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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Ashford

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

In this short blog, I will introduce a fictional story of a Rocket League coach and consider three key qualities that could have helped the coach successfully gain influence with the team in his early period working with them. 

Jarvis was a well-respected, talented coach from the United Kingdom who coached players in the game, Rocket League. Jarvis had an impressive resume behind him. As a player in Rocket League, he was ranked in the top 10 for many years and won many major competitions. Following his playing career, he transitioned into coaching, where through his contacts and reputation as a player, he landed a head coaching role with a top UK team on the pro circuit; we will call this team HERO Gaming. Jarvis experienced early success with HERO Gaming. Armed with some of the best players around, his added experience and guidance quickly accelerated them to new heights, winning back-to-back major competitions. Of course, no one on the rocket league circuit was surprised by Jarvis’s success. For many, these achievements simply confirmed the belief that great players go on to become great coaches. Soon after this success, however, and following some financial issues with the organisation, Jarvis left HERO Gaming and moved on to a new team called DELTA Gaming. The Delta senior management team had high hopes that Jarvis would bring with him the “winning formula” that would take them to new heights.

Jarvis was highly confident he would meet these high expectations. After all, what reason did he have for not being confident? He had experienced a lot of success as a player and coach: Jarvis felt he had the Midas touch. However, after one month into the role, things were not going well for Jarvis. The team’s performance had not improved as he had hoped. In fact, their results were worsening, with the team being knocked out early in a competition that DELTA usually goes far in. Jarvis was not surprised by this though, as there was clear tension in training sessions where players were choosing to not implement his strategies, rather preferring to revert to their old habits as a team at the earliest opportunity. In VOD reviews, Jarvis noticed this trend continue where the players seemed less interested in his analysis of their performances and would prefer to listen to their in-game leader’s (IGL) opinion instead. Jarvis was left feeling increasingly confused by this situation and frustrated by the idea that the players would show a lack of trust in his coaching after everything he had achieved in the game. 

Jarvis had had enough. During a training session where the player was blatantly ignoring his instructions, he blew up. “WHO DO YOU GUYS THINK YOU ARE HUH?! WHAT HAVE YOU WON IN THE GAME TO THINK YOU CAN STOP LISTENING TO ME?? DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM?” Jarvis’ outburst served to further erode the now fragile relationship he had with the players. Now he was in a battle to hold onto his job. The players had gone to senior management moaning about his coaching style and team management. This vote of no confidence by the players has caused grave concern for the senior management team who called Jarvis into a meeting and remarked: “Jarvis, we have never seen the players so upset with a coach. Okay, no group of players are perfect, but how could it get so bad so quickly?!” Jarvis was at a loss to explain the situation and asked himself the very same question, “how could it get so bad so quickly?”. 

Where Did Jarvis Go Wrong?

I will use the psychological concept of gaining entry to help you understand how Jarvis might have found himself in this precarious situation. Gaining entry is a sport psychology concept introduced by Ken Ravizza back in the 80s (1). Ken, a sport psychologist by trade, worked with many different high-profile sports teams over a year. One thing he noticed in his work was that the early period of work with a team (e.g., the first couple of months) was very important and brought with it a unique set of social and political challenges. These challenges had to take be taken seriously and overcome for him to be successful. More precisely, Ken saw that in this early period he had to find ways to earn the players’ respect, trust and liking before he could implement his psychological ideas. In other words, he had to behave in ways that got him ‘accepted into the herd’ before he could ‘influence the herd’.  A failure to find ways to be liked and respected by the team often meant it did not matter how great his psychological ideas were – the team would not be interested in them and as a result, he would not be with the team for very long. 

In my research on gaining entry (2), I asked elite-level coaches, physiotherapists, and sports scientists a simple question: “What are the most successful ways you have seen psychologists gain entry into elite sports teams?” Now while this research looks at psychologists’ successful attempts to gain entry, I believe these qualities apply to coaches, as I’ll show with Jarvis’s example. Three key qualities stood out in the research as critical to gain the trust and respect of players and staff: Respects the culture; be one of us; prioritise relationships. 

Respects The Culture 

Respect the culture means you must pay attention to the culture that was in place before you joined the team and appreciate that this holds a lot of importance to the people in the team, even if you don’t necessarily agree with how the culture operates. It also means practising humility – to not seek to change the team culture immediately but rather take your time to understand it, fit in it and roll with it at first. In Jarvis’s case, it was clear he didn’t do enough to consider the existing culture. When he joined, high off his previous success, he never asked players what they wanted from him as a coach. He assumed his ‘tried and tested’ methods were going to work regardless of the team he was in. At HERO Gaming it just so happened that his autocratic, ‘I know best’ coaching style worked for those players. Those players were happy to let him dictate strategy. However, at DELTA Gaming, the players saw his role differently. For context, the coach before Jarvis allowed the players at DELTA to have a lot of choice over the strategies used. In fact, this former coach empowered the IGL to take on many of the coaching responsibilities, whilst he looked after the out-of-game stuff like training scheduling and player lifestyles. With this knowledge, it becomes clearer now why the players were not receptive to Jarvis’ coaching methods. They were used to a more autonomy-supportive style of coaching that allowed them to make key decisions and take initiative, something they enjoyed and didn’t want to change. This doesn’t mean Jarvis was destined for failure with DELTA because of his desire to be a bit more directive and ‘hands-on’ with the players, but it seems he would have fared better if he had recognised the players' desire for autonomy. For instance, by gradually embedding his coaching ideas and remaining sensitive to the players’ desire to retain some decision-making power. The moral of the story, players will be more receptive to a new coach’s ideas if they feel that the coach has respected what was in place before they arrived.

Be One Of Us

Jarvis did not fair too badly on this quality. Be one of us refers to the idea that a team will be more receptive to a coach who they think shares the same desirable qualities as them. Easy wins here are showing you are as committed to the game as the players (assuming they are committed!). This can be shown through role-modelling good behaviour like working hard, being on time and prepared, and matching the players’ effort levels and enthusiasm for the game. Another way to do this is to demonstrate expert knowledge (3). More specifically, players will be more receptive to you if they feel you demonstrate knowledge that they believe will benefit them. As one physio in my research put it, a good show of expertise builds “professional trust”. It does seem to pay as a coach to demonstrate what you know. Jarvis’s successful playing career would have helped him gain credibility here, but perhaps taking some time to describe his playing career, what he learned and how this has shaped him as a coach, might have provided players with some explanation for his coaching style that they could buy into. It is also worth noting that gaining influence through a show of expertise is heavily tied to how you communicate this knowledge. Research (1) suggests that a show of expertise likely only gains buy-in from players if it is communicated to them in ways that make sense to them and can be easily understood. In Jarvis’s case, it is not that he failed to show expert knowledge or high levels of commitment, rather it seems he over-relied on this quality to get him buy-in with the players without greater consideration for respects the culture or the next quality I’ll discuss, namely prioritising the relationship. 

Prioritise Relationships

The standout quality that helps to gain buy-in from players is to invest in building a quality relationship with them. In the research (1), coaches, physiotherapists and sports scientists were decisive and unanimous that the psychologists who were best at gaining players' respect and trust in the early period were those who showed they genuinely cared about them as people. It’s back to that good old adage “people don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care”. Rather than seeing individuals solely as players tasked with maintaining and improving their performance, these psychologists instead focused on being caring, sociable, informal, selfless, and took a genuine interest in the personal likes, dislikes, and interests of the players, independent of performance. But let’s be clear, this does not mean these people were only good at small talk or being nice. This was showing the players they had a deep and genuine care for their welfare and are motivated to do their best by them as people and not just in terms of performance. 

In Jarvis’s situation, it seems he saw successful coaching as mainly being about helping players to master their mechanical skills, absorb and enact new gameplay strategies and improve performance. Whilst players may want these things, decades of research on what makes up a quality coach-athlete relationship suggests that players want more than just a coach who improves their performance (4). Players want to be able to connect with their coach on some personal level. They want to feel like the coach values them as individuals and champions their unique needs. Why do players want this so much? One theory is that if everything a coach does for a player is tied to performance improvement, then the player might think the coach’s care for them is conditional; it only exists if the coach gets something out of it for themselves. The very idea of a self-indulgent coach is arguably the most disliked quality in coaches by players (5). So, for Jarvis, he would likely have fared better if, rather than being exclusively focused on getting the players to improve their gameplay, he took the time to get to know the players on a more personal level. Taking time to bond with them, gaining an understanding of their needs and wants, and finding out what makes them tick, would have set in place the right foundations to start focusing on strategy. 


  • The early period (e.g., the first couple of months) of working with a team should prioritise gaining the respect, trust and liking of players over exerting personal influence to create change.

  • Three qualities define coaches who will be excellent at gaining buy-in from players in the early period. These coaches will...

    • Be mindful of and seek to understand the existing culture to inform their coaching style.

    • Match their players' commitment levels and enthusiasm and demonstrate expert knowledge in simple and understandable language.

    • Prioritise building rapport with players over achieving task-based outcomes like tactical improvement.


(1) Ashford, M. (2022). Multidisciplinary team members’ perceptions of effective sport psychology practice within the talent development pathway. Unpublished manuscript.

(2) Ravizza, K. (1988). Gaining entry with athletic personnel for season-long consulting. The Sport Psychologist, 2(3), 243-254. doi:10.1123/tsp.2.3.243.

(3) Cranmer, G. A., & Goodboy, A. K. (2015). Power play: Coach power use and athletes' communicative evaluations and responses. Western Journal of Communication, 79(5), 614-633. doi:10.1080/10570314.2015.1069389.

(4)Jowett, S., & Carpenter, P. (2015). The concept of rules in the coach-athlete relationship. Sports Coaching Review, 4(1), 1-23. doi:10.1080/21640629.2015.1106145.

(5) Becker, A. (2009). It's not what they do, it's how they do it: Athlete experiences of great coaching. International Journal of Sports Science and Coaching, 4(1), 93-119. doi:10.1260/1747-9541.4.1.93.

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