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NEW COACH 411 with Rick Dorn: Building Student Relationships

In his seventh column designed to give new Speech and Debate Coaches the lowdown on the world of coaching, Coach Rick Dorn writes about how to build meaningful student relationships.

New Coaches 411 Column #7 - Student Relationships

Hello! I hope this column finds you well, as you are most likely coming out of the busiest part of your season. Today’s column is taking a look at developing positive student relationships. Every single coach/teacher/administrator I know would say that relationships can make or break an educator. In the speech world, that seems to be a vital part of the job. Let’s look at some of the methods you can use to build good relationships with your students, your fellow coaches, and anyone else.

When it comes to students, the best thing you can do is show them you care about them. Students frequently feel disconnected from the adults in their school, and you can help some of them reconnect. The old saying is, “Students don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care,” and that is very true. Make practice time productive, but also, find time to visit with as many of your students as you can in small groups or even individually. If you have bad news or negative feedback for your student, start with a compliment. Let them know that you value them as a person, and not just as a competitor.

You must be careful. First, don’t spend all of your time with the extremely successful members of the team. Of course, they deserve your attention as much as anyone, but the less successful members start feeling as if you only value them if they bring in prizes. This happens in speech, and it also happens in drama, band, and every single sport. We are working with students who are growing up. If you make that freshman feel ignored or unwanted when they are starting out, you will probably lose them before they blossom into a more successful team member. This can be tricky, because the most successful members of your team are always going to be the students who never miss a practice and work extra hard with you. Do the best you can to try and make sure every team member gets attention.

I hesitate to bring it up, but it must be pointed out - use some common sense and follow appropriate teacher limits. Coaches become extremely close with their students, but that should NEVER mean you start inappropriate conversations or interactions with your students. This applies to any teacher, but activities/athletic coaches spend the most time with students and seem to be the ones who show up in the news the most. I have been teaching for 30 years, and I have seen countless teachers/coaches/support staff who have crossed that line and either lost their job or spent time behind bars. If you’d be embarrassed to have someone else read or hear the message, then don’t say or write it.

Another suggestion for the overworked coaches to connect with their students is to try and learn a little bit about your students’ interests and other activities. If at all possible, try and go see a concert or a game once in a while. Talk to them about their part time jobs or family trips. If you have had their siblings previously, ask them about those older brothers and sisters. Not only will they remember that you took the time, but you may find some connections for potential volunteer judges. None of this takes much time, and you do have to be considerate of your own family time and obligations, but if you make an effort, it will pay off for you. Students always know if you do the bare minimum.

Every teacher/coach/director has moments they wish they could go back and fix. You said the wrong thing, or you hurt a student’s feelings. You didn’t handle a situation or problem student as well as you could have. It happens. The best we can do is try to improve and fix the issues currently in front of us, and remember the times when you did it right.

To finish up, let me tell you a story of a time when I seemed to do something right. Several years ago, I had a student who went through some tough times and tried to hurt herself. She was found in time to keep her from serious damage, but she repeatedly stressed to her parents that she had let down the team by not being available that weekend. It really worried her that we would be “mad” at her. I reached out to her and her parents and assured them that the most important thing was her safety and well-being. The team part or the competition that was missed didn’t matter in the slightest. She was able to return shortly after, and she became one of my most dedicated members. Showing she was valued regardless of her impact to the team, helped her recovery and helped build a better relationship with me and her fellow team members.

If you have any questions or topics you would like explored, please email me at

Till next time,

Rick Dorn

Worland High School

Biography: Rick Dorn is a two diamond coach who has been teaching some kind of speech or theatre since 1992. He has been named Wyoming 3A Coach of the Year twice and has coached numerous students to national competition.


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