Skills that will make you a better coach. Take it from Willie.

It is the end of the season for many sports and the start of a new season for others.

As coaches, some of you are reflecting on what the heck just happened and looking ahead to consideration of improvements for next year. Others are about to kick things off. All of you are also unknowingly turning to your inner social worker… really you are! What does social work have to do with sports? Everything.

Social work is concerned with helping individuals and groups enhance their individual and collective well-being. It helps people develop their skills and their abilities to use their own resources and those of their broader community to resolve problems.

– Canadian Association of Social Work

Does this sound like the work that you do as a coach? It does to me. I’ve seen coaches like you use the social work skills described above every day. As a coach, refining these skills will make your life easier and improve your team’s performance.

By thinking like a social worker, your concern will turn to team inter-personal development which when strengthened will improve performance. Many make the mistake of focusing primarily on skill development and strategy which is not enough.

Willie Desjardins, head coach of the LA Kings Hockey team, Team Canada 2018 Olympic Coach and ex-head coach of the Vancouver Canucks has a Master of Social Work degree. I remember watching the Canucks under his leadership and paying close attention to the relationships between the players. As a social worker myself, I was curious to see how he used the skills acquired through his academic and professional training to manage athlete relationships and develop a cohesive team in a highly competitive sports environment.


We know that sports are about much more than competition. Relationships and human interaction--the very values that social work concerns itself with--are fundamental to all sports. What hooked me and has hooked many of the amazing athletes and coaches who I know is this side of sport.

 Coaches love the relationships. They love building something great through uniting people.

As a social worker, I’ve always paid just as much attention to what’s happening on the bench during a game as to what is happening on the field, court, pool or ice. I’ve looked for the high fives, and other ways athletes encourage each other. I’ve looked to see if they appear upset, frustrated or angry. I’ve paid attention to how their teammates and coaches are supporting them. Watching for these subtleties comes naturally to both social workers and coaches. We both know that they can make or break a team and our job is to facilitate problem resolution that will result in positivity and cohesion.


Willie Desjardins would be the first to tell you, strong teams have intentional systems in place to anticipate and manage conflict. As a social worker and coach, he understands that every team goes through four stages of development: Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing link here for more on this. By understanding the inevitability of these stages, coaches like Willie are able to prepare their teams by implementing strategies to convert conflict into team cohesion. This is done through building trust, addressing conflict as soon as it surfaces through face to face communication and being transparent through the use of regular team meetings.

Whether you are about to kick off your season or are finishing up, try a social work hat on for size! You don’t need a masters degree in the subject like Willie. An understanding of conflict, communication and group dynamics will be enough.  By applying a social work lens to your work, you will come to recognise and approach natural conflict with ease by utilizing effective systems for support. You will no longer feel like you are expected to have all of the answers because your team will be on the same page utilizing internal resources to resolve problems as they come up.





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