The Craft of Coaching, Live Q&A: How to Build Trust with Athletes

What's the best way to handle an athlete who has a plan of their own? Joe Friel talks about the coach-athlete dynamic and how you can use doubt to strengthen the relationship.

Coaching athletes who want more control

In The Craft of Coaching series, Joe Friel explores the effect of autocratic and democratic coaching styles on athletes. While each style has merit given different scenarios, listening to the athlete and looking for opportunities to educate and empower them will ultimately improve the coach-athlete relationship. It also helps the athlete feel invested in the training program.

There’s no better way to get buy-in from an athlete than to empower them to make their own decisions. In the Q&A video above, Joe Friel referenced a coach who lets his athletes decide how best to execute the specific workouts in a week of training. That’s Coach Trevor Connor, Fast Talk Labs co-founder and CEO. Connor gives athletes a roadmap for training that communicates the purpose of each session and how to achieve it, then he leaves it to the athlete to decide what session to do each day. Take a closer look at how this works in his season plan for a masters athlete in the build-up to a key race.

Coaching athletes who lack ability or motivation

Module 7, The Versatile Coach, further illustrates how coaches can adapt to better meet the needs of their athletes. In Daniels’ Running Formula legendary coach Jack Daniels describes how talent and motivation can be used to identify four different types of athletes. Friel draws from his own experience to describe the challenges a coach might face with these athlete phenotypes. Get to know some coaches who have been particularly effective in coaching athletes with lower levels of motivation or ability in sport, whether that be back-of-the-pack athleteswomen who have never competed, or people contending with serious health issues

Coaching athletes with trust issues

Mental performance coach Jeff Troesch has made a career working alongside coaches and athletes at the highest levels of competition, from the world endurance sports to NCAA Division I team sports and professional golf and tennis. In Module 8, The Psychology of Performance, Motivation, and Athlete Development, Troesch outlines a strategy for developing trust with athletes that is rooted in a collaborative process and a firm commitment from both athlete and coach.

RELATED: Check out the previous videos in this mini-series, How to Avoid Coaching for Free and How to Grow Your Coaching Business.

Video Transcript

Rob Pickels [0:03]

“On the topic of trust, how do you deal with an athlete who is constantly bringing you a new idea they want to try? In other words, maybe they’re caught up in comparing their training to what other people are doing, what they saw on the Internet, the latest, hottest YouTube video.”


Joe Friel [0:16]

“Yeah, I know what you’re talking about. I’ve dealt with that situation many, many times. So . . .  and, quite honestly, sometimes it’s good. You know, I would encourage athletes to come up with ways of improving their training and share them with me. Let’s talk about it.

[As a coach] you’ve more than likely got a strong background in the science of coaching, perhaps, or nutrition, or some aspect of coaching besides your general coaching knowledge, which is vast. Coaches have had this gigantic amount of information they’ve developed over the course of many years just because of their experience. They didn’t go to college to get this. This is knowledge that came about because they’ve been involved in sport for so long.

The athlete sometimes is relatively new to the sport, and they’re learning things and hearing about things that sound like they’re really kind of like great ways, great shortcuts to get to where I want to go. And I would encourage people to chat with you about that. If they’ve got an idea that they’ve read somebody online is doing, something they think might work for them, chat with them about it, find out. It may be that maybe they’re right, maybe they’ve got a good idea. There’s nothing wrong with using the athlete’s ideas.

Most of the time, though, I think you’ll find, though, it’s pie in the sky . . . it’s really not anything that’s going to do anything for them. It just sounds good and somebody else achieves something with it. That doesn’t mean everybody’s going to achieve something with it. This is a good time for you to cement your relationship with your client. That’s what this is all about. I think you’ll find, though, it’s pie in the sky, it’s really not anything that’s going to do anything for them. It just sounds good and somebody else achieves something with it. That doesn’t mean everybody’s going to achieve something with it. This is a good time for you to cement your relationship with your client.

That’s what this is all about. Don’t reject anything [athletes] bring to you as being valueless. If they come to you with an idea, talk with them about it. This is your client. Coaching is really not just a one-way communication. It’s not just you telling the athlete what to do. It’s also this communication back from the athlete, back to you, which is helping you to come up with better ways of coaching the athlete.”


Rob Pickels [2:14]

“So Gerald’s question is this. Seven out of eight athletes I have are happy following the plan, with some asking how it helps them. They trust the process to get faster and I can show them. However, one athlete wants to have a plan for the week: two breakthrough workouts, a tempo workout, some endurance workouts. And then he says he’ll decide when he wants to do each workout. He doesn’t want to be told when to do it, only how to do it. He was doing well before this change in behavior. How would you convince him [of] the change that worked in the past?”


Joe Friel [2:49]

“Yeah, a good question. I know one coach who actually does that—the coach just lays out the workouts for the week and the athlete can decide when they’re going to do those workouts based on their lifestyle. And there may be some education that has to go into preparation for this, but there’s no nothing wrong with it.

Sometimes it’s better actually, especially if somebody has a lifestyle which changes. And so in that case, it may be good for him to be able to put together his own his own plan based on the workouts you gave him.

But if the athlete comes to you with workouts they want to do, which are not appropriate, you need to chat about that also. [In] the examples Gerald just gave, an athlete wanted to do a lot of workouts [that] have a lot of high intensity, it sounded like. And that’s not necessarily going to be a good thing for them to do. So you want to talk about, you know, that sort of thing, get their input on why they want to do these things, as we talked about earlier.

But the bottom line is, it’s not really a problem of letting the athlete decide how to how to schedule the workouts as long as you teach them the details of how to go about organizing their own week. For example, you wouldn’t want two very hard workouts back-to-back necessarily, maybe times when you would, but right now, perhaps we don’t, and we want to separate them by 48 hours, 72 hours . . . something like that. Given those parameters, here it is. Here [are] the workouts. You decide how to do them.”


Rob Pickels [4:14]

“And here’s the thing is that the absolute most optimal thing to get the absolute best training response . . . maybe it’s not, but sometimes that’s not the main goal. Sometimes just working with the athlete and getting most of the way there, but allowing it to fit into their life, to not overstress them, to not ruin their family life or work life, or whatever it is . . . sometimes those things are very important too. So I think that we recognize it’s not the absolute best way to go about it when it comes to pure science and physiology, but when it comes to working with people, it’s actually pretty valid, a pretty valid method.”


Joe Friel [4:47]

“I agree.”