3 Proven Strategies to Get Athlete Buy-In

Throughout my career, I’ve had an opportunity to observe and work alongside a lot of great coaches. One of the many reasons I feel so fortunate to have an opportunity to work with USA Hockey’s Women’s National Team is that it was through this work that I was introduced to Sarah Cahill. As with athletes, every coach has his or her own special areas of expertise. Over the 4 years we’ve worked together, Sarah has become both a great friend, and a constant source of inspiration and education.

Sarah Cahill-USA Hockey Olympics

Sarah at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.

Sarah could very well be the world’s leading expert in the “art of coaching” and more specifically, coach-athlete relationship building. She has the unique ability to bring out the best in other people, and more importantly, to inspire athletes to want to bring out the best in themselves.

Through a few months of persistent insistence, I was able to convince Sarah to share some of her expertise with us. Enjoy!

3 Proven Strategies to Get Athlete Buy-In

Have you ever coached a group of athletes or clients and left the session feeling like something was off?

How about meeting with a coach or parent and feeling like you were talking in two completely different directions and were never able to find common ground?

Creating buy in, regardless of whether it’s with an athlete, client, parent, or coach is one of the toughest parts of our job as strength and conditioning coaches. But it can also be one of the most rewarding and effective ways to unlock the potential of others, and to discover people’s inner motivations.

Here are 3 proven strategies to create buy in with those that you work with and get more out of every session.

1) Search for opportunities for 1:1 interactions

Problem: When working with a large group of athletes it can be difficult to provide each athlete with individualized attention without:

  1. Avoiding other athletes
  2. Creating blind spots and
  3. Making others feel as though you are showing favoritism.

Solution: During the warm-up or before the workout begins is an excellent opportunity to seek out brief 1:1 interactions.

When the group arrives try to triage the room and seek out those that appear disinterested, those that are new to the team, or approach returners whom you already have great relationships with.

Kneel down with those athletes and try to strike up a conversation by starting with an open-ended question.

Make a point of having different interactions with different athletes everyday. 

At the end of the workout, head back into your office and pick up a note book to jot down any information you want to remember about your daily conversations with those athletes: their sister just left for ___ college, they just got a new puppy named ____, their family member passed away and the funeral is on _____ date etc.

These notes may provide you with an opportunity to get to know your athletes and revisit certain conversations weeks later.

Personally, this approach and these conversations have led to some of the greatest insights about my athletes, helped strengthen my relationships with them, and thus led to much more “buy in.”

2) Create Consistent Messaging

Problem: Often times we are coaching our athletes in conjunction with other strength coaches, interns, or sport coaches, which may lead to confusion.

There is no faster way to lose credibility in the eyes of your athletes than to provide them with a different message than other coaches you are working with. We’ve all found ourselves in the scenario of having just coached an athlete and having that athlete turn to us and say that’s not what Coach “X” told me.

View More: http://brittanyhydephotography.pass.us/sc-strength

Solution: One of the best ways to create buy-in with athletes is to get on the same page as the other professionals you are working with so that your messages are consistent.

This may mean attending extra meetings with the sport coaches, attending more sport practices to learn sport-specific language and messaging, or being more aware of others in the weight room.

For example, try assigning different roles to your interns or assistant coaches, where one coach can be assigned to provide positive messaging to your athletes, another coach can be assigned to survey the athletes and document exactly what weight they are using and how difficult the exercise was, etc.

Finally you could assign one intern/coach to focus in on the specifics of one exercise that day and getting really specific with your coaching cues.

Assigning specific roles allows you to give your coaches very specific directions on how you want them to communicate to the athletes, minimizing the risk of them saying something inconsistent with your message.

Consistent messaging will strengthen your credibility as a staff with those that you work with, minimize athlete frustration, and ultimately lead to much more effective sessions.

3) Try the 1-6-5 Approach

Problem: You do not have 24/7 of your athletes’ time in the week. The final strategy for effective athlete “buy-in” is something I recently heard in an interview with Dr. Roy Sugarman, author of Motivation For Coaches and Personal Trainers and Director of Sports Psychology for EXOS, during a great episode of the “Coach your Best” podcast by Jeremy Boone.

In the podcast, Dr. Sugarman introduced what he calls the 1-6-5 Approach to mental performance. This approach is something I try to emulate as I believe it is an incredibly important ingredient for athlete buy-in. The basic premise of this approach is that there are 168 hours in a week, and most coaches get to work with their athletes three days a week for 1 hour. This means you have a presence in their lives for 3 hours a week, and for the remaining 165 hours they are on their own.

The question is what are those athletes and clients doing during those 165 hours? Often times as coaches we are asking for our athletes to make small changes, but for most people change is incredibly difficult. It is during those 165 hours that our clients and athletes may be making choices that directly contradict our recommendations.

Solution: Therefore, to create the greatest amount of buy-in with our athletes we must find ways to have a presence with our athletes during the 165 hours.  For example, in my work with the USA Women’s Olympic Ice Hockey Team, we send our athletes daily surveys to fill out every morning. These surveys have been incredibly informative and are another effective tool to continue to have a strong presence during the 165 hours.

Another effective tool in maintaining a daily presence is to send a “random” (but calculated) athlete a text or e-mail just to check in. The true magic and when the greatest amount of buy-in takes place when we find ways to inspire our athletes to want to make changes for themselves.

Wrap Up

If we always remember to work towards the 165 hours by creating authentic relationships with our athletes through 1:1 interactions, consistent messaging, tasking them with things to think about when they’re not with us, and by personally checking in during the week, we are maintaining a strong presence in their lives and showing each athlete that we are by their side at all times.

As a result, when your athletes are faced with those difficult decisions about going out drinking with friends, or staying home to get a good night of rest, they will be better prepared to make the right decision.

Hopefully these strategies are helpful or reinforce what is you already know. Coach on and continue to change lives!

-Sarah Cahill

Sarah Cahill is the Site Director of InnerCity Weightlifting (ICW, Kendall Square) and a Strength and Conditioning Coach for USA Hockey’s Women’s National Team. Prior to joining ICW, Sarah spent time as a Strength and Conditioning Coach at Northeastern University, as the Head Performance Specialist at the Core Performance Center, and as a Strength and Conditioning Coach at University of Oklahoma.

To your success,

Kevin Neeld

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