It takes time and effort to build a supportive environment for your players, especially now. For­mer coach and ath­let­ic direc­tor Cory McCarthy breaks it down into manageable steps.

“The more we learn about who we coach, the more we learn about how to coach them.” 

The player-coach dynamic has gone from a transactional relationship to a transformational relationship. Regardless of the outcome of the game, I’ll be at your wedding. You can suffer a season-ending injury, and I’ll be there when the cast comes off. If you endure tragedy, I’ll pick up the phone. Arrested? I’m bailing you out just so I can be the first one to go off on you after your release.

Coaches are the ones responsible for what I call “parenting the game.” This is an enormous  ask—coaches have to not only teach kids how to play the game the right way, but also somehow create an environment that constantly builds and supports the shaping of their identities. This is how I do it.

Get on a first-name basis.

The first step towards building a relationship with any of my players is having them call me by my first name. If we eat together day after day throughout a grueling season, you can call me Cory. If you give me your best effort game after game, practice after practice, while performing well in the classroom, you can call me Cory. 

You sometimes hear, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.” Well, when it comes to coaching student-athletes, presence makes the relationship stronger. Being present is the single greatest variable to winning at coaching. 

We’re all human—remind your players of it.

As the adult, your connection to a player isn’t exclusive to your personal success stories. It’s your failures that are relatable. Any shortcomings or previous challenges you’ve overcome can help build a connection based on trust and shared beliefs. 

I take great pride in sharing my life’s experiences with my team, and making sure we see and experience things together, as a team. Many of my players who came from tough economic situations have never left the state, so I took them to New York City and Florida to play games. Some of my kids were embarrassed by their inability to afford the cost of college tuition, until I showed them how financial aid and self-determination in the classroom could make college affordable. 

Team dinners, like this one during a break in our Florida tournament, are a great way to create shared experiences.

Start (and continue) honest conversations. 

These lead to a new depth of trust in my student-athlete relationships. Once they can rely on that trust, fear slowly becomes less intimidating. That math exam becomes less of a mountain, and college applications are no longer a bear. The discussion becomes about making it in life because of the patience you showed them as their coach. 

One night after a fall league game, my team and I were driving home. We were talking about  college and whether or not I’d have a job the next day because it was so damn late. Then one of my guys brought up a family member who’s a drug addict. As I exited the highway, someone asked if I had plans after we got back. I joked about needing to update my resume. That’s when the player in my front seat let me know that he didn’t want to go home, none of them did. 

It completely broke me, how much they trusted me, the coach. I felt like Patrick Swayze in the movie Ghost—I clearly wasn’t there enough for my guys. The next day, I called the director of the fall league and requested earlier games so we’d have time to eat and do homework together after we drove back from playing. These moments weren’t calculated or intentional, they were organic and necessary to cultivate that impermeable player-coach relationship. I was once in their shoes, and it was my coach that helped me get a handle on life. I managed to obliterate the predetermined outcome most young black men face because of someone I can still call “Coach.” Whatever your kids are burdened by, they still have you. Be their person.

A few extra ways to build better player-coach relationships.

  • Learn their backgrounds. If you know their family, you’ll know how they came to be the people they are.
  • Eat together. (The meal doesn’t even have to be that good!) It’ll give you an idea of their eating habits and nutrition.
  • Rebound for them. (This goes for every sport.) Those who rebound for you always make sure you get another shot, and no one forgets who rebounded for them when no one else would.
  • Be flexible in your coaching style. It’s selfish to say, “My way or the highway.” Some players appreciate the volume of your message, while others might prefer one-on-one delivery. Tailor to your players. Teams who win on and off the court are often full of players who have been influenced by the coach in different ways.

Cory McCarthy spent more than a decade coach­ing bas­ket­ball. As Direc­tor of School Cul­ture and Cli­mate at New Mis­sion High School, he has helped lead the school to being named the 2012 EdVestors’ School on the Move, 2013 Nation­al Blue Rib­bon School for Improve­ment, and the 2017 Title One Dis­tin­guished School. McCarthy has rep­re­sent­ed Boston Pub­lic Schools at con­fer­ences such as ASUGSV Tech­nol­o­gy Sum­mit in San Diego and COSE­BOC in Boston, MA and New York, and has been a guest lec­tur­er at Emer­son Col­lege and UMASS Boston.