3 Tips for Driving Higher Athlete Buy-In

Coach Development | Mindset


5 min read


Darren Dillon is the owner and director of Kickstart Fitness Ireland. Founded in 2010, Kickstart Fitness has grown from what was initially a bootcamp in a local park into what is now a center of excellence for TRX®️Training and functional training, and a high performance hub for strength and conditioning. Darren also serves as head of performance at Shamrock Rovers FC, working with and programming for the academy through to senior professional soccer players. He is also Ireland’s only official TRX®️ Master Trainer, delivering all the company’s education courses to the Irish fitness industry.

// getting buy-in from your athletes

For any athlete to get the best results from your coaching, they have to understand your principles, accept that what you’re teaching them is valid, and commit fully to what you’re trying to help them achieve. But before we even get to our clients at Kickstart, the coaches and staff have to buy-in. If everyone from the coaches to the admin team to the cleaners is on the same page and dedicated to excellence, we can convey a cohesive message to our members. It’s no good having top quality in one area if you have poor results in another. Everyone needs to give their very best each day.

It’s also important that I lead from the front and do what I’m asking of others and more. Showing up at 5:30 AM to prep for a class, taking out the rubbish, staying late to help clean up. It doesn’t matter. I’ll do whatever is required. Over the past couple of years, we had two staff members who didn’t share this level of vision or commitment. That’s easy to ignore when you’re busy, but the signs started to become unmistakable. It got to the point that I was worried that we’d start losing members, and that was when it was time to act decisively. So I replaced them with two of our longtime clients who’ve been coming to Kickstart for years. This reinvigorated the entire group and rather than the turnover being a negative as I first thought, it has actually turned into a big positive.

When you have a team that you trust to do the right thing without you watching, it makes your job so much easier. Once you’ve grown to a certain point, you simply cannot do everything, try as you might. So you have to delegate tasks and responsibilities, set people up to succeed, and then believe that they will follow through even when you’re not there looking over their shoulder. I’m fortunate to have eight other people alongside me who fit the bill. One of our key tenets as a group is that we try to consider every decision through the lens of what’s best for the business and the people we serve. This means there are no selfish individual agendas or outside egos and we’re all pulling in the same positive direction.

breaking down Barriers

Our demeanor on the coaching floor is important, but it cannot end there. It’s also crucial that we carry ourselves well in the wider community. How we walk into and out of the building matters. What we say to someone when we meet them at the supermarket is important. The way we act if out at a restaurant is significant. People see far more than you think they do, particularly when living in a small community like ours. So we always have to be on our best behavior when out in public and represent ourselves and Kickstart well.

Our demeanor on the coaching floor is important, but it cannot end there.

Another way for us to build buy-in with our members is to treat them with the utmost respect. As I’ve mentioned before, this involves remembering and using their first names when we greet them, getting to know their unique backgrounds and stories, and lending a helping hand when it’s needed. We also make sure that we’re not bombarding them with gimmicky deals, trying to upsell our coaching services, or pushing a line of supplements or apparel. People come to us for learning and self-development, not to be sold to. Yes, we have to make a living, but the opportunity to positively impact our little corner of Ireland transcends this.

When a new prospective member comes in for the first time, we expect them to be reticent and self-conscious. Perhaps they’ve had bad training experiences in the past. Maybe it’s the first time they’ve ever been in a gym. We take great pains to make them feel at ease, looking them in the eye and getting to know them long before we have them pick up a weight. Someone’s physical appearance can tell you a lot about their mental state. If somebody is all tense, they hold that in their shoulders. Sometimes they’ll defensively cross their arms. Sometimes all it takes to break down barriers is for me or another coach to ask them if they want some water or a cup of tea or coffee. Then we have a chat and find out some things about them. Nothing heavy, but just a conversation to break the ice. This way they have a great experience from day one and are more likely to come back.

keeping players prepared

At Shamrock Rovers, I work hard to maintain the same attitude as at Kickstart. It wouldn’t work to have one mask for the football club and another for the gym. That’d mean I wasn’t being authentic or true to who I am. So even though the club could be viewed as a higher performance environment, I try to remain consistent in both environments.

