Building Relationships Is Key To Success

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By Mike Podoll • Associate Publisher • This Is AFCA Magazine

Mentally and physically training players to consistently perform above and beyond normal standards cannot occur without first building relationships with your athletes, according to Todd Graham, head coach, Arizona State University. In fact, he says one has direct correlation with the other.

When fatigue sets in or extra effort is needed, an athlete must draw upon the relationship and bond he has forged with the coaches to do so.

“We believe that you can out-work other people in football,” says Graham. “The key is your focus.

“As a player, if you play for me, I want you to give me everything you’ve got – and then give me just a little bit more. That comes from within those players, from the relationships we’ve built.

“If you really want to motivate players, learn about their family and bring it up from time to time. Mention something about their mom, for example, as a way to demonstrate that you’re dialed-in to their personal lives in a meaningful way.

“Drawing upon faith and family is a good way to pull out that little bit more from players who are already working hard for you.

Read more about Todd Graham and his Arizona State Sun Devils in the upcoming issue of This Is AFCA Magazine. Don’t receive the magazine? Become a member of the AFCA and receive it for free!

“Cultivating a family atmosphere is important to us as a football team. We call it being a part of ‘The Sun Devil Brotherhood.’”

Ultimately, according to Graham, these concepts are symbiotic in nature. Building relationships allows for better training – which pays off in the form of athletes who are both mentally and physically stronger.

The system has paid off in tangible results for the Sun Devils on the field.


“The formula works. There were a lot of teams that we beat over the last few years who had more talent than us,” says Graham. “It has everything to do with us being mentally tough.

“Cultivating a family atmosphere is important to us as a football team. We call it being a part of The Sun Devil Brotherhood.”

~ Todd Graham, head coach, Arizona State University

“Everybody does the work and all teams work hard. The difference comes from challenging yourself be the best at doing the work. I tell my players all the time, ‘Other teams are out training and running sprints right now. But are you doing it better than they are? Are you running sprints better than other football players on other teams? Are you the best at running sprints?’

“Training better than anyone else comes from deep within your heart. It’s something you have to dig deep to pull out every single time.”

Graham also uses daily periods of self-reflection to build relationships and draw extra effort from players. This introspective exercise is designed to motivate players every day and help to keep repetitive – yet necessary – tasks from becoming mundane.

“Our players become pretty fired up and motivated to work hard after thinking about the people who made life sacrifices just so they can play football.”Todd Graham, head coach, Arizona State University

“Early in each season, we meet with individual players and ask them to identify the one or two people in their lives who are the most responsible for helping them to get where they are today. We’ll say, ‘You are a Division I college football player and you have been blessed. What people in your life have made sacrifices in their own lives, just so that you could get here?’

Once each player has identified those people who sacrificed, Graham tells them to bring in photographs of those people. Each player posts the photo on a display area mounted inside his locker.

“From that day forward, whenever we get ready to leave that locker room, we blow a whistle, and each player is instructed to intensely focus on the photos in their lockers and think about the sacrifices those people have made for them,” he says.

“When the whistle is blown a second time, we tell the players to, ‘Go out there on that field and honor their sacrifices in everything that you do today.’

“Needless to say, our players become pretty fired up and motivated to work hard after thinking about the people who made life sacrifices just so they can play football.”

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