Building Trust Between Coach, Athlete and Parent

By Matt Krumrie | Dec. 19, 2018, 10:06 a.m. (ET)

A two-time All-American at Nebraska, Todd Beckerman knows the importance of building a trusting relationship between athlete and coach. And now, as the head coach at Brown University, Beckerman works hard to develop a trusting relationship with his athletes, just like he did with his coaches when he competed.

“Building trust is not always easy but an area that needs to be worked on every day,” Beckerman says. “Trust and belief in your athlete can produce results beyond their abilities.”

Coaches can build trust by developing relationships deeper than just on the wrestling mat and in the practice room, says Steve Garland, head coach at the University of Virginia, where, as a competitor he was a three-time ACC finalist, ACC champion, NCAA All-American, and NCAA runner-up.

“Get to their heart,” Garland says. “It needs to be much deeper. You can’t just talk about outcomes and goals. Coaches can't just say ‘I'm going to make you a state champion.’ Kids want something to believe in. Make sure your athletes know who you are, what you stand for. Give them vision and communicate that vision clearly.”

Beckerman agrees.

“Our coaching staff tries to connect with our student-athletes outside of the room as much as possible,” he says. “A lot of times practices are filled with emotions on a different level, but outside of the room is when you can really get to know your athletes. Learn more about their personalities, what motivates them, hobbies, and ultimately how to push the right buttons to get the most out of our athletes.”

Coaches build trust with athletes by being honest from the start, says Lennie Zalesky, head coach at Cal Baptist University, a Division I program in Riverside, California. “This is number one, and essential for building trust,” says Zalesky.

Don’t just view the athlete as a wrestler, these coaches said. Look to develop the entire person. 

“Strive to know how the athlete is fairing in academics and life,” Zalesky says.

Casey Miller, Director of External Relations for Positive Coaching Alliance, a national nonprofit organization with the mission to transform the culture of youth sports so that youth athletes can have a positive, character-building experience, says building trust through communication and relationship building sets the foundation for coaches, wrestlers, and athletes—especially at the youth and high school level. Miller played professional basketball in Spain and was a member of the Merrimack College (North Andover, MA) women’s basketball team for four years. She also served as the assistant varsity girls’ basketball coach at Menlo School in Atherton, CA from 2015–2018.

“Communicating expectations early on with parents and athletes allows for easier conversations when struggles arise,” Miller says. “Hold a parent meeting before the season starts to set expectations and get to know the families you will be coaching. As you are coaching your teams remember that not every child learns the same way, so take the time to get to know your team and learn who they are off the field or court. Before practice make it a goal to speak with every player about something besides their sport before the end of the day.”

Wayne B. Moss is the Executive Director of the National Council of Youth Sports (NCYS), the largest known organization in America representing the youth sports industry.

Moss provided these strategies for developing trust between coaches, parents, and athletes:

1. Communicate: Coach-parent meeting crucial

“In our professional lives, most of us know that before a project begins, we bring together all the parties to discuss the objectives, goals, roles and outcomes, Moss says. “You wouldn’t begin a project without a project-planning meeting. Neither should you begin the season without a coach-parent meeting.”

The purpose of this meeting is multifaceted, says Moss:

  • To connect with parents/guardians: Establishing a bond and a positive relationship will go a long way in helping to mitigate problems that could arise later on.
  • Provide the coach’s philosophy: Is the coach mostly concerned about building skill or winning games? Is it a meritocracy where the best players see playing time or is there equal playing time? These fundamental questions are good to know. This is also a helpful time for a coach to help parents understand the purpose of youth sports.
  • Set boundaries and instructions: It’s helpful for parents to know that it’s confusing and frustrating for young athletes to hear from their parents from the stands while the coach is providing instructions based on a game plan. It makes your youth athlete less effective. Coaches should be well prepared for this meeting just as they would for a professional meeting. It should not take more than 60 minutes to cover important topics. If there is no meeting planned, parents should request one.

2. Understand the parent’s role

Those new to the sport of wrestling may not fully understand the rules, or what is expected of them. Coaches and returning parents familiar with the coach, club, team, and sport, should guide newcomers.

“It’s helpful if parents have a good working knowledge of the basic rules,” Moss says. “When parents know the difference between an escape and a reversal, for example, it can help them enjoy their children’s participation more. Coaches can help in this area by referring parents to helpful resources or to put on a demonstration clinic.”

Parents should also provide unconditional support. This can build trust, and a bond, between parent and athlete.

“Wrestling is a difficult sport,” Moss says. “Any child who participates displays a level of self-discipline, grit, and determination. They are a winner. Your children need to know you love them no matter what. Let them know how proud you are of them. Express how you love watching them. Praise their effort and improvement more so than the outcome. After you master the right words to say, be mindful of your non-verbal communication. Young people can readily tell when your body language shows that you have disappointed them.”

3. Do not use wrestling to “discipline” your athlete.

“Given how much your athlete loves wrestling, it seems natural to use it as leverage,” Moss says.

Don’t do it. 

For example, if your athlete doesn’t do well on a test, you may think it makes sense to hold him out of practice or the next meet as punishment. However, this not just punishes your athlete, but it also punishes the team. They are counting on him or her to practice or to wrestle. But there’s a deeper lesson here, says Moss, stating: “There is a difference between discipline and punishment. Discipline comes from the Latin word disciplina, which means instruction and training. To discipline is to study, learn, train, and apply a system of standards. To punish is to inflict suffering for past behavior. It doesn’t work. And it’s also harmful. Work with your coach in creating disciplinary opportunities.”

Holding wrestlers accountable is also important, says Garland. They look to the coach for guidance, and leadership.

“Make sure you have rules and guidelines and that you are willing to enforce the rules,” Garland says. “Kids actually want boundaries—make sure you stay firm within those boundaries.”

When coaches and wrestlers trust each other, it transfers over to competition. Being on the same page, especially in those tense or crucial moments late in a match, is necessary for success.

“Believing in the training, coaching game plan, and decision-making all comes back to trust,” Beckerman says.

Be honest, communicate, listen, hold the athlete accountable, and care about them on and off the mat. Repeat as needed.

“Always have a door open and encourage the wrestlers to stop and talk at any time,” Zalesky says.