Joey Wolfe: Connecting with Players is Coaching to Win

Connecting with Players from the Athlete’s Point-of-View
I’ll never forget a time when I was playing baseball in college.  I was 20 years old and thought I was pretty good.  I was playing for a coach that my older brother had played for a few years prior.  My brother liked him a lot—said he was the best coach he had ever played for.  I automatically had respect for this coach, even before I put a jersey on for him.

When I did play for him, he was able to maintain my respect with his knowledge and commanding presence.

About three quarters of the way through one season, our team was struggling.  We had lost a few games in a row and this coach sat us down before a practice and gave us an earful.

“You are underperforming and too many players on the team playing as individuals; you needed to start playing better as a team.” 


He went down the line of players in the dugout and started calling them out.  Finally he got to me.

“Joey Wolfe, f— Joey Wolfe!  We don’t need Joey Wolfe, he needs us!”

While I can’t condone this coaching style in most situations, to say it made an impression on me would be an understatement.  It not only infuriated me, it embarrassed me.

I had a lot of respect for this coach.  How could he think this about me?  Had I been acting as a selfish player?

Regardless, it got my attention. Not just mine.  The whole team responded.  We went on to win eight straight games and work our way into the playoffs.  His ability to identify what buttons to push and his determination to do it in a way that pushed each player to pull in the right direction to get the team back on track is what made him not only a good coach, but a great coach.

coaching athletes with joey wolfe

Great coaches understand that if you want a player to respond to your coaching, then you have to meet them halfway.  You can’t expect for each player to bend to your wants and needs.  Like it or not, that’s the world we’re living in.

Different players have different motivators and it’s the coach’s responsibility to identify what the motivators are for each player.  Some players need to be kicked in the butt, yelled at and made an example.  Other players will run the other direction if they are approached that way.  Those need encouragement, empathy, and positive reinforcement.  Some may need a coach to connect with them on an emotional level.

The great coaches identify motivators early and coach accordingly.

Connecting with Players from the Coach’s Point-of-View
For some coaches this skill comes naturally.  For others it is the furthest thing from natural.  There’s good news: there are great resources that can help guide coaches to a better understanding of their players’ learning styles.

A popular one is called the VARK.  The VARK questionnaire helps identify whether someone is a visual, aural, read/write or a kinesthetic learner.  Another great tool is called DiSC Profile.  Similar to VARK, it helps identify your unique personality and behavior.  However, one big difference is that it can be used to improve work productivity, teamwork and communication.  All of this is valuable information to have, for any coach or educator.

Some additional, more organic ways to gather this same kind of information is to take the time to connect with the athlete early on, during their initial assessment.  Ask them questions.  Get to know them on a personal level.  Find out what their motivators are.  If you can take this time to get to know their why it will prove to be incredibly valuable once their training gets started.

Often times this isn’t something the athlete has given much thought. Without a strong grasp on the why it’s going to be very hard to get buy-in from the athlete when the training gets difficult . . . and the training will inevitably get difficult.

Once you have a better understanding of why they came to see you, and it feels appropriate, you can ask (yes, really – just ask) the athlete what the best form of communication is for them.  Are they a visual, auditory or a kinesthetic learner?  Most athletes will know this already.  But first you must start with why.

Throughout my coaching career I’ve worked with hundreds of athletes, young and old; from World Title winners to Little Leaguers, and every level in between. Although coaching an eight-year-old can vastly differ from working with a 50-year-old, there is one key similarity:

To tap into an athlete’s potential, I have to first connect with them on a personal and emotional level.

[bctt tweet=”To tap into an athlete’s potential, first connect with them on a personal and emotional level. ~ Joey Wolfe” via=”no”]

There are several ways to do this, and for someone that works with athletes of all different ages, I have to have a lot of different strategies.  One of them is music.

Recently, I was taking a dozen high school athletes through a movement preparation session.  We were about 15 minutes into the session and I was doing a good job commanding the room.  Then it happened.  A song by Fetty Wap came on.  For those that don’t know who Fetty Wap is (which may or may not be a good thing), he’s a Hip Hop artist.  For whatever reason he’s quite popular with today’s younger generation.  I deliberately made sure the kids knew that I knew who Fetty Wap was.  I made a joke about his music, which in turn made them laugh.  More importantly, to them, it made me relevant.  The fact that their 35-year-old strength coach knows who Fetty Wap is makes me a little “cooler” than the average 35-year-old.


Guiding Examples
Four years ago I had the great honor of hosting Augie Garrido at our annual Paradigm Sport Summer Baseball Camp.  Augie Garrido is currently the head baseball coach at the University of Texas.  He also has the most wins out of any coach in Division I history.  He has won five National Championships in four different decades (’79, ‘84’, ’95, ’02 and ’05).

Garrido’s success can be attributed to several things, but one stands out the most: his ability to connect with his players. How can a coach be successful at that level for 40+ years if he’s unable to connect with his players?

He can’t! No one can.

Augie’s knowledge of not only the game, but pop culture, and life skills all contribute to his success with players and his success overall. His communication skills have to be top notch, otherwise he wouldn’t be able to command the respect of his players that he does.

While I never had the opportunity to play for Coach Garrido, I did play for some pretty great coaches.  I found that the best coaches I played for had a system.  They taught us how they wanted us to run to first base.  How they wanted us to take our lead from second base.  How to tag up on a pop fly to the outfield.  Every facet of the game was discussed, and we were all taught to do it the same way.  Playing for great coaches with solid systems influenced my development as a player . . . and continues to influence me now, as a coach. It taught me organization, structure, teamwork and unselfish sportsmanship.


As important as all of this was, the greatest thing my best coaches showed me was how much they cared about me. To this day I stay in touch with my high school baseball coach, Bill Hutton.

Coach Hutton demonstrated early on in my high school career that he cared more about me as person than a player. When he found out I was struggling in math my freshman year he offered to tutor me during his lunch. My senior year he offered to sit in for my in-home visit from the University of Hawaii. When my playing career ended he was the first person I called for advice.  I had no idea what to do with my life and he steered me in the right direction.

I will be forever grateful for the advice he gave me.

My hope for the kids that I work with today and in the future is not only that they learn the skills they need to be competitive baseball players, but that they learn the characteristics it takes to be a good player, teammate, leader, employee, husband and father.  That they don’t let the game use them, but rather use the game to become the best versions of themselves they can be.

Thankfully for me, that was the best thing the game ever taught me.

More coaching resources from OTP:

Nick Winkelman Coaching ScienceNick Winkelman: The Science of Coaching

Dan John and Chip Conrad A Systems ApproachDan John & Chip Conrad: A Systems Approach to Coaching and Training

Tap into the Brains of Some of the World’s Leading Performance Experts

FREE Access to the OTP Vault


Inside the OTP Vault, you’ll find over 20 articles and videos from leading strength coaches, trainers and physical therapists such as Dan John, Gray Cook, Michael Boyle, Stuart McGill and Sue Falsone.

Click here to get FREE access to the On Target Publications vault and receive the latest relevant content to help you and your clients move and perform better.