That isn’t to say that there aren’t some differences. It’s the players’ jobs to train and play, whereas Kickstart members choose to be there. This means what I demand of the two groups is different. While I know when to push people in the gym and when to back off, we don’t have the luxury of time at Rovers. So the intent – game day performance – drives the action. If I’m trying to emphasize speed or change of direction on the training ground, I need to do that with more aggression than I would on the gym floor.

It’s my duty to make sure that every one of the 24 players in the squad is well prepared in case the manager puts them on the team sheet in the starting 11 for the next game. The regulars in the side have to stay ready, but it’s an even greater challenge with those who haven’t quite broken through yet. I need to keep the other 13 lads positive so we don’t lose them. Should that happen, they’d drop down a couple of gears in training, which would make it even less likely that they’d ever break into the starting lineup. So as well as keeping them sharp physically, I’ve got to keep their heads up.

This involves watching everyone’s reaction in the team meeting after those 11 names are put up on the board. Who takes it well, and who seems angry or despondent? If someone’s in the latter group, I’ll make a mental note to have a word with them later in the day, let them vent their frustrations when needed, and then rev them back up so they go hard to try and win that coveted starting spot. You never know when someone will get injured or will leave in the transfer window, so everyone has to be prepared to take their shot when they’re called upon. At this high level, they might only get one chance. I want to make sure they’re physically, mentally, and emotionally ready to seize it. For others who are in the team week in and week out, it’s more a question of keeping that hunger and drive.

When the players can see that I and the other coaches care about them, their careers, and their health, they’re all in. It also helps to be able to demonstrate a skill or movement, both in the gym and on the training ground. When someone sees that you don’t just know the theory but are physically competent, it excites them and, for some, stokes the desire to do it better. They have to know in how I talk and act that this is more than a job for me. A lot of them might be shocked that I have another full-time role at the gym and that I put in just as much effort at 10 PM at Kickstart as I do when they see me at the club for an early training session the next morning. But if they did see me in this other setting, I hope they’d realize that it all matters, all the time. I’m grateful to have the opportunity to help everyone, whether it’s a pro footballer or a mom of three.  

a study in integrity

If we look to the world of professional football (soccer) for examples of how to get buy-in, we see a striking contrast between Manchester United’s former manager Jose Mourinho and current caretaker boss Ole Gunnar Solskjær. Part of Mourinho’s downfall at the club went far beyond a string of poor results. He had a widely-publicized rift with star midfielder Paul Pogba that allegedly included telling some of the team’s younger players to stay away from the French World Cup winner because he was a bad influence. Then photos emerged of him refusing to shake Pogba’s hand at the end of training one day. That would’ve been visible to the entire squad and was a surefire message to the players that there was an insurmountable rift, amplified by the fact that all the assistant coaches did shake Pogba’s hand. A seemingly small gesture (or lack thereof) was indicative of the reality that Mourinho had lost the dressing (English for locker) room for good.

In contrast, pictures of Solskjær at his first few training sessions showed him sitting on the field with Pogba and other players and laughing with them. He has been quick to praise his team in post-match press conferences while downplaying his own role in United’s astonishing turnaround, which has seen them rise up to fourth place the Premier League table, defeat powerhouse Paris St. Germain in the Champions League, and win 14 of 19 matches at the time of writing. Pogba has gone from wanting a transfer and playing with a noticeable lack of joy to wanting to stay and keying his team’s revival with a remarkable run of form.

It certainly hasn’t hurt that Solskjær isn’t an outsider, but rather a former United player who won the club the Champions League final against Bayern Munich and the treble (claiming the Premier League, FA Cup, and Champions League trophies in one season) with a last-gasp goal. This means that he has credibility bonafides that the current team respects and understands the tenets of the culture at Old Trafford that was established by legendary manager Sir Alex Ferguson. In just a few short weeks in charge, Solskjær is already looking like the kind of manager that any player would walk through fire for. That’s the ultimate kind of buy-in.

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