Published April 2017

The Key to Building Meaningful Relationships in Coaching

Years ago as I excitedly awaited the start of our season, three weeks into our pre-season training two of our starters chose to join the football team, and this meant they would miss the rest of pre-season training and the first month of the season.

As you can imagine, this was not a basketball coach’s dream situation! Some of my anger and disappointment at their decision was based on their lack of communication, the reasons for their decision, and my feelings on the fact that our football team would let them join mid-season. I still believe much of that frustration was justified.

However, the majority of my anger and disappointment came from my belief that I knew what was best for these players and my selfish desire to have them around at the start of the season. I think young people can sometimes see our motivations better than ourselves. Over the next few weeks the way I handled the situation was based upon my feelings and not the values I held as a coach. I treated those players as players and fooled myself into believing it was about teaching them commitment and communicating things the right way.

Sadly it took 9 months before I sat those young men down and apologized for the way I handled the issue. The mistake I made was seeing and treating them as players that had failed to live up to my expectations or my idea of what is best for them, instead of seeing and treating them as young men whose value and self worth have nothing to do with basketball or any sport. I had viewed and treated my players as players.

“When people treat people like people, there will always be progress and growth.” -Jamie Gilbert, Burn Your Goals

In my ten years of coaching I have always cared a lot about my players. While I did care about my players, I still entered into each “player-coach” relationship as a salesman. My goal was always to get them to buy into my vision for the program.

All too often, we as coaches obsess about our system.

We look at each person and try to determine their role in that system.

We focus on what we want for that person instead of what that person may want for themselves.

We see this from the very start of the “recruiting process” at every level of sports, not just collegiate. Coaches try to sell young people on why they need to play a certain sport or come play for their program. We assume we know what is best for the player without even truly listening to them. We feel we are an authority on how they can reach their potential without knowing their heart.

Players will see through this and will always question in the back of their minds how much we truly care about them as long as we fail to listen to their needs, ideas, and aspirations.

In high school I played for a coach who constantly talked about how much he cared for his players, but expressed his caring by yelling and screaming when we failed to live up to his expectations on and off the court. The love he felt for us as players seemed to correlate to our performance and actions. Love is selfless and if we truly love and care for our players, then our relationship with them will be based solely on what we can do for them and not what they can do for us.

Going into my last season as a coach I knew some of the relationships might never flourish because of the foundation that was laid in the previous years. That did not stop me from living out my number one mission: Build meaningful relationships by loving the young men playing in our program.

I stopped seeing the relationships with the young men who played basketball on our team as 50/50 relationships. It wasn’t about meeting halfway anymore. I hoped for 100/100, but I only focused on what I could control… giving 100% to that young man regardless of their actions.

I still set boundaries and enforced consequences with my players, but I did it with a heart posture of love. I stopped assuming I understood what they needed and started listening.

Late in the season, one player in particular had a significant drop off in attitude and effort over the course of a week. He walked in 20 minutes late to practice and had failed to communicate that he would be late. Previously I would have been all over his butt and I was not feeling a lot of love for this young man that day, as he had been a real pain in the butt lately. He had already suffered some consequences earlier in the week for sleeping through a practice and it seemed like I was going to have to enforce some hard consequences again. In a previous season I would have immediately reminded him of how he had let the team down and questioned his lack of commitment to the team, but instead I listened. There at center court I learned of some serious challenges in his home life and gained a deeper understanding and empathy towards his circumstances. I quickly was reminded AGAIN this game is just a game. His actions, attitude, and behavior over the last week were not excused, but they were understood and I was in a better position to help him.

I got into coaching to serve players, NOT so players could serve me.

Our expectations of our young men and women should based on the manner we believe they are capable of acting and behaving, not the things we want them to do for us.

Accept it.

We have to give a lot more than we expect from others, and give our all without reservation or expectation of something in return.

That’s love.

As my last season and time at Notre Dame High School came to a close this was they key principle to my success. I could argue it was critical to us repeating as district champions, but that is not what I mean by success.

Success was mending the relationship with those two players that I had a falling out with two years prior, and then going on to see them develop mental toughness on and off the court, become leaders, and one of them even receiving the coach’s award at the end of this season.

Success was a team in tears at the end of our last game, not because we had lost in overtime, but because it was the last time we would all play together.

Success was leaving those young men behind knowing they were more equipped than before to continue to grow as leaders and as people.

While I had failed many times before…

I see my biggest successes in the forging of meaningful relationships with young men and women I have had the privilege to coach by focusing on what I can do for them, not what they can do for me.

-J.P. Nerbun

April 2017