Is it OK to be "friends" with an athlete?
Too often I feel coaches don't know how to properly answer/approach this question. The idea of being "friends" can seem like the right idea to build positive relationships, but it isn't as simple as that. Friendship is something that can be taken advantage of, and we as coaches need to make sure that this cannot and does not happen. I don't think this often-asked question should revolve around friendship, rather I think coaches should focus on the building of respect first and foremost.
The idea of being close with your athletes is extremely intriguing to me. One of the largest driving forces of being a coach is the relationships I have created with my athletes. Before building those relationships though, I create boundaries that ensure everything is built properly. The "friendships" I build with them are very different from the ones they may experience with their peers, and that is simply the way it must be. If you feel differently, I sincerely suggest you take a look at yourself as you may be putting yourself in a compromised position.
During week 1 I am extremely straight-forward and intense with my athletes. This "intensity" I'm speaking of isn't probably what your envisioning. I don't sit there and scream at them. I don't swear at them. I don't push them to the point of throwing up. I make sure there is no down time, I outline my expectations (which are very high), and let them know how lucky they are to have a coach that truly loves the sport they´ve decided to commit themselves to. On top of that, I generally look for a reason in the first couple of days to convey my intensity by calling out any athletes that aren´t living up to my expectations. I know this sounds bad, but with such a large team, I need to make sure each and every athlete is going to understand my expectations and give me nothing less than 100%.
The ironic part of me conveying my intensity this way is that I generally become the closest with those athletes. They seem to understand that by calling them out I am not simply trying to be a bully, but that I have expectations they need to live up to. Expectations are something children/athletes need. They need to feel as though someone believes in them and are holding them accountable because it shows we care and believe they are capable of great things.
After those few initial days my approach to the athletes changes somewhat. I continue to be overly prepared all season long, but after that first week my intensity smooths out and becomes more fun-hearted and enjoyable. As long as athletes give me their best efforts I want practice to be as positive/motivating as possible. I get to know them, I learn of their interests, I create goals with them, I communicate with them on a daily basis (during and outside of practice), etc.
As the season progresses I make it a point to interact with every athlete on my team equally. I want all athletes to know that they are valued and someone I enjoy working with. I make it a point to search athletes out during meets, to check in on how other events are going, etc. This shows the athletes that I am not only a supporter of theirs but also care about their well being and personal experiences; but it is an understanding that a ¨friendship¨ is created and maintained during their high school careers at the track - and only at the track.
I don´t accept any friend requests on social media of any current athletes. I don´t call/text them unless completely necessary. I don´t ask personal questions and go beyond an appropriate point. Friendships are only built to the point of a ¨traditional¨ friendship when they have graduated. Often, I connect with athletes after they´ve graduated to see how things are going, and to offer them any support they might need post high school. After nearly 10 years of coaching this way, I continue to connect with athletes from various stages of my career.
Just the other night I took two of my prior athletes out to dinner to catch up on life. The ability to sit down with them and hear about their lives was wonderful. These two men have done wonders in this world already, and the men they are transforming into is absolutely amazing! What amazed the most were some of the comments they made.
¨...Coach, I think about you and what you´ve taught me everyday and I live by your words. I´ve found such a great life and it´s because of you.¨
¨...You will always be my family.¨
¨...You always pushed me and made me a better man.¨
¨...I can´t explain how amazing it is to have a coach transcend the sport and be a great mentor and friend after 4+ years.¨