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How to gain the trust of players as a coach when you first join a team

How to gain the trust of players as a coach when you first join a team

10-minute read

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In this blog I will provide a vignette to demonstrate how differences between the coach and player on the personality trait, openness to experience, have led to a disagreement. In addition, I will introduce the concept of empathy, and its skillset, and show an example of how the coach uses empathy as a useful disagreement management strategy to successfully overcome the personality clash with the player. If you are reading this on your phone, the commentary during the vignette is missing, please read the webpage version of the blog to see this.

Setting the Scene

Archives (fictional team) is a professional League of Legends (LoL) team that competes in the League of Legends European Championship (LEC). Archives are considered a ‘sleeping giant’ of the league, where despite boasting an impressive roster of top talent, they always just fall short of qualifying for playoffs (7th, 8th, and 7th place respectively). The coach, Jacob, was an ex-professional LoL player of 8 years before he retired to start his career as a performance coach. He had been coaching for 3 years before he was recruited by Archives to be their head coach. The Archive roster has been stable for the spring and summer split in 2021 and the spring split in 2022. However, going into the summer split of 2022, Archives decided to make a roster change in the Jungler’s position, recruiting an experienced LoL player, named Harry, who had international recognition as being top 5 in Europe for the Jungler role. Harry came with such a reputation that Jacob, the coach, was certain Harry would be the final piece of the jigsaw needed to take Archives into the playoff positions. 

Jacob was such a high scorer on the personality trait, openness to experience, that this underpinned his whole coaching philosophy. Jacob loved to be innovative, preferring to try out loads of different agent combinations and map strategies rather than stick to a select few. So much so was his desire for variety, that Jacob would be happy for the team to experiment with a completely novel agent setup, even in high-pressure matches. However, in return for providing players with this freedom, Jacob demanded that players push themselves outside of their comfort zones to learn new agents and develop a broad set of team strategies to develop a flexible playstyle capable of adapting to the opposition's playstyle. Jacob felt the key to success was outsmarting the opposition by being unpredictable. The long-serving players on the team enjoyed the freedom Jacob provided them with and so were happy to push themselves to learn new agent abilities and team strategies.   


Harry, the new Jungler, scored much lower on the personality trait, openness to experience. He much preferred to coach himself and practice on just one or two agents that he considered to be the best in the league on. Jacob also felt that if you master a team strategy that makes the most of your team’s strengths, you will always have a competitive advantage over the opposition. Therefore, to Jacob, he felt the key to success is to not be concerned with adapting to the opposition's playstyle, but rather to have faith in your team's strengths and to use a settled strategy that puts players on their strongest agent. Jacob was also eager to have a lot of autonomy over his development, choosing to practise on his own accord in solo Q and without much input from teammates or the coach. 

During the first few training sessions, everything seemed to be going well. Harry had been proving his performance as a Jungler and everyone on the team appreciated the improvement in skill level he had brought to the team. However, after a bit more time, coach Jacob observed that Harry was quite stubborn in his playstyle and would be resistant to make changes and try out new agents that he was not immediately comfortable with. Jacob was concerned that due to Harry’s rigidity of only being skilled on a few agents, the team would lose its competitive edge of being flexible and unpredictable if Harry doesn't learn to be open to new ideas and become more adaptable for the sake of the team. Therefore, Jacob arranged a review meeting with Harry to provide Harry with some feedback on his role within the team:



Jacob (C): Hey Harry, can I talk to you for a minute?

Harry (A): Yes, sure!

Jacob: I’ve really been impressed with your skill level and think you have added a lot to the team in a short space of time. Going forward though, I am keen for you to get comfortable with some new agents and get to know their strengths and weaknesses so we can be more flexible with our agent setup. Is that ok?

Harry: But coach, if I play on agents that don’t play to my strengths, I won't be confident or perform as well. 

Jacob: But you can get confident in those agents with practice, no? And your performance will be better off in the long run if you can become more tactically flexible.

Harry: No not really, I’ve got to this level without needing to learn new agents, I am good enough with what I already know. Just play me on my strongest agents and I'll deliver the goods!

Jacob: But we need you to be more flexible for the sake of the team, Harry. This is quite a selfish perspective you are taking here. It’s about what’s best for the team at the end of the day.

Harry: But me being at my best is what’s best for the team, how can you not see that!? 

Communication Skill

Asks permission to chat


Provides constructive feedback underpinned by a desire for the player to have greater openness to experience


Resistance to change underpinned by a desire for closed-mindedness

Argues for greate open-mindedness by the player

Argues for greater close-mindedness


Shares frustration over lack of open-mindedness


Shares frustration over lack of respecting his close-mindedness

What Went on Here?

As you could tell, this conversation got less and less productive as the dialogue went on. In the end, the open-mindedness of the coach was butting heads with the closed-mindedness of the player leading to a stubborn desire by both parties to stand their ground. This stubbornness is the prime issue for why personality clashes are so hard to resolve. Disagreements that involve our personality can make us to feel like the core of our identity is being attack, making us much more likely to become defensive. So, what can be done about this dilemma?   

