I remember being told a long time ago that a completely professional working relationship must be maintained between the coach and the athlete, you are not their best friend – familiarity breeds contempt. After 15 years of working with some of the most challenging athletes in the world, I couldn’t disagree more.
From Dirt Issue 147 – May 2014
Words by Darren Roberts. Photo by Sven Martin.
My relationship with the athletes is, like any relationship, a complex one. There are power dynamics, double meanings, reverse psychology, fall outs, make ups, respect – it’s like any relationship. The fact is I do get close to my athletes, and for some of them I’ve been working with them since they were 15 years old and they’re now married with children. The key learning is that familiarity does not breed contempt, it breeds what you want it to.
If you want an athlete to do what you ask them to do, then they need to trust you. They need to know you, your likes, dislikes – even your moods. Just as you do with them, it’s such a symbiotic relationship it baffles me to see coaches take the ‘stand off’ approach. By having such a close relationship with the athletes it does have a down side, you do fall out. But this is totally natural and just like a relationship with a wife/husband/boyfriend/girlfriend it’s going to have its ups and downs – it’s called life. Why does this personal relationship dynamic, which is part of our everyday lives, suddenly become un–applicable to your relationship with the athlete?
If you want to have a close relationship with your athlete, then you simply need the emotional maturity to pull it off. You shouldn’t shy away from it or ignore it, and yes, one day you may well fall out with them and not work together anymore. Again it’s that ‘life’ thing, which we somehow don’t think is applicable in sport. The most successful relationships are the ones which are open, honest, have all the ups and downs, but also have total trust. Can’t this be also be true in sport?
The honesty you have with an athlete is vital if you want to genuinely help them with their performance, they need to trust the plan you’ve put in place, hopefully with their input and help. Then you have ‘athlete co–operation’ rather than antagonistic ‘athlete compliance’, everyone has accountability and ownership. This really shines when they become injured or suffer a career threatening injury. It’s during those times they don’t want to hear blind optimism that everything is simply going to be OK, they need honesty. They need that fair and balanced outlook of what could happen or should happen. My athletes are innovators and rule breakers, it’s what makes them what they are. Whether it’s their performance or injury rehab, they expect the same innovation and rule breaking from me. If a ‘normal’ doctor tells them they will be back to sport in 12 months, they expect to be back in three months. If you want an athlete to take part in an aggressive rehab programme pushing the boundaries of what’s possible, they need honesty. It’s a fine line between keeping an athlete’s spirits up when they become injured and giving them false hope. When the magic gains that you said would happen don’t materialise, the rehab process is completely de-railed and what you say gets exponentially devalued – just at the time when you need the athlete to follow a strict regime if they’re to have any hope of returning to sport.
I know coaches who are successful with a dictatorial methodology, but I argue against that because what my athlete’s do has life or death consequences. I’m the only S&C coach I know in my peer group who’s had to go through athlete fatalities, which I guess is why I have no patience for sports scientists acting like the world has ended when someone gets a mild hamstring strain. Familiarity will breed what you want it to, and if that’s contempt, disrespect and non co–operation, it says more about you as a coach than them as an athlete.
I’m lucky with my lot, there is no contempt, disrespect or non co–operation… they simply and blatantly ignore me. But we’re still good friends…Darren ‘Conehead’ Roberts, high performance manager Harris & Ross Healthcare. Working with some of the UK’s biggest household names in extreme sports, such as Danny MacAskill, the Athertons and many more…
This article is part of the Work Out series. You can find the rest of Darren Roberts’ training tips through the links below: