Building Respect

Working with coaches is an art that can’t be learned from a book. But there are suggested ways to establish good working relationships.

By Joe Schwartz

Joe Schwartz is the former Managing Editor at Training & Conditioning.

Training & Conditioning, 12.7, October 2002,

Developing a good working relationship with coaches is a key element to an athletic trainer’s success. It is also something that cannot be spelled out in a textbook.

“In our profession, there is an art and there is a science in what we do,” says Mike Goforth, ATC, Head Athletic Trainer at Virginia Tech. “Building professional relationships with coaches and getting them to respect you is definitely an art.”

So how can athletic training students learn this intangible skill? Emily Wallin, MS, ATC, EMT, Head Athletic Trainer at Lynchburg College in Lynchburg, Va., has developed a list of things that athletic training students can do to earn a sport coach’s respect, which she shares here.

“Many of my students read the list and say, ‘That’s common sense,’” explains Wallin. “But others need to study the list.”

Professionalism is at the top of Wallin’s list, and she suggests that students strive for it every day. “This means professionalism in both dress and action,” Wallin says. “That goes a long way with the coaches. They notice it right off the bat.”

Proper dress means clean, neat, functional clothes. “The polo shirt and khakis, no sandals,” Wallin explains. “Athletic training students need to look clean and well groomed like a sports-medicine professional should.”

Acting professionally means being punctual and dependable, treating athletes properly and promptly, and answering questions clearly and completely, according to Wallin. It also means having a genuine interest in the team you are working with. “You need to be alert and attentive to all athletes’ needs,” she says. “If you don’t care about the team, the coach will pick up on it right away.”

Other key elements on Wallin’s list include communication, confidence, and a positive attitude. “You need to have good communication with coaches on a daily basis,” she says. “That way, you and the coach both know which students are injured and how they are progressing in any rehab.

“I also tell athletic training students to be confident,” she continues. “Even if they are not confident, they need to act as if they are. Otherwise, the coach won’t trust the athletes’ care to them.”

For example, being confident can mean getting an answer to a question, even if you don’t know it. “If the athletic training student doesn’t know the answer, they need to know where to find the information,” Wallin says. “They should not say, ‘I have no idea.’ Instead, they can say, ‘I’m not sure of that, but I’ll find out and follow up with you on it.’”

A positive perspective is another factor that coaches really pick up on, Wallin says. Having a “can do” attitude and a clear desire to help the athletes goes a long way toward earning the coach’s respect and confidence.

“Athletic training students who go above and beyond what another student would do in terms of positive attitude and work ethic are the ones the coaches just rave about,” Wallin says. “I’m thinking about one recent athletic training student who did that—all of the coaches wanted her back because she is so attentive to all the athletes. She definitely has an interest in every team she works with.”

Goforth cautions that good relationships don’t always come easily. Both sport coaches and athletic trainers are under a lot of pressure, and that pressure can create obstacles. For example, athletic training students occasionally take comments and actions by coaches too personally when they are not meant that way. This particularly is true when a coach who is under pressure may seem to take things out on an athletic training student, according to Goforth.

“You have to realize that often a coach is angry at a situation, not at the athletic trainer or the athlete,” he says. “My advice to athletic training students is to never take things personally. You can’t provide the services you need to provide if you have a chip on your shoulder about the coach.”

Goforth says that if he had to sum up the best way to work well with a coach, it would be to create an atmosphere where the coach and athletic training student respect each other. “There needs to be mutual respect,” he says. “You can never think that what you do is more important than what the coach does, because the minute you do that, you devalue what they do. There has to be mutual respect all the way around.”