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Building Trust in Coaching

Building Trust in Coaching

Trust can be defined as “the willingness of a party to be vulnerable to the actions of another party based on the expectation that the other will perform a particular action important to the trustor, irrespective of the ability to monitor or control that other party.” (Mayer et al., 1995)

In other words, if we have trust in another person we are more likely to be vulnerable and to take risks with them. This is particularly important for coaching as if an athlete feels comfortable being open, honest and vulnerable then we can establish a stronger relationship and are more likely to work effectively together. Ultimately this means that we are in a better place to achieve the results that the athlete is looking for.

“No one cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.” Theodore Roosevelt

This phrase is one of the most important reminders for me whenever I begin working with someone new. The reason that I find it so helpful, is that it puts me in the other person’s shoes. All too often as coaches, we can forget what it feels like to be the person being coached, and in doing so can damage our ability to develop trust with the athlete.

If we are focused on the wrong things, we lose sight of the most important thing: delivering results.

In this article, I am going to outline a framework that we can use to begin developing trust with other people, which is applicable not only to coaching but to life more broadly.

The trust equation

The trust equation is a useful framework for understanding why and how trust is built between two people. The trust equation is:

Trust = (Credibility + Reliability + Intimacy) / Self-Orientation

Credibility means that the other person (in this case the coach), has got the credentials, experience and knowledge to help us achieve our ultimate goals. The higher the credibility, the more likely an athlete is to trust us, as they feel that we have the skills and expertise to help them achieve their goals. (“They know their stuff”)

Reliability is the consistency with which we deliver a high-quality service, and deliver results. This is primarily about the actions that we take, rather than the words that we speak. Again, the more reliable we are with our service, whether that is timekeeping, programme quality or energy that we bring to a session, the more trust we can build. (“They always deliver results”)

Intimacy is the security and safety we feel with the other person. If we have high levels of intimacy within the coaching relationship, then the athlete will feel comfortable sharing information with us in the knowledge that they can trust us with it and that it won’t be shared with others inappropriately. A coaching relationship that involves intimacy will be more likely to generate trust as we can make a more human connection with the athlete. (“I feel safe with them”)

Self-orientation may also be referred to as self-awareness and relates to where the person’s focus is. Someone who is very highly focused on themselves is likely to be less trustworthy than someone who is very focused on the other person. (“Are they focussed on my interests or on their own”)

Common mistakes

Many new, inexperienced coaches want to prove themselves and gain credibility by demonstrating their knowledge. They believe (as I did when I first began coaching), that by impressing someone with your knowledge, this will automatically develop trust and buy-in. If only it were that simple. We know that humans are irrational, emotional people who seek connection and relationships and ultimately only really care what result someone can help us to achieve. Yes it is important to demonstrate credibility, but not at the expense of our self-orientation.

Another common mistake is to not do what we say we’re going to do. This damages trust by reducing our reliability in the trust equation. It is therefore really important to establish expectations early on in the coaching relationship, in order to set boundaries and outline what can realistically be expected of you as a coach. If a coach overpromises, then they are less likely to back this up with action and may damage the long-term coaching relationship. ‘Under promise and over deliver’ is a famous saying because it supports this coaching principle.

Applying the trust equation to coaching

All aspects of the trust equation are important, and contribute to building trust in the coaching relationship.

Credibility can be built organically through our own experiences as we grow and develop as a coach. But it can also be demonstrated through our actions and words. It’s important to consider the context we are working in however, as it can be easy to overwhelm others with overly technical language. Keeping our language simple and relatable is more important than trying to show off how much we know (as outlined in the quote earlier).

Reliability takes time, as we need to repeatedly prove that we are going to do what we said we are going to do. This might be having equipment set up before a session, always having programmes ready on time or always checking in each week with clients.

Intimacy is something that again requires time, and does depend on the personality of both coach and athlete. Introverts may take longer to develop this than extroverts, although this is not always the case. We can build intimacy in the coaching relationship through our honesty, our openness and our vulnerability too. If appropriate, sharing information about ourselves and our lives beyond coaching can be a fantastic way to develop this, as it shows that we are human with challenges and problems in our own lives too.

When I first begin working with someone new, I want to know about them most of all, and put the person at the centre of the conversation. This is primarily to demonstrate that I am not only interested in the person, but that I have also got the emotional intelligence to avoid talking about myself too much. This helps with the ‘self-orientation’ aspect of the trust equation.

The priorities will shift based on the context within which we are working, but in my experience it is important to first begin with understanding the other person, and then gradually building more trust through reliability and credibility later. Reliability takes more time, and so cannot be something we can achieve in a short period of time. Demonstrating self-awareness and an interest in the other person can be achieved almost immediately however, so is the fastest shortcut to building trust initially.

This is supported by research from Schiemann et al. (2019) who found that inexperienced coaches tended to focus on their ability (credibility) whereas more experienced coaches focussed on their benevolence (intimacy/caring).


In summary, trust is vital to the success of the coaching relationship. By using the trust equation, we can understand how our words and actions can contribute to or detract from this, and by having pre-planned strategies to support this outcome, can expedite the process of building trust and getting the athlete the results that they are looking for.

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Mayer, R. C., Davis, J. H., & Schoorman, F. D. (1995). An integrative model of organizational trust. Academy of Management Review, 20(3), 709–734. doi: 10.5465/amr.1995.9508080335

Sandra J. Schiemann, Christina Mühlberger, F. David Schoorman & Eva Jonas (2019) Trust me, I am a caring coach: The benefits of establishing trustworthiness during coaching by communicating benevolence, Journal of Trust Research, 9:2, 164-184,

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