By Robby Duncan
There has always been a visible black-and-white line between the coach and the athlete that separates them into their proper places, but as technology has improved over the years, that line has grown a little grayer and harder to see. Coaches and athletes are now closer than they have ever been, and it is important to remember that certain boundaries need to remain intact.
- Always Be The Coach
Letting your athletes know right away that you are there to be their coach and to help them improve as an athlete is a simple and vital thing to do. It tells your athletes that there is a line that shouldn’t be crossed. Of course, you still care for your athletes, but this helps to establish appropriate types of conversations to have with your athletes, as well as the types of activities that are acceptable when the team is together. There needs to be a certain level of respect between the athlete and coach so that each party knows and understands what is acceptable within the relationship. If the athlete knows that you are there to be their coach and not their friend, then everyone knows exactly where they stand.
Athletes come from a variety of home environments, and coaches need to be cautious how they relate to their team members. Resisting the temptation to act as a parental figure is critical in helping athletes understand that there are just some things you cannot do for them. Coaches should make sure that they are not attempting to replace the parent or guardian and to keep the relationship professional.
- Don’t Become Too Much of a Friend
As coaches work closely with their athletes, obvious bonds are forged that give the appearance of friendship. Respect the boundaries between yourself and the athletes, and be cautious in how you communicate with them because if you are too casual, it will give the athlete a sense of familiarity that could lead to a difficult situation down the road. Coaches would not act or speak around their athletes in the same way they do with adult friends – both in and out of the profession – so they should encourage the same frame of mind with their athletes.
Be careful in the advice that you give athletes, especially anything outside the scope of coaching. Let’s face it, there are certain conversations that take place between coaches and athletes that should not occur. Some of those conversations should occur with parents, clergy or a counselor/therapist. Be cautious in the advice that you give because your values might be different than the parents, and you could be sending a conflicting message. Remember, your job is not to help athletes with their relationships, family problems and other serious issues. Coaches can provide some basic advice, but if the conversation starts to shift to a more serious topic, it is a good idea to get the parents involved.
Have rules and expectations for your athletes and stick with them. Do not play favorites, even if you have some you like more than others. It is important to treat all of your athletes equally and enforce the rules unilaterally.
- Be Professional
Work hard to keep your personal life and professional life separate because once they start to mix, the job can become difficult. Inviting athletes to your home is typically not a good idea. Once they find out where you live, your status changes from coach to friend in a hurry. It is recommended that you do not give your phone number to athletes. While it is important for your athletes to be able to contact you, more often than not, that contact is better made through e-mail because then conversations can be documented. It also gives you a chance to choose your words more carefully and answer the question better than you would if you felt pressured on a phone call.
Be cautious of texting, Twitter and Facebook. These types of easy electronic communication can make getting in touch with your athletes easier, but it can also be a connection to things that could place you in a negative light. As these types of communication become larger conduits for athletes to share information with friends and family, be aware that colleges and universities are watching these sites as well searching for inappropriate activities and potential rule breaking. Again, like phone numbers, you would be best served by avoiding these types of situations.
When in doubt, place yourself in the position of a parent. If you think that you would consider a particular activity or conversation between your child and their coach inappropriate, then chances are the parents of your athletes will as well. Place yourself in their shoes when considering if the situation you are in is something that you should continue participating in.
- Keep Conversations Appropriate
There are subjects that coaches should discuss with their athletes and others that parents should discuss with them. If you are having conversations outside the scope of your employment, it is not difficult to determine if that conversation is appropriate or not. Conversation topics should deal with the sport you coach and discussion about personal matters should be avoided – unless it is something that has started to affect their on-the-field performance.
When an athlete comes to you seeking advice on aspects of their personal life, it is best to direct them to their parents rather than attempt to give an answer yourself. If the conversation starts to drift into those types of areas, have the athlete talk to their parents or member of their clergy to resolve those problems. Obviously, coaches need to be aware of things like abuse or drug problems because they are legally obligated to report them, but talking about their love life and things of that nature should be off limits.
- Be Aware of School, District and State Policies and Follow Them
These policies have been set for a reason and coaches are expected to follow them. There is not much leeway in policy matters, so when in doubt about the exact wording of a policy, use caution. Anytime a situation develops, imagine yourself sitting in front of your principal discussing a specific situation. If you feel that you can defend that situation to your principal without any negative consequences for you or the athlete, then it should be fine. But if you think you might be on shaky ground with your principal, then you need to find a way out of that situation as fast as you can.
Most of these policies are now available online and are easy to find. The scope of our employment is detailed by these policies so it is important to know what you can and can’t do. Pay particular attention to policies regarding travel with athletes in your vehicle, interactions with athletes on personal time, hazing and appropriate team activities because those policies will have a direct impact on how you set up and run your team.
Five quick tips to the “right relationship”
- Always be the coach. Make sure your athletes know the line between you and them. Try to keep that line as distinct as possible and do whatever you can to keep from blurring it.
- Be their coach, not their friend. Your athletes have plenty of friends – they need a coach and a role model. Be that for them. Don’t allow yourself to get too personal with your athletes so you can avoid problems later. Have rules and expectations for your teams and stick to them. Don’t play favorites and violate your own policies. Treat all of your athletes equally.
- Be professional. Always keep your personal life and your professional life separate. Athletes should not be visiting you at home, calling at all hours of the night, texting, twittering or requesting you as a friend on Facebook. Always remember that you are the adult in every situation and act accordingly. Consider how a parent would react to the relationship between you and an athlete when you consider if something is inappropriate or not.
- Keep conversations appropriate. Make sure that you are talking about things you should be talking about. Try to stay out of the personal lives of your athletes as much as possible.
- Be aware of school, district and state policies. Make sure you know the expectations for your job by those who have hired you. Follow the policies or you could be finding yourself out of a job.
About the Author: Robby Duncan is an English teacher and track/cross country coach at Taylorsville High School in Salt Lake City, Utah. He was an assistant coach at Bingham High School in South Jordan, Utah, for 11 years. Duncan was an accomplished athlete at Weber State University, where he competed in the steeplechase and qualified for the NCAA Track and Field Championships and Olympic trials.