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The 3 Things Athletes Want

Recently, I asked athletes all over the country to tell me what three things they want from a coach.  I was specifically vague in saying “things” because I did not want to lead the answers to a specific area like coaching style, personality characteristics, practice philosophy. So I just said “things” and wanted to see where the athlete’s minds went.  I received over 100 responses from both genders, a wide age range, and across many different sports.  The responses were genuine and provided great insight into what our athletes are craving from their coach.

People use many words to describe the same thing so allowing athletes to express themselves freely left me with the task of categorizing responses.  The responses ended up falling into one of the following categories (alphabetized for your suspense)…

  1. Encouragement/Believes in Me/Supportive/Positive

  2. Fair

  3. Honesty

  4. Knowledge of game/Teaching skills

  5. Loves the game/Passion

  6. Pushes Me/Challenge/Discipline/Constructive Criticism

  7. Relationship/Caring/Approachable

  8. Respect/Willing to Listen

  9. Understanding

As you read this list of categories, some may surprise you and hopefully some do not.  But what tallied up to be the top 3 certainly gave me great insight.

But before I share that, take a minute and read over the categories again.  What do you think were the top 3?  Which one did you think ranked 1st?  Which ones do you think ranked at the bottom?  Jot them down … Let’s see how well you know today’s young people …

#1 – Athletes want you to push them, challenge them, & give them feedback. (tweet this)

At 53%, the most stated “thing” athletes want from a coach was “Pushes Me / Challenge / Discipline / Constructive Criticism”.  I’ll be honest.  That was not what I expected.  I was hoping that some athletes wanted that, but didn’t expect it to be over half the athletes.  I am probably not the only person that thought this either.  Look back at your jotted down list.  Where was Pushes Me on your list?

I believe our culture, news media, social media, and small numbers of high school and college athletes have perpetuated this myth that young people don’t want to work hard.  The myth that they don’t want discipline or to be corrected.  And as coaches, we have developed this aversion to challenging our athletes because we’ve developed a perspective that they are soft.  Based on the words from the horse’s mouth, this isn’t true for the majority.  They want to be pushed and challenged.  This was an awesome revelation to this exercise.  Here are some verbatim comments from the survey that spoke to this.

19 yr old baseball player – “pushes to be my best. Doesn’t let me slack”
16 yr old volleyball player – “keep me focused on what I need to be doing”

And with most things, how it is delivered determines how it is received.  It’s like coffee to me.  I love coffee.  But if you try to serve it with cream & sugar, you can have it back!  I don’t want it served that way. Pushing, challenging, criticism is the same. They want it, but it is best received served with #2.

#2 – Athletes want to be cared about as people and want to have a personal relationship with their coach.

That is where our 2nd most requested “thing” comes in.  52% of the athletes (1% below Pushes Me) included an answer that fell into the “Relationship/Caring/Approachable” category. Athletes are communicating they want a coach that cares about them.  They want a coach that cares as much about them off the field/court/pool as they do on.  They want a coach that they can have a relationship with … that they can come to.  Again, this touchy feely stuff is portrayed as a specific generation Y/Millennial trait. But that is a lie too. 

I’m 43 years old and 25 years ago, I wanted to be cared about too.  I wanted to have a friendship with my coach.  That isn’t new.  It just wasn’t done very much.  We did what the coach told us to do whether we felt he cared or not.  But I’ll tell you a dirty little secret that is not a secret at all because we all know it but we just don’t say it out loud.  If one of my coaches would have cared more about me, I would have tried harder.  I would have been less willing to give up.  I would have listened more intently to his instruction.

But like my coffee analogy, kids want to be pushed and challenged (#1) but only by people that care (#2).  Don’t bring them the coffee with cream and sugar because they will bail on you. 

The question we as coaches have to ask ourselves is:

  1. Am I willing to invest time in building meaningful relationships with my players?

  2. Do I actually care about the human beings on my team as people 1st and players 2nd?

  3. Am I approachable to my team?

Below are some of the actual responses that made up the tally on this category:

21 yr old female that plays basketball – “cares about me as a person”
18 yr old that plays baseball – “relationship even if I’m not a starter”

Now to prove to you that this survey wasn’t all responses of sunshines and rainbows, I did get this response from a female that plays basketball “To be treated like an athlete, not a daughter. I have a female coach right now that tries to be my mom more than my coach. I already have a mom, just be my coach.”  So not EVERY athlete wants that relationship but a majority do.

#3 – Athletes want positive encouragement and for their coaches to believe in them and support them.

The third most frequent response fell into the “Encouragement / Believes in Me / Supportive / Positive” category.  Athletes want to be encouraged.  They want to know that the coach has their back, believes in them when they don’t believe in themselves, doesn’t tear them down when they are already down.  It boils down to their desire for you to stay positive with them. 

Now when I say this, don’t hear what I’m not saying.  I didn’t say you always have to be like “you can do it Billy.  It’s going to be ok.  You’ll get it next time. Smile, it’s not that bad”.  Being positive isn’t always silver linings and pots of gold.

Sometimes it’s “Today, just isn’t your day.  I know you don’t feel very good right now.  But you’re a good player and have worked too hard for this to be all there is.  Tell “I suck” “I’m terrible” “I quit” and “I’m not good enough” that the pity party is over and they can go home now.  Get some rest and show me what’s really inside tomorrow.”  That too is staying positive and encouraging and letting the person know you believe in them.

I believe this particular point rose to the top of the list partly due to well-intentioned but horribly executed post game drives home with mom and dad.  We would think parents (speaking to myself here too) would be the most supportive but many times we become the most critical.  Why did you swing at that ball over your head?  Why did you hit that ball in the water?  Why did you take that bad shot?  In some warped sense, we think we are helping our son or daughter see the errs of their ways.  News flash … (read as a whisper) they know they screwed up.  Reliving it isn’t supportive or encouraging or instills any belief that they will do it better next time. Sooooooooo, coach … they are probably wanting that encouragement & support from you.

Here are some direct comments on this:

16 yr old that plays softball – “doesn’t give up on me when I have a bad game”
17 yr old that plays baseball – “confidence/believes in me”

Now check your list you jotted down at the beginning.  How did you do?

The whole reason for asking athletes this question wasn’t to learn how to spoil them.  It was to understand how to earn their trust.

Most young athletes know what they want but don’t always know what they need.  That is where our value as coaches comes in. When athletes trust us, they become open. And when they become open, they are willing to accept the things they may not understand, but we know they need.

If you’d like to hear more specifics on responses or have a discussion on my thoughts and ideas on how to implement these athlete requests, email me at or tweet, tag, or reach out on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram @SeasonBuilder


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