Nicole M. LaVoi
Nicole M. LaVoi
I knew tennis. As a former collegiate athlete and young coach, I knew all about strokes, strategy and serves. But in my first coaching job as a head coach at the collegiate level, I quickly realized I needed other skills and expertise to be effective, to authentically connect with the diverse personalities of all my athletes.

I wanted to make a difference in the lives of the young women I coached. I wanted to create a positive climate and safe space for them to develop, explore their identities and negotiate entry into adulthood.

As a coach, I wondered, why did I easily connect with some of my athletes and not others? I felt I was a failure. I expended a great deal of emotional energy worrying about those few I felt were on the relational margins. I saw far too many miserable athletes going through the competitive motions. I observed many burned-out coaches-including myself.

I believed that people grow through their connections with one another. Those connections increase the likelihood of optimal performance. But the typical model of coaching I saw was that of a win-at-all-costs, detached, yelling, power-wielding authority figure-most of whom were male. This model did not fit my experiences or beliefs about effective coaching.

I wondered, was this idea about meaningful connections and coaching a silly idea? At the time I was a head coach at Wellesley College. One day I attended a brown-bag lecture at the Wellesley Centers for Women. It was a transformative hour that changed my life trajectory. I learned about relational expertise-the capacity to create meaningful connections with others that facilitates well-being, mutual growth and development.

Everything the speaker discussed resonated with my experiences, thoughts and feelings about coaching! I wasn't alone. There was an entire body of literature that supported my intuitions.

Working with relational expertise methods helps coaches connect meaningfully with athletes. Demonstrating care and concern, listening to the perspective of others, adopting a power-with philosophy, practicing two-way communication, nurturing and accepting difference, and providing opportunities for self-determined behavior are elements of this coaching method.

My passion for learning more about relational expertise led me to quit coaching and pursue graduate work in sport psychology. I wanted to help young coaches not make the same mistakes I did. I felt I could make a bigger impact by training coaches who worked with thousands of young women, rather than coaching one team at a time.

When I'm in the classroom teaching or out in the community giving coaching workshops, I invariably get a comment that relational coaching must only be effective for coaching girls and women or a style that works only for female coaches. My answer is always the same-all athletes benefit from authentic and meaningful connections with their coach and each other.

Nicole M. LaVoi is the associate director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota,, and co-founder of the Minnesota Youth Sport Research Consortium,