By Richard Dunn     11/26/2014

When 99 percent of the students from a Trinity League school graduating class go on to attend college, it can be seen as an example of how keen the competition for the best scholarships is each year among senior students and student-athletes.

Iron sharpens iron in high-level academics, just as it does for the league’s sports teams, in which competition is fierce for starting positions and varsity roster spots, and there often is an urgency to catch the coaches’ eyes.

For Trinity League coaches, it is a different perspective than it is for their peers at public high schools. They can feel more empowered, able to stretch the boundaries, do more, achieve more, strive for more and dig deeper with each student-athlete.

“We are very fortunate to have some incredibly talented young athletes. Most of these athletes want to get to the next level,” Mater Dei girls soccer coach Matthew West says. “As a coach, I try to motivate them to pursue their highest level of excellence. I tell them not to settle with average, [but to] be the best version of themselves in everything that they do.”

So what is the coach-athlete relationship like these days? How do coaches know when to push and when to back off, or when to kick some rear end and when to be a friend or buddy?

“I think knowing when to push and when to back off is one of the best attributes a coach can have and it is something that is learned over time,” Santa Margarita boys’ track and field coach and freshmen football assistant coach Sean Zeitler says. “It is obviously important to push your student-athletes so that they reach their maximum potential. When your athletes know that you have their best interests at heart and you wouldn’t ask them to do anything they couldn’t do, it is a steppingstone to building the right rapport with them.”

Santa Margarita girls’ soccer coach Chuck Morales, whose program has won 14 league championships, a CIF Regional title and six CIF titles since 1994, does not believe that coaches should be “buddies” with their players.

“In coaching,’ Morales says, “it isn’t always ‘one size fits all.’ Additionally, in coaching female athletes, a coach must always be aware of the spoken word because it carries great weight and significance. Encouraging words and actions over kicking butt go a long way toward opening trust and confidence in players. Performance usually follows. On the other hand, being a buddy is not an effective way to teach because it minimizes and weakens the coach/player dynamic.”

Morales also believes that coaches can be a positive influence in the overall lives of their players, and that setting an example is paramount in producing a good attitude.

“A coach is first and foremost a role model to their team,” Morales says. “For this reason a coach must always remember that their actions and words are under constant review by many impressionable eyes and ears standing in front of them or sitting in the spectator stands. With this in mind a coach must accept the responsibility that a positive, fair-minded approach with players is necessary to teach more than just the game or sport at hand. A positive-acting coach inspires by their actions because of how they conduct themselves throughout wins and losses. A negative coach on the other hand teaches disrespect to the game itself and provides the wrong leadership attitude.”

West, who enjoyed a fine professional soccer playing career before becoming a successful coach at Mater Dei (including playing for the Anaheim Slash and Utah Blitz in the USISL), suggests that the basis of the coach-athlete relationship is trust.

“It’s a delicate balance, but players are very resilient,” West says. “A lot of times, a player’s mind might say no, but their body is capable of much more. I think it is important to help players get out of their comfort zone and push their boundaries. If your players know that you care for them, they will overcome any obstacles that you challenge them with.”

What about coaches stepping in to help student-athletes who are encountering challenging times in their lives?

“I have helped guide some kids through some difficult experiences,” West says. “Most importantly, I think they need support and knowing that someone believes in them. In my experiences, kids feel trapped and alone when going through difficult times. If I can show them that there is a light at the end of the tunnel and that we are going to see it shine bright, then we’ll get through it.

“It’s not always easy to recognize right away when a player is struggling. However, sometimes a good sign is when athletic performance drops.”