By Published On: May 10, 2023

When it comes to making a meaningful impact in a student athlete’s life, few people have as much influence as athletic coaches. In the words of American basketball coach and author John Wooden,

“A good coach can change a game — a great coach can change a life.”

Coaches play a vital role in the lives of student athletes at both the high school and collegiate levels.

In a 2021 study that compares the effectiveness of leaders in different roles, the leadership of sports coaches stands out as particularly effective when compared to the leadership of political figures and CEOs. The study further notes that this influence of sports coaches can be seen across all sports including football, basketball, baseball, and hockey.

In this article, we discuss what makes a coach great and what it takes to lead student athletes at the collegiate and high school levels. Keep reading to learn how you can improve your own coaching style to better support and advocate for your student athletes.

The Roles of College Coaches and High School Coaches

As we dive into this discussion of the role of coaches in the lives of student athletes, it is essential to first cover the similarities and differences between high school and collegiate coaches.

Coaches at the high school and college evels are most similar to each other in the responsibilities they bear, such as:

  • Analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of individual athletes and teams
  • Providing direction and encouragement before and during sports games or competitions
  • Planning practice sessions and conditioning programs to help athletes accomplish their goals
  • Instructing athletes on strategies and techniques to enhance their performance
  • Modeling and instilling values of teamwork, leadership, and sportsmanship
  • Keeping records of athlete and team performance

However, high school and collegiate coaches also hold distinct responsibilities as well, let’s now explore three key factors that differ between college and high school coaches:

  1. Student Management: While both types of coaches can have close relationships with their student athletes, collegiate coaches tend to have more student management responsibilities than high school coaches. This is thanks largely to college students having more personal freedom, whereas high school students often have parents to help keep them in line. For college students, a coach can sometimes fill this parental role of authority, ensuring they are staying on top of their school work and out of trouble that could threaten their athletic career.
  2. Recruitment: High school coaches recruit for their teams from a predetermined pool of students that live in their school district and attend their specific school. On the other hand, collegiate athletic recruiters have greater options, recruiting student athletes by arranging for visits and tryouts for prospective athletes from all over the state and country. As a result, high school coaches often must make the best out of the hand they are dealt, whereas collegiate coaches have greater freedom to handpick and tailor their teams to their liking.
  3. Training Intensity: Collegiate coaches generally provide more intensive training than high school coaches. In some cases, high schools do compete at a higher level, leading to more intense high school training. However, college athletes are older and have typically been training throughout their high school careers and into college, enabling them to perform and train more intensely than their younger counterparts. A good coach in either setting must recognize the difference in an athlete’s ability based on age, conditioning, experience, and other key factors.

What Makes a Good Coach?

It’s no question that a good coach can effectively lead their athletes on both a team and individual level — but what, exactly, does it take to be a good coach?

According to Athlete 365 — the official Olympics community organization for elite athletes and Olympians — a good coach should possess 10 key qualities:

