How you build trust and how you break trust on your team

written by Erica Quam

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Teambuilding begins with trust. 

If your athletes don't trust you as the coach...or trust one another:

  • they won't engage in healthy conflict
  • they won't fully commit to team goals
  • they won't be willing to hold each another accountable
  • and your overall results this season will suffer

Trust is important. Yet, you can spend time talking about trust - and get no where. 

Maybe you think your athletes SHOULD trust you - because you're the coach. You can tell them they NEED to trust each other. That sounds great. Here are four other questions your athletes may be wondering about when they're deciding whether or not to trust you:

  1. Are you telling me the truth?
  2. Is there information you're withholding from me?
  3. How do you make decisions?
  4. How can I influence big decisions that effect me (...and is that even possible?)

What most coaches don't realize is how fragile trust can be. Trust is built (and broken) in the smallest of moments.

When athletes don't trust you...they won't trust you have their best interests in mind. They may also not trust that they can be themselves, ask for what they need, be vulnerable, and talk openly to you.



Coaches build trust with their athletes by building relationships. Talk with them. Have conversations. Asking questions AND actively listening to them. Listen with an intent to understand. Share some things about yourself. Help them get to know you. Be vulnerable. Give them an opportunity to ask you questions.

I talk with coaches all the time who tell me their athletes don't ever talk to them. They don't understand why their athletes are so intimidated by them.

Here's the's not's the role you play. You may be the most kind-hearted, fun-loving person in the world.'re the coach. Your position commands a certain level of respect - which is good. It's easy for your title to create a barrier to real authentic communication. It may take a little creativity on your part to break down the natural barriers that exist to building trust between you and your athletes.


Take time to regularly look your athletes in the eye and actually say hello. It's easy to 'busy yourself' at the beginning of practice - until you're ready to go. Build rapport. Allow a few extra minutes to connect with them. 

Have individual meetings - before you do any kind of goal setting - where you get to know your athletes. Find out what's going well, what isn't going well, and how you can best support them this season. Make it fun, make it special, make it different.

Provide opportunities to connect with your student-athletes in neutral, non-threatening environments. Go to a coffee shop, meet them up on campus in the student union, or ask them where they'd like to meet.


  • How would you like to communicate with coaches when 'something's up' for you and you need more support? 
  • How do you respond best to receiving feedback - both positive and constructive?
  • How would you like me to handle it when I see you get off track from your goals this season? How can I hold you accountable?

Find another time for you to check back in - later in the year. You can even ask them when they'd like to follow up and put it on your calendar. Use some of the things you talked about from this meeting to follow up on and see how both of you are doing.


Have your athletes talk to one another. Challenge yourself to find different ways to facilitate this - every week!

You may be the kind of coach who likes to show up, run practice, and get things done. You may not think you need to provide any opportunities for your athletes to talk. They do enough talking already.


Have your athletes talk TO each other. So they won't talk (as much) ABOUT each other. Listening (really listening) leads to understanding. 

Begin with 'low risk' questions and move to 'higher risk' questions. Give your athletes an opportunity to pass. Set some parameters and guidelines for these more intimate and vulnerable conversations.


  • What's something unique about where you grew up?
  • Did you grow up with pets?
  • Did you ever play a musical instrument?
  • How many siblings do you have?
  • Most memorable vacation?
  • What's a challenge you've dealt with in your life?
  • What's one important thing you've learned from your family/coaches/teachers growing up?
  • Who is someone you admire and aspire to be like? What specifically would you like to emulate?
  • Who is someone you DON'T want to be like? How will you do things differently?

Later in the season, when challenges come up...keep them talking with each other. 

  • What was good about that?
  • What was hard about that?
  • What could you/we do differently next time?

It doesn't have to take a lot of time. Give your athletes ten minutes - before practice, after a competition, before you start a team meeting. Have them partner up - one person talks, the other person listens, and then switch. Observe how the energy of your team shifts. Sure...there will be some challenges that come up on your team where you'll have to step in and facilitate. If they don't yet have the skills to have difficult conversations, it's your role to teach them how to do that. You may even have to give them the words at first. 


Trust is a big topic. When trust has been broken - in any relationship - it can be really hard. It's challenging to figure out what someone even means when they say they don't trust you...much less figure out a next step forward. I presented a 'trust framework' at the summit last year adapted from author and researcher, Brené Brown. She refers to it as, 'the anatomy of trust'. Trusting one another is all about B.R.A.V.I.N.G. connections with one another. I believe this framework can be especially helpful for coaches and teams throughout the season - especially when problems come up.


To understand big, broad concepts, it helps to break them down. You do it with the physical skills you teach your athletes from your sport. Use the same approach with teambuilding concepts and leadership.


  • Read through the following 7 areas of trust - for yourself.
  • Rank yourself on a scale of 1 to 5 for each one
  • Identify your greatest strengths and biggest area for growth (from this list)

1. Boundaries.

My team know's what's okay and what's not okay. When they don't know, they are able to ask. 

5 - Always     4 - Often     3 - Sometimes     2 - Rarely     1 - Never

2. Reliability.

I do what I say I will do. I'm aware of my competencies and limitations. I don't overpromise and am able to deliver on commitments and balance competing priorities. 

5 - Always     4 - Often     3 - Sometimes     2 - Rarely     1 - Never

3. Accountability.

I own my mistakes, apologize, and make amends. I don't blame others for my mistakes and when I do need to hold others accountable, I do so with honesty and respect.

5 - Always     4 - Often     3 - Sometimes     2 - Rarely     1 - Never

4. Vault.

I don't share information or experiences that are not mine to share.

5 - Always     4 - Often     3 - Sometimes     2 - Rarely     1 - Never

5. Integrity. 

I choose courage over comfort. I choose what's right over what's fun, fast, or easy. And I choose to practice my values rather than simply profess them.

6. Non-judgement.

I ask for what I need. I am willing to ask for help. I don't judge others who ask for what they need and/or ask for help.

7. Generosity.

I extend the most generous interpretation possible to the intentions words and actions of others.

(*adapted from Brené Brown: Braving: Rumbling with Trust)


When you say, "I don't trust you..." be more specific:

  • BOUNDARIES: "...You aren't being respectful of the boundaries that I've set."
  • RELIABILITY: "...You aren't reliable. You aren't upholding your commitment to be on this team."
  • ACCOUNTABILITY: "...You aren't accountable. You aren't owning up to your mistakes. You're blaming others."
  • VAULT: "...You're sharing information that isn't yours to share."
  • INTEGRITY: "...You aren't in integrity. You're taking the easy way out."
  • NON-JUDGEMENT: "...You're being judgmental about your teammate who needs some help and support right now."
  • GENEROSITY: "...You're making up stories and assumptions about the intentions and actions of your roommate."

Think about each area separately. By breaking trust down and exploring the framework, you can build a common language and improve how you build trust on your team this season.

Teach + practice + coach + repeat.

Share how your athletes would rate you on the 1 to 5 scale? What would they say is your greatest strength and biggest area for growth. (That's what will really matter this season!)