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Analyzing the dynamics of a coach-athlete relationship

Like any other human relationship, the relationship between a coach and an athlete heavily relies on communication, understanding, commitment, trust, and mutual alignment of expectations. The connection between the two is vigorous and special beyond the shadow of a doubt. However, the complexities of the dynamics are often unheard of and are not talked about. This relationship includes a shared passion for the sport, commitment, joint goals, and not to mention significant times spent together. Moreover, the one thing that makes it highly complex is the inability on the part of the coach to draw a line from taking the role of a third parent in an athlete's life. There is an incredibly high level of trust, closeness, association, and influence involved, most of which are inevitable due to the nature of the roles and can be intrinsic to the pursuit of improvement and performance, regardless of the level.

When it comes to the nature of a coach-athlete relationship, we can say that the relationship, or so to speak, should be absolutely non-negotiable, magnanimous, and transparent. This article explores to great lengths how the dynamics of a coach-athlete relationship transpire with time. The nature of the relationship inevitably determines the performance of an athlete as well as the coach.

The intricacies/complexities

Young athletes step out of their houses for training camps and tournaments at a very tender age of about 10-12 years. They are not only away from home protection but are also thrown into a highly stressful and competitive environment at a very young age. These young lads struggle to comprehend and process all that is happening to them and start to rely on their coach to help them figure it all out. A lack of supporting mechanisms like physiotherapists, nutritionists, psychologists, doctors, and so on leads to the athletes seeing their coach as a one-stop shop for everything. It's like they are stuck in a dark night with very little to hold on to, and they only see mornings and light when they are with their coaches. The coach is their sole source of strength, holding and bolstering them up when they are about to collapse and relinquish.

Nevertheless, the age gap between an athlete and the coach also leaves space for the athletes to be easily exploited. There can be a scenario where so much trust is endowed on the coach that the athlete becomes blinded, leaving space for their exploitation and making them vulnerable in the hands of the coaches. This not only takes a toll on the athletes' mental and physical health but can also have detrimental effects on their performance.

"Athlete A" on Netflix Shows the Devastating Toll of Speaking Out About Sexual Abuse ll Courtesy: Netflix

Likelihood of being exploited

We always expect our parents to be our primary caretakers who provide us with proper nutrition, access to health care facilities, education, and above all, love and support. When it comes to a sports scenario, these concerns fall on the coach as the athletes are only juveniles, spending the majority of their time away from their parents and home. The responsibility then falls on the coach to be the guardian angel who would always come to the rescue of the athletes. So many duties are entrusted to the coach that he/she/they become overburdened along the process and opt for unfair means and practices that can exploit the athletes. However, the exploitation and abuse that the athletes go through can in no way be justified by the responsibilities or duties that the coaches have on their shoulders. Time and time again, the line between tough coaching and mistreatment of the athletes gets wholly blurred. In fact, research shows that about 50% of athletes, generally women, have experienced anything from mild harassment to severe sexual abuse in their sports careers.

There is a fragile line between the touch that is required and the touch that is absolutely unnecessary, and this often goes unseen. Athletes have admitted to feeling certain discomfort and unnerving but struggle to differentiate between a good and bad touch because it is happening to their fellow mates as well. Moreover, it has been happening over such an extensive period of time that sometimes athletes start to normalize it for themselves because they don't want to put their careers at stake.

The coach is entitled to enough power and faith that the authorities trust him more than the player when an incident like this happens. This leads to identity crises on the part of the athlete, where the athlete might feel hesitant and scared to ask for help. Most of the time, they don't even know they need help. Or sometimes, they are just very reluctant to approach higher authority or their parents because they feel that nobody would trust them and that the burden will fall on the athlete themself. And this would later hamper the relationship between the two because the likelihood of the player getting selected into the squad reduces significantly.

Coaches Bela Karolyi and Martha Karolyi with Kerri Strug in the US Gymnastics Olympics Trials | Getty Images

An environment of lack of trust and cut throat competition

There have also been instances of the athletes resorting to immoral activities to gain the trust or win over their coach since, at the end of the day, only one player can take up the number one position. This again results in the responsibility falling on the coach to maintain a balanced and healthy competitive environment for the betterment of all.

Words Echo Beyond the game

he behavior and words of the coaches have an eternal and permanent power to influence the athletes' life. They accelerate and resonate beyond the game. This is why it is indispensable to maintain a healthy and fruitful coach-athlete relationship since this connection is carried forward throughout the lives of the former and the latter. The engagement should also have some boundaries because if not, it can, unfortunately, turn out to be exploitative in nature. The communication should be lucid and clear to the extent that the students should be able to divulge every trouble and issue to their coaches.

In conclusion, the relationship between the coach and the athlete is vital for the athlete's personal growth as well as career advancement. While the majority of studies concentrate on good coach-athlete relationships, there is a need to investigate the variables that may influence strong coach-athlete relationships. It is strongly advised to do a thorough investigation that focuses on coaching's other crucial components besides performance.

About the author

Vaishnavi Nudurumati

Sports. Feminism. Social Justice. These are words that distinctly describe Vaishnavi. A state and national Taekwondo medalist, she holds an honors degree in Political Science from The University of Delhi and is keen on pursuing a Masters's degree in Public policy in the days to come. Currently, a fellow at Teach For India, Vaishnavi runs a sports project that aims to promote sports as an inclusive haven for all. Her Project explores the intersection of sports and social justice, furthering accessibility for the underprivileged and providing them with the strength and fortitude to fight all the stigma, stereotypes, and exploitation that comes their way. She also has a special affinity for debates and is interested in understanding policy making and how it impacts and affects the diverse communities around us.

About Simply Sport

Simply Sport is a sports policy research & development organization based in India. Simply Sport’s vision is to promote sports as an effective tool for the development of the nation. It focuses on policy research, grassroots development, and the use of technology in sports. To subscribe to Simply Sports Newsletters, Research & Articles, please write to You can follow Simply Sport on the Twitter handle @_SimplySport for more sports-related content.

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