  • Understanding of the Sport: First and foremost, a good coach must understand the ins and outs of the sport or sports they are involved with. A coach needs a thorough understanding of a sport and its rules to teach student athletes how to create and execute effective gameplay strategies.
  • Eagerness to Learn: Our understanding of the human body and what it is capable of constantly evolving. Likewise, the sports industry is ever-evolving to be safer and more inclusive for athletes. Head coaches must maintain an eagerness and willingness to learn if they are to best lead their student athletes toward success.
  • Sharing of Knowledge: Coaches who willingly share their athletic and industry knowledge often produce student athletes that have the resources and support necessary to thrive in their sport. Withholding knowledge only serves to limit athletes and coaches at the end of the day.
  • Motivational Skills: One of the core responsibilities of any coach is to keep their team members motivated. Motivational skills can include everything from public speaking to empathy, as student athletes need to feel fully supported for a coach’s motivational efforts to be effective.
  • Knowing the Athletes: While a coach needs a deep understanding of their sport, they arguably need an even deeper understanding of their team. Treating all athletes the same is not an effective approach to coaching — instead, a good coach must recognize the individuality of each student athlete and consider how to tailor training to each athlete’s needs.
  • Communication: What good is a coach who cannot successfully communicate their goals, feedback, and advice to their athletes? Communication can sometimes be an overlooked skill by athletic coaches. Yet, it is a critically important skill that can make the difference between a team that fails to communicate well in competition and a team that is perfectly in sync with each other.
  • Listening: Going hand-in-hand with communication is listening skills. Though coaches are in a position of authority, this does not mean that the opinions and thoughts of the athletes are not also valuable. By taking the time to truly listen to what an athlete or team is saying, a coach can better instruct their team and guide each athlete toward becoming the best version of themselves.
  • Discipline: Discipline is of major importance in sports — but not just for the athletes. A good coach must show discipline in a variety of ways, from upholding the rules they set for athletes to maintaining a consistent level-headed attitude.
  • Leading by Example: Student athletes look to their coaches to set an example for them. As such, coaches need to conduct themselves in a way that models good behavior for their team. For instance, if a coach is adamant about their athletes practicing good nutrition, then that coach should also practice good nutrition whenever they eat in front of the team.
  • Commitment & Passion: The tenth and final quality that Athletes 365 highlights as essential for coaches to have is passionate commitment. Without passion, a coach cannot stay as engaged in training sessions and during competitions as they need to for their team to feel supported. A passionate and committed coach will always show up for their team in any way possible.

Don’t just take our word for it when it comes to what makes a coach great — the importance of the qualities discussed above is also backed by research.

According to a 2022 study on the development of leadership in athletes, coaches can help model desired behaviors in student athletes, particularly those in leadership roles (such as team captains). The study notes that coaches that create a team culture centered around cooperation and skill development can help to foster positive personal growth and social behavior in athletic teams.

To further illustrate the importance of strong leadership from coaches, let’s consider what Concordia University’s Dr. Vicki Boye — a professor of health and human performance — has to say about setting clear expectations with students:

“[The students] know that I care about them but I also have high expectations for them. I don’t want them just to slide by, I want them to get as much out of my classes as they can.”

While Dr. Boye’s statement refers to the performance of students in the classroom, this sentiment can easily be applied to coaching as well. A truly excellent coach must care about both the well-being and personal growth of their student athletes, pushing them to reach their full potential rather than allowing them to fly under the radar and never test their own limits.

How Coaches Can Advocate for Student Athlete Mental Health & Nutrition

Supporting student athletes requires more than just guidance and feedback during training.

Mental health and nutrition play massive roles in the lives of every person on this planet. For student athletes, however, maintaining good mental health and nutrition can be particularly tricky as they juggle both school and athletic responsibilities.

In a 2022 NCAA survey of more than 9,800 student athletes, the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on the mental health of student athletes are examined.

During the early months of the pandemic in the fall of 2020, student athletes experienced heightened levels of mental exhaustion, anxiety, and depression.

The NCAA survey reveals that these levels have shown little improvement in the two (nearly three) years following the start of the pandemic, with the rates of mental exhaustion, anxiety, and depression remaining 1.5 to 2 times higher in student athletes compared to pre-pandemic times.

According to a 2021 American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) study, roughly 30% of female collegiate athletes and 25% of male student athletes report experiencing anxiety. Despite this, only around 10% of all college athletes with known mental health conditions seek professional help.

Meanwhile, from a nutrition standpoint, the reality can be equally alarming for all student athletes but particularly for women.

In 2022, Idaho State University’s Department of Nutrition and Dietetics published a study looking at the prevalence of food insecurity among college athletes. The study had a particular focus on women, with the majority of respondents identifying as female.

Of all the athletes looked at in this study, 73% reported not eating for an entire day due to a lack of access to enough food. A further 60% of the student athletes surveyed reported that they have experienced feelings of food insecurity to some degree.

What all of this research ultimately reveals is that student athletes need more adequate support when it comes to maintaining their mental health and meeting their nutritional needs.

As coaches are often the closest figures of authority to student athletes, facing the challenge of the mental health and nutrition problems a student athlete is experiencing often falls on the shoulders of their coach.

Let’s now look at three ways coaches can provide student athletes with better support for their mental and nutritional health:

  1. Teaching Mindfulness: Mindfulness is a meditative practice intended to help people of all physical abilities to be more in sync with their minds and bodies. For student athletes, research suggests that mindfulness can help with injury recovery, as well as the management of various mental health conditions like anxiety, depression, and mood instability.
  2. Checking in Regularly: In terms of how coaches can better support their student athletes, part of the solution comes down to simply checking in with each athlete on a regular basis. When coaches establish trust and create safe spaces for their teams to express their needs, the student athletes are much more likely to embrace that opportunity and turn to their coaches for help.
  3. Providing Resources: Finally, one of the best ways for coaches to improve the mental health and nutrition of their athletes is to provide access to the right internal or external resources. For example, a sports coach may not be trained as a therapist but they can build professional connections with therapists and nutritionists specialized in working with student athletes. These professional relationships can then be leveraged to provide athletes with free or discounted therapy and nutritional planning sessions.

Supporting High School Student Athletes as a Coach

For high school coaches, part of the coaching process is preparing high school athletes for the next phase of their athletic careers. This often includes reaching out to college recruiters and securing opportunities for the athletes to show off their abilities and earn the chance to receive a partial or full sports scholarship.

With this in mind, here are six ways high school coaches can support their athletes as they transition from high school to collegiate-level athletics:

    1. Learning About Each Student: To help student athletes achieve their specific goals, high school coaches must learn what makes each student unique — including their backstory, goals, and attitude toward athletics.
  • Building a Supportive Team Culture: Great leaders recognize the importance of valuing collaboration over competition. By building a team culture that emphasizes support amongst team members, student athletes are better prepared to grow into compassionate, well-rounded adults.
  • Celebrating Effort and Achievement: Though competition can be healthy, it is also crucial to celebrate effort alongside achievement. Even if a team loses, it is the role of the coach to still commend their effort and guide them toward improving their techniques in the next event.
  • Focusing on Building Skills & Character: High school students are the future of tomorrow, meaning coaches can influence them to be more than just great athletes. Teaching skills like communication and discipline help build character in high school students and gives them the foundational knowledge they need to persevere in their adult lives.
  • Advocating for Student Athlete Health: Poor mental and physical health habits often start in childhood. High school coaches need to be in tune with their athletes, creating safe spaces for those students to express when their needs are not meant. Furthermore, coaches must act as advocates for these students when those needs are expressed to ensure a positive change is made.
  1. Supporting Both Athletic and Academic Goals: Though all coaches want to see their students succeed athletically, it is vital to be aware of a student’s academic goals as well. For some students, sports are their main pathway to college, making coaches a crucial figure of authority for supporting the student’s academic goals. This often includes sending colleges letters of recommendation that highlight both a student’s athletic ability and academic prowess.

Supporting Collegiate Athletes as a Coach

For collegiate-level athletes, much of the support a coach must provide looks the same as for high school athletes. However, there are some key differences in how a coach must approach providing support to a college athlete compared to a high school athlete.

Here are three essential tips for supporting collegiate-level athletes as a coach:

  1. Promoting Inclusivity: Coaches are in a unique position to help improve the athletics pipeline for underrepresented groups, such as women and people of color. By promoting inclusivity in their sport, a college coach can create a more diverse team with a wider array of strengths, as well as encourage their athletes to get to know people outside of their immediate cultures.
  2. Transitioning to Adulthood: The transition into adulthood that occurs during college can be tough for many students, especially those also juggling athletic responsibilities. College coaches can help with this transition by providing resources for students to turn to in times of need, such as meal plans, therapist appointments, and regular healthcare.
  3. Leveling Up in Athletics: Last but not least, a college coach needs to support their athletes in achieving their physical goals. Leveling up from hig