Elite Athletes Must Learn to Interact Well With Others


When working in the field of performance psychology, the goal is always to help clients find an edge that can improve outcomes. One of the best methods to identify potential competitive edges for athletes is to closely look at what the best and most successful athletes are doing, and then try to replicate their behaviors. It is important to note that although, yes, the most successful players may owe a great deal of that success to talent, they also demonstrate strong behavioral tendencies to fully realize their talent.

It is best to visualize it as a ladder: One vertical post represents individual skill and talent, while the other represents performance and experience. The rungs between the posts are behaviors, which act as the link between the two posts, and are necessary to translate skill to performance and move up the ladder. This model makes a lot of sense when you consider the great number of talented athletes that fall short of their perceived potential or when less talented individuals find ways to outperform others:  underlying behavior patterns determine how much of their potential can be translated into successful performance.

One area that I have identified as a behavioral edge that highly successful athletes demonstrate is interpersonal effectiveness. That is, they are able to voice and assert their wants and needs while still nurturing, developing, and sustaining relationships with others. Considering the complex environment of team sports, it is perhaps not surprising that such behavioral skill set would stand out, but it receives little attention nonetheless. A question to athletes out there: how often have you been asked or guided to consider things like: How do I address a coach? How do I assert where I think I fit best within the team? How do I engage a teammate over an issue I have with them? How do I respond when a teammate has an issue with me? Based on my experience, I’m guessing very little. Those who can navigate these dynamics skillfully more often get themselves heard by coaches, end up in better positions to succeed within the group, and solve conflicts with teammates in an effective manner, leading to more successful performance outcomes.

The I-We Relationship

In my experience, the key to athletic interpersonal effectiveness is balance. Athletes highly capable in interpersonal effectiveness manage to find the sweet spot between being assertive and individualistic.  They are able to remain firmly committed to the long-term goals of the group and inclined to follow team leadership. I call this the I\We relationship, where one’s individual needs as well as their desires to contribute to the group are both represented and fulfilled.  My observations suggest, perhaps quite fittingly, that successful athletes do this in a “give and take” manner: asserting their wants and needs in a tactful manner, while being open to feedback and adaptively responsive to requests and criticisms. The binding factor in fostering a healthy “I-We” dynamic is that it is always perceived in the context of the greater whole. More specifically, “How can I/we make the team better?” In some cases, this may require an assertive request to a coach or teammate, in another situation may require a more receptive and dutiful response to a request within the team dynamic. A healthy “I-We” provides the athlete with more tools to contribute to team goals and not diminish their personal capacity for personal performance. Here are a few tips to improve your interpersonal effectiveness and communication within your team:


Express & Articulate Yourself

Clearly, state how you feel and what you believe about the given situation you are in. It is a mistake to assume others will automatically understand your perspective or be able to read your mind. Ensure that your message is expressed articulately and respectfully, in a way that concisely and directly speaks to your needs while maintaining a constructive tone. As they say, it’s easier to attract bees with honey than it is with vinegar!

Assert Yourself

In short, ask for what you want. Again, it is a mistake to assume or expect others to know what you want of them or for yourself if you do not say so. Be clear and concise recognizing that to be assertive requires one to request something or say “no” firmly. It is important to also recognize that asserting is not demanding, which can be received as hostile, controlling, and ultimately damaging.

*Remember these 2 tips work hand in hand-in-hand, but Expressing is not Asserting! Expressing only frames the assertive request/denial you feel is necessary to meet your needs at the time.


Borrowed from Linehan (2014), these three pillars reflect the checkpoints of interpersonal situations and can be adopted to help athletes frame the purpose and message of their interactions with management, coaches, teammates, and themselves.

Objective- Ask yourself: “what is the specific result or change I want to make through this interaction?”

Effective-  Ask yourself: “how do I want the other person to feel about me following the interaction (regardless of the outcome)?”

Self-Respect- Ask yourself: “how do I want to feel about myself following the interaction (regardless of outcome)?”

In short, those who demonstrate the longest most successful careers in sport navigate relationships in a way that promotes both personal and group success. They clearly accept and value the long-term goals and vision of the team, but are not willing to subdue their own personal success to be a part of it. They see themselves as an active and valuable contributor to the group and make it known, in an effective and constructive way, how their skill set is best used to reach the team goal.

Game Change was founded in 2011 to serve and enhance the athlete development needs of major professional and elite sport organizations and athletes.  Game Change specializes in customized research and assessment services, the development of applied interventions and resources designed to provide long-term positive outcomes for organizations and individual athletes.  Game Change believes strongly in sport as a catalyst for societal change and adheres to the philosophy of ‘changing the world one athlete at a time’.

Jay Harrison