Which Comes First: Trust or Commitment?

Much to the surprise of some coaches, mental performance expert Jeff Troesch argues that you can have commitment from your athletes without trust. He explains how—and why—this is important.

Young, athletic woman in compression running socks jogging on the beach

Many coaches will claim that it’s a lack of trust that keeps athletes from achieving their goals. Trust your training, trust your technique, trust the strategy. Taking that a step further, what many coaches are really saying is: Trust me. It’s a tall order and it begs the question of how essential it is for an athlete to trust their coach.

We have a tendency in sport to use the terms trust and commitment interchangeably. Trust and commitment are closely aligned, but they are distinct concepts that are not synonymous. Trust is a valuable commodity that often leads to breakthrough performances, however, many athletes approach their sport from a place of distrust or defensiveness. How can coaches help these athletes?

My answer to this question might come as a huge relief. The best way forward in this high-stakes relationship is for a coach to say: “Whether you trust it or not, commit to the process.” I’ve worked with a lot of coaches and athletes who make the mistake of focusing on trust, or the lack thereof, and they end up stuck in indecision and frustration. In reality, it is commitment that is non-negotiable. After all, if an athlete isn’t going to commit to the training program, how can you ever know whether it’s working?

The athlete’s hesitation reveals how trust works as a double-edged sword in the coach-athlete relationship. Many athletes find themselves waiting to commit fully to the coach’s program until trust is established. Consequently, when adjustments are made to the training program the athlete isn’t fully sure that they will work. And it will come as no surprise that those adjustments are less likely to work because the athlete is not fully committed.

Coaches would do well to give their athletes the latitude to not trust. Instead, the coach can ask the athlete to commit to the process of implementing the changes, both on a macro and micro level, that might lead to improved performance.

Ask the athlete to commit to a collaborative process

When trust is an expectation from the onset of a coach-athlete relationship, it can cause a great deal of frustration on both sides. The athlete might ask for evidence or data on why a given approach works, which may cause their coach to feel the lack of trust. If the coach responds to the doubt by being firm and authoritative, or maybe not even recognizing the athlete’s lack of trust, it might cause the athlete to become more resistant.  

As a coach, it helps to keep in mind that the same traits that cause athletes to occasionally second-guess their coach—some level of compulsion and obsession—are what sport is all about; it’s how world champions are made. When the expectation is shifted to commitment, the pursuit of performance becomes a collaborative effort involving both coach and athlete. It’s possible to gather more “clean data” about whether or not a given change is positively impacting the desired performance metrics when the athlete is fully committed to the process. 

As a coach, when you ask the athlete to commit, you are asking them to act in a particular way for a particular period of time. Perhaps you have outlined a race strategy for a 10K. The athlete learns nothing if they abandon the effort after 5K because it doesn’t seem to be working. But the athlete can be confident that if they commit to the strategy for the full 10K and it does not pay off, there will be a discussion about a potential future adjustment to be made.   

Address the fear that hinders commitment 

Sometimes athletes feel like they are committing, but they are stopping short. I liken it to committing to the swing in golf. When an athlete doesn’t swing with conviction through the impact zone, they will often hit a poor shot. All athletes have things that inhibit and compel them. Some are rigid and others are more adaptable, but all of us are susceptible to feeling threatened at times. When that happens, we are prone to “tap the brakes.”  

This is often where I come in as a mental performance coach. It’s my job to help both the coach and the athlete understand where that fear or uncertainty is coming from. How is it affecting their willingness to commit? It’s most often the case that the athlete is worried about the outcome. We tend to tell ourselves a story of how something is going to work out. If the story doesn’t meet our hopes or expectations, our commitment begins to erode. 

Ultimately, it’s the coach’s job to help the athlete manage their internal environment with self-regulation techniques. This creates a greater willingness on the part of the athlete to commit to future adaptations or adjustments to promote their continued development.  

I describe this development as “one day better, every day.” It starts with a commitment to daily improvement. Today will bring an experience from which we can glean wisdom to apply tomorrow. Even if it’s a mistake that was made, if we commit to the process, we can gather experience that enhances the likelihood that trust in that process of development will come.

This is true at all levels of competition, whether we are talking about an athlete striving to compete at the Olympics, a seasoned athlete making the leap from the top 20 to the top five, or a younger athlete hoping to make the varsity team. Optimally, everyone around an athlete shares this perspective of growth and development.  

Athletes also need commitment from their coaches

Now, let’s consider how commitment works both ways. How much does a coach trust their athlete? How committed is a coach to the athlete’s experience if they don’t really trust that the athlete is going to do the right thing, or is willing to be coached? Worse yet, what if a coach gets to the point where they question whether the athlete is “worth their time”? 

I’ve found myself in multiple situations where coaches have expressed similar sentiments to me. They find themselves inclined to put their energy into other athletes who seem to have more potential or “want it more.” Some of these coaches have relied on “strong-arm tactics” in working with their athletes and when an athlete doesn’t respond well, the coach’s commitment to the athlete waivers.  

One of the most pleasurable things I’ve experienced in my career is watching some of these coaches choose to hang in there with those athletes and commit to their development. In time, they learned that they could, in fact, trust that things would work out for these athletes. I can recall multiple instances where the athlete rose to the upper echelons of their sport, far beyond where the coach thought they could go. The athlete’s success demanded a commitment from the coach, in advance of trusting whether these athletes could get there.  

Just as with athletes, the same holds true for coaches. To provide the athlete with the greatest opportunity to manifest their potential, the coach must be all-in on the training regimen and their attention to the athlete, independent of their opinion of how it’s going to turn out.

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Perception often stands in the way of potential 

As a mental performance coach, I want to help individuals advance toward some goal or process, whether that’s to help them improve the quality of their life or their sport experience. I don’t care what level an athlete competes at; I’m only interested in whether they are willing to commit to the process of getting better every day. Are they willing to put intelligent internal and external systems in place to give them the best chance to manifest what their true potential is?  

One challenge facing coaches is that a lot of people undershoot their potential. They don’t believe it’s possible to get to the next level—they don’t see themselves as good enough. I like to reframe that self-perception in the context of commitment: “Don’t worry about when you are going to get to that level. Whether you trust that it’s going to work out in the long term or not, I don’t want that to be a distraction. Go do your job today.”  

I also use this story to distinguish the difference between commitment and trust. More than 33 years ago, when I proposed to my wife, I did not trust the institution of marriage. Both of my parents had been married and divorced three times and I had no clear role models for establishing healthy relationships. Still, at that time, I chose to make a strong, concrete commitment to my fiancée. I committed to the daily actions of being as good of a husband as I could be. I took courageous action, and over time, my daily commitment developed into a deep trust.  

Unfortunately, a lot of people do not commit fully. They have distrust, they hedge on commitment and it prevents them from being successful. Sadly, those things that they fear or worry about are more likely to be manifested in their lives as a result of their lack of commitment. 

Success requires our commitment to daily actions, and this is more important than the goals themselves. James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, put it well: “We don’t rise to the level of our goals, we fall to the level of our systems.”  

“Trust makes committing to the system more comfortable and thus more likely, but barring that, a system of consistent commitment to something gives us the best chance to ultimately manifest our best potential in sport and the rest of life as well.”

Be open to outside feedback as a growth opportunity

When a coach can objectively balance the health of their system in pursuit of the goal, there is great potential to be had. Coaches will often sense that something is holding an athlete back—it might even be the coach’s system. For much of my career, my phone was ringing when the system was on fire or the athlete was broken. Those emergency situations will happen, but every system presents opportunities for growth.  

When you consider sport psychology and how it might benefit your athletes, I encourage you to think of it as additive, similar to strength training and other practices that enable an athlete to be at their best. This way of thinking is becoming more common. Many athletes and systems can go from good to great with minimal change in their philosophy or mental skill-build.  

I’ve come alongside programs where it’s clear that the coach is loath to bring in an outsider. It can feel like a loss of control initially. As is the case in the coach-athlete relationship, commitment must lead the way. I’ve entered plenty of working relationships recognizing that the coaches didn’t trust me, but they were willing to bring me into their circle. While they were the ones to reach out, they didn’t necessarily trust that the messaging or the adjustments I suggested would pay off.

However, through a committed process, some of those coaches who were most hesitant, are now my most ardent supporters. Furthermore, the trust that we established, that earned trust, often surpasses that of the coaches who trust me right from the start. Given enough runway, and consistent commitment to the process, there’s always potential for growth.