Whilst uncomfortable, disagreements are a normal and expected part of the coach-player relationship. And as noted in blog 3, the successful management of disagreements by a player and coach is believed to grow their relationship in such a profound way that it can be questioned whether successful long-term relationships are able to exist without disagreements (1). Therefore, rather than working on ways to avoid disagreement, coaches and players should skilfully work with disagreement to enhance the productivity of their relationship. Joseph Rhind and Sophia Jowett coined such a skillset as being well-versed in relationship maintenance strategies (RMS): “strategies used by coaches and athletes to keep their relationship in a specific state” (2 pg. 228). One such RMS that has received scientific support to help coaches and athletes overcome conflict and strengthen their relationship is to develop either one partner (usually the coach) or both partners' empathic accuracy (3). Empathic accuracy is “the ability to accurately infer how one’s sporting partner is thinking and feeling” (1, pg. 226). But you may ask, how does understanding another person's perspective  help sort out disagreements? Well, let’s look at the theory behind this. 

Communication Psychologist Rene Daily developed what is known as Confirmation theory (4). Put simply, confirmation theory is the idea that the strongest human need is for a person to feel recognised, valued and accepted by another person for their unique perspective. However, Rene Daily and additional communication scholars have found that people want to simultaneously be accepted for who they are and challenged to be a better version of themselves (4,5). Studies have found that when a player feels accepted and valued for who they are and challenged to be someone better by their coach, they show a greater willingness to learn and change their behaviour than if they just felt accepted or just felt challenged by the coach (4,5). The idea that humans are more motivated to change their behaviour once they feel their original behaviour is valued and understood links back to our desire to be appreciated as unique. That is, as humans we have an innate need for our independence to be respected in the company of others (4). Hence, when we feel our perspective is valued by someone, we are more willing to take on board their perspective or consider a change in our perspective because we become feel our right to be heard has been upheld which makes us less defensive in our nature.

At the heart of feeling accepted for who you are, is for someone to show empathy towards you as it show they have understood your point and view. Empathy is about adopting an attitude of valuing and seeking to understand another person's perspective even when it differs from your own (6). Hence, empathy cannot be mastered through a sterile use of communication skills. It requires the use of both the head and heart to have a positive influence. Whilst being empathetic is crucial to overcoming disagreement, it is considered the accuracy of the empathy experienced by the receiver from the sender that is most healing (6). As noted in confirmation theory, what people want is to be valued for who they truly are. Therefore, for empathy to help someone feel understood in your presence, your empathy should aim to let the receiver know that you have accurately understood what it means to be them. It is only when the person feels your view of them matches their own self-concept, do they then turn their attention away from protecting themselves and onto becoming a better person. To show how empathy can be used in practice, we will break down empathy into the following communication skills (7): 

Adopt a curious attitude - Before you speak to someone, remind yourself to be curious, not critical of their perspective.

Ask open questions - Helps explore your partner's perspective with questions that ask for elaboration (e.g., why do you think that?). 

Use listening statement - Show you are understanding your partner’s perspective by stating back to them what you are hearing.

Seek clarification - Ask the person if you have understood them correctly or ask for further clarification if you don’t quite understand.

Share perspective - Once you have shown an accurate understanding, share your perspective.

Seek feedback - Ask the person for their opinion on what you have shared.

Let's demonstrate how the use of these empathic skills can create a more constructive conversation between Jacob and Harry despite their strong personality clash.



Jacob (C): Hey Harry, I've been thinking about our chat the other day and wondered if we can have another chat about things?

Harry (A): Yes coach, no problem. 

Jacob: I think it’s normal for us to not see eye-to-eye on everything. At the end of the day, you have become a great player by doing what you think is right, and I have become great by doing what I think is right. No one is wrong here.

Harry: True, it is very important for me to stick to what got me here coach, I am really proud of my strengths and the player I have become. 

Jacob: You love the player you have become and think your current way of training gets the best out of you.

Harry: Exactly! I have a very meticulous way I prepare each week, and it has served me well to this point. I am now on a team where the pressure to perform is higher than ever before, I almost need this routine more than ever now.

Jacob: Oh I see, you take a lot of confidence from your routines, and you believe they are the secret to performing at your best under all this pressure you are feeling right now?

Harry: Yeah, like I totally get what you mean about being more flexible in my playstyle, I've had previous coaches say this to me before. But now just doesn't feel like the right time because I feel like I have to prove myself every week, and the only thing I know that will help me to do that is to stick to what I know. 

Jacob: So let me see if I have heard you correctly Harry, you say that you feel you have become more reliant on your routines now to handle the pressure and feel this is going to be very important, especially in the short-term, but do appreciate that being more flexible might improve you in the long-term? 

Harry: Yeah, It’s not like I haven’t tried to be flexible though. On my previous team, I gave it a go and tried some new agents because I knew it would help the team, but I didn’t really feel like the coach supported me enough. Like I was performing worse in that period and the coach didn’t give me any constructive feedback, he just criticised me. 

Jacob: Wow, Harry, I wish I had known about this bad experience earlier, it all makes so much sense now!

Harry: It does?

Jacob: Yeah, no wonder you wouldn’t want to try out new agents when you are under so much pressure and have had a bad experience of pushing yourself outside your comfort zone. I bet that it took a lot for you to move away from your routines and try new agents, only to be let down by the people who should have supported you

Harry: Thanks coach, that means a lot that you understand. I haven’t told anyone about that experience before, but it did really affect me. 

Jacob: I bet, well look, I’m different to your previous coach, I promise. When I say I am going to support you on something, I mean it. I would never make you sacrifice things that give you so much confidence and hang you out to dry. So maybe we can find a common ground here because I think you are a great player, but I can take you to the next level with a few more agents in your locker. If you were to feel really supported by me when trying out new agents, what would I have to do? 


Harry: You sound like you mean it coach. Well, what would help is to train an agent I know semi-well rather than one I don’t know at all. And maybe I will just train one or two agents for now, not four or five. It would also help if you could give me a fact sheet that broke down the strengths and weaknesses of the agents for me or we can set some small goals about what you want me to master on that agent so I have something to focus on. I could then practise those skills in solo Q which will make me feel like I have got a routine. 

Jacob: Let’s do all of those things, Harry. I appreciate you being open to trying out a new agent, and this sounds like a great plan that will keep your confidence high. It sounds to me like you really appreciate structure and guidance when trying out something new. I’ll make sure to remember that whenever I ask you to do something else in the future. Let's get to work. 

Communication Skill

Asks permission to chat



Shows a curious attitude



Justifies closed-mindednesss


Listening statement


Further justifies closed-mindedness

Listening statement

Shows signs of open-mindedness but provides more justification for closed-mindedness

Seeks clarification

Provides the primary reason for closed-mindedness

Shows a curious attitude

Surprised by curiousity

Listening statement

Feels understood 

Shares perspective and seeks feedback


Shows a move towards being more open-minded


Shares perspective and action plans

What Went on Here?

I hope you could see that this exchange between the coach and player was much more productive than their original conversation. Over the course of the conversation, the player became more willing to be flexible with their personality to reach a compromise with the coach. At the heart of the players decision to become more flexible was an excellent use of empathy by the coach. The listening statements, in particular, helped the player to feel heard which ‘disarmed’ their resistance to change. In addition, by the coach using the skill of clarification to provide empathic accuracy, the player opened up on the primary reason behind their resistance, which related to a previous bad experience of trying to learn new agents on an old team. This moment was critical to the successful resolution of the disagreement. Behind all our resistance is a logical argument that makes sense to us. In other words, we don’t just resist something for no good reason. Learning the logic of another person’s argument has been referred to as finding that person's ‘positive thrust’ (8). This relates to the idea that people will at some conscious or unconscious level have a good reason to think, feel or act the way they do, even if on the surface, this perspective seems counter-productive. When that logic was understood by the coach, and empathically discussed, the player no longer felt the same level of concern for changing their behaviour because they felt valued for who they are, and therefore could redirect their energy onto becoming a better player.    


  • The quality of the coach-player relationship in the long term will likely depend on the ability of the pair to skilfully manage disagreements.

  • Empathy is a useful disagreement management strategy because it leads a person to feel valued for their perspective, and therefore more willing to change to their perspective in the future due to feeling less defensive. There is a range of empathy skills that can be learnt with practice.

  • Empathic accuracy is the most healing factor in disagreements. Showing a person you understand and value their primary reason for resisting change is where empathy will best help a coach and player to constructively work through disagreements. 


(1) Norcross, J. C., & Karpiak, C. P. (2017). Our best selves: Defining and actualizing expertise in psychotherapy. The Counseling Psychologist, 45(1), 66-75. doi:10.1177/0011000016655603.

(2) Rhind, J. A., & Jewett, S. (2012). Working with coach-athlete relationships: Their quality and maintenance. In S. Hanton, & S. D. Mellalieu (Eds.), Professional practice in sport psychology (pp. 219-248). London: Routledge.

(3) Lorimer, R., & Jowett, S. (2013). Empathic understanding and accuracy in the coach–athlete relationship. In P. Potrac, W. Gilbert & J. Deniso (Eds.), Routledge handbook of sports coaching (pp. 321-332). London: Routledge.

(4) Dailey, R. M. (2010). Testing components of confirmation: How acceptance and challenge from mothers, fathers, and siblings are related to adolescent self-concept. Communication Monographs, 77(4), 592-617. doi:10.1080/03637751.2010.499366.

(5) Cranmer, G. A., & Brann, M. (2015). “It makes me feel like I am an important part of this team”: An exploratory study of coach confirmation. International Journal of Sport Communication, 8(2), 193-211. doi:10.1123/ijsc.2014-0078.

(6) Rogers, C. (1961). On becoming a person: A therapist's view of psychotherapy. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

(7) Rosengren, D. B. (2018). Building motivational interviewing skills: A practitioner workbook (2nd ed.). New York: The Guilford Press.

(8) Bohart, A. C., & Tallman, K. (1999). How clients make therapy work: The process of active self-healing. Washington: American Psychological Association.


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