team], you provide them with positive reinforcement about what it means to be in a loving relationship with others. One reason has to do with a chemical in your brain called dopamine. Dopamine is a neuron transmitter, which means it works like cables communicating between brain cells. Your brain cells receive what some people call dopamine squirts when something pleasant happens to you, and it motivates you to want to do it again. Dopamine is the chemical of reward and play and fun are rewarding in our lives.”

So be creative! Make fun team videos and share them on social media and with parents. Cook a team meal for their parents. Have a Nerf gun battle. Find ways that you can enjoy each other and don’t use the excuse “I am too old.”

2. Connect through Conflict

When conflict arises between teammates or coach and player, see these as opportunities to help grow relationships. First, show you care about their feelings by listening and demonstrating understanding. Then ask questions to help them see the other perspective: Why did I/they do that? What might I/they be feeling?

After teaching them to see things from someone else’s eyes, ask for suggestions on what should be done next time. What can we learn from this experience? Help them see the conflict in a positive light, an opportunity to learn and grow.

Lastly, apologizing is important, but taking ownership is making things right. Joe Madden, the Chicago Cubs manager, implemented a policy where when someone violates a team rule, they draw a slip of paper to a bottle of wine which they must share with the manager. Disciplining is an act of reconnection for the Cubs.

While you don’t want amateur athletes opening a bottle of wine, be creative to come up with ways to reconcile. Written apologies, an act of kindness, helping with homework, buying the other person lunch, or even doing a partner workout together.

Call to Action

As a player, relationships are what you remember after it is all done. The bus rides, team trips, and team dinners. As much as we love our sport — these fun moments seem to linger with players more than anything else.

Players will forget about how good of a tactical coach you were or how well you taught them a certain skill, but they won’t forget how they felt when they were with you.

As a coach, the joy from a championship fades quickly, very quickly! And championships are nothing like the experiences of attending their wedding, being asked to be Godfather to one of their children, or just having them stop by to catch up on life. So, put relationships first!

Let me know if you are interested in my mentorship program, which has some spots opening in August. If you have any doubts about the value of the program, I have many current and former mentees who are willing to share their experience with you.

My consulting services are customized programs tailored to fit your athletic department, club, or team’s unique context. I work with administrators, coaches, athletes, and parents to create a culture that develops mental toughness, leadership, and character.

—J.P. Nerbun

Works Referenced

The Whole-Brain Child by Daniel J. Siegel (Chapter 6)