Great coaches know how to connect with their athletes beyond “X’s and O’s”.
We all know brilliant coaches who understand programming and tactics, but when it comes to igniting a fire within their athletes, they can’t seem to make it happen. We also know coaches with an “adequate” level of knowledge and experience that have athletes who will run through a brick wall for them.
Research on the world’s most successful coaches and leaders points to the fact that tactical knowledge and experience are only a small part of what makes them successful. Effective coaches must also have the skills required to gain trust, commitment, and buy-in from their athletes.
For years, these skills were considered the “intangibles” of effective leadership that only a few gifted coaches possessed. A rapidly expanding field of research in leadership and performance has now identified these specific skill sets that allow great leaders to create an optimal relationship with those they lead. Together, these skillsets create the critical leadership attribute called emