One question I have been getting recently from coaches at conferences is, "How do you get athletes to buy in, or how do you connect with the athletes?" Our former athletic director at the University of Missouri, Mike Alden, gave me a recommendation on a book years ago. It was called, "Everyone communicates, few connect." Overall, this was a really good book. It had a lot of great info in there, but I keep one thing close to my chest at all times from this book, and it has served me well in dealing with athletes and coaches.

Everyone who has been around me knows how much of a numbers or tangible-evidence person I am. If it seems abstract, I'm out. Hell, I don't even like abstract art or anything like this. Looking at Picasso makes my  head hurt. Anyway, he has a formula that he has to connect with people. He calls it "FORM." This stands for family, occupation, recreation and message. His point is that people will usually talk endlessly about these four things, and in these four things you can find commonality and then establish trust by showing that you care.

For the college athlete, here is how I usually approach it.


Ask them about their parents. What is their profession, did they do anything cool? Sometimes you find out that someone's parents were college athletes. Sometimes you find out things that are useful like, "well, my dad used to beat us and then we left him."  If you're a male coach with a female athlete, right now you know that there may be some trust issues that the athlete will have with you, just because you're male. Find out about other people who were influential in their life from their family, teachers, etc. Some people will talk only for a few seconds about their parents, but if you start them on their grandparents, or an uncle, they will talk for hours. Usually, you will find something that is common with the athlete and yourself.

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Now, I'm not saying that it turns out you are second cousins, but you can relate as you may have a family member who did the same thing. Sometimes you get athletes with circumstances that led them to not be raised by their parents, but their grandparents (I have a similar situation). You can talk about these commonalities, and it makes you more relatable to the athlete and it shows them that you care.

Family is also a loose term for people. A question that my good friend Brett Bartholomew asks his athletes is, "Who was your favorite coach and why?" For many athletes, coaches have been a big influence to them and this info will give you great insight into how this person best receives information. They may say something like, "It was coach B, because he gave me the info and just gave me encouragement," or "Man, it was coach W because he held us to such a high standard and any time I slacked he was in my ass." This gives you a lot of information, too. You know how the athlete likes to be approached, and it also may give you insight into the athletes home life. If they talked for 10 seconds about their entire family and 20 minutes about the coach, maybe there was something that happened. I am not telling you to dig deeper, but realize that there may be trust issues. The coach reached the person with sport, so you may be able to do that as well.

athlete buy in


Okay, now with this one you will say, "They're in college, they don't have an occupation so how can I ask them about that." Well, let's look at this in a few different means. Most of these kids have had summer jobs, so you can ask them about those. But guess what; these college athletes have an occupation — they are students with a particular major. Why did they choose that major? What did they enjoy about it? What classes did they like? Who is their favorite professor and why? What are they going to do after college with that major? These questions lead a lot to the inner-workings of the athlete. What makes them tick? What set them into the direction that has led them to where they are today? For me it also led to what can I do to help this athlete outside of strength and conditioning? I have set some athletes up with internships with friends of mine (this does require that you have friends outside of strength and conditioning). I have set some people up with shadowing of physical therapists, neurologists, dietitians, contractors, etc. It's a win-win for all involved. Also, how more can you show that you care about an athlete than showing them that you care about their future beyond them playing sport? I really can't think of anything else.


What do they do outside of sport for hobbies? Hopefully they have another outlet. If this sport has been their only outlet, they are going to burn out relatively fast. You'll find that some of your athletes are extremely creative. I found out that one of my athletes played the violin for 12 years, and another who was in the choir since kindergarten and did all sorts of solos and was very accomplished musically/vocally. What is it that they like? This isn't something that you can use to drive them, but again establish commonality. When I run across an athlete who likes to build stuff, we can talk all day and share pictures of carpentry stuff. Some will be hikers, rock climbers, gear heads, and who knows what else. What of these things do you know something about or have done personally? If you have been in the area for any amount of time, you can point them into an area where they can enjoy their hobby in town. They'll come to you later like, "Coach, I checked that place out. That was badass! Appreciate it!" It often comes to more dialogue later, and that's a great thing.


What is it that drives the athlete? What is it that they want people to know? What is it that drives them? There are a lot of different ways to get at this one. Some athletes won't really know right now, and that's fine. Maybe they're holding out because you haven't earned their trust, but many of them just genuinely won't know because they are still trying to find their place or path in this world. Sometimes it's great to be able to know that you're with them at the start of that path. Some athletes, however, will have this very clear and concise. They know what they want to have their place in the world be because of circumstances. There are some amazing young people out there with some amazing thoughts, ideas, and drives. I really can't do justice to talking about what drives people and getting to the root of that, so I recommend again that you check out Brett Bartholomew of EXOS fame and what he has to say on this topic. The guy is extremely passionate about this and worked on it during his graduate studies. I actually got to see Brett speak on this at a recent seminar and it was inspiring.

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When I started as a graduate assistant at the University of Missouri, Pat Ivey made it a habit to drill into our heads, "The athletes don't care how much you know until they know how much you care." I'm a bit dense and need road maps, GPS, and compasses to do just about anything. The FORM acronym that John C. Maxwell used in his book has served me well for this. I use it not only with my athletes, but try and refine it when I can with whoever I can. People at church, if the person sitting next to me on the plane seems like a talker (otherwise I can use the sleep or time to read), standing in line, walking somewhere, and really just about doing anything you can think of.  It turns out that you can meet some really interesting people when you're out and about. Maybe they're lying, but hey — it was a good conversation anyways.

Back to the point: FORM gives you a roadmap of how to connect and how to get to know the person in a short time. Are there other methods that may be better to doing this than the FORM? I'm sure there could be, but I know this is what has worked for me. Is it perfect? Probably not, but I will tell you this: it IS effective.

The better the professional relationship you have with your athletes the more likely they are to buy into your program and give it full effort. When the athlete gives full effort, they're more likely to get the best results possible. They will become Strong(er) of body, because you connected with them since you became Strong(er) of mind.