Play­er-Coach Rela­tion­ships: Make Them Trans­for­ma­tion­al, Not Transactional

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

Play­er-Coach Rela­tion­ships: Make Them Trans­for­ma­tion­al, Not Transactional

It takes time and effort to build a sup­port­ive envi­ron­ment for your play­ers. 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.