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Build a Better Connection With Your Athletes: 'I Wish My Coach Knew...'

with Wade Gilbert

Have you ever been frustrated, disappointed, or puzzled by your athletes’ behavior? Of course, happens all the time, right? We all experience those moments when we witness one of our athlete’s making a poor decision, showing lack of focus, or just plain acting out of character.

In our haste to act quickly and "coach," we often base our response on the many assumptions we hold about each of our individual athletes. We form impressions of our athletes from the moment we meet them, and these impressions are then typically reinforced through a self-fulfilling prophecy referred to as coach expectancies.

These early formed impressions are difficult to change and can negatively impact athlete development and performance. Research shows that if a coach perceives an athlete to have low ability or poor work ethic, they are less likely to give that athlete positive feedback. The athlete in turn perceives the lack of feedback as a sign that the coach doesn’t care much about them or their development. This results in the athlete putting forth less effort which the coach then observes as confirmation of their initial expectancy. The cycle continues, reinforcing the self-fulfilling prophecy.

Recently while participating in a quality coaching panel with renowned coaches and coach consultants John O’Sullivan and Jerry Lynch, I was reminded of a powerful strategy coaches can use to counter-act the formation of unfounded perceptions of their athletes. Coach O’Sullivan shared how throughout a season he asks his athletes to complete the following prompt on a sheet of paper:

• "I wish my coach knew this about me..."

This simple strategy, that can take less than one minute for athletes to complete, can be used every few weeks or perhaps at the end of each month. I guarantee you will be amazed and moved by some of the information your athletes share. The responses can then be used to reflect on assumptions (expectancies) you hold of your athletes and the behaviors you are observing.

If you aren’t convinced that this simple strategy will have a profound impact on how you coach and connect with your athletes, read the statements written by young students when prompted with ‘I wish my teacher knew…’. Some examples shared by NY Times Reporter Donna De la Cruz include:

• "I wish my teacher knew my dad works two jobs and I don’t see him much"

• "I wish my teacher knew my mom might get diagnosed with cancer this week"

The responses you receive from your athletes aren’t likely to always be this serious, but at minimum you will learn something new and valuable about each of your athletes. And it costs you nothing more than a few minutes at the end of a few practice sessions. This proven strategy is a simple and effective way to challenge your assumptions and build stronger connections with your athletes. Learning how to connect with your athletes is the foundation of quality coaching and an athlete-centered approach.


Changing the Game Project. (2017, October 29). WOC #33: Best selling authors Wade Gilbert and Jerry Lynch discuss what quality coaching really looks like. [Podcast]. Retrieved from http://changingthegameproject....

De la Cruz, D. (2016, August 31). What kids wish their teachers knew. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/0...

Gilbert, W. (2017). Coaching better every season: A year-round process for athlete development and program success. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Solomon, G. B., & Buscombe, R. M. (2013). Expectancy effects in sports coaching. In P. Potrac, P., W. Gilbert, & J. Denison, (Eds.) The Routledge handbook of sports coaching (pp. 247-258). London: Routledge.

United States Olympic Committee. (2017). Quality coaching framework. Retrieved from https://www.teamusa.org/About-...

Wilson, M. A., & Stephens, D. E. (2007). Great expectations: An examination of the differences between high and low expectancy athletes' perception of coach treatment. Journal of Sport Behavior, 30(3), 358-373.


Wade Gilbert

Professor Wade Gilbert

Wade is a professor in coaching and sport psychology at FRESNO STATE UNIVERSITY IN THE USA. Wade is an internationally renowned coaching consultant and sport scientist and an award-winning professor in the Department of Kinesiology at Fresno State University. His Main areas of interest are in coach learning and building positive learning culture for coaches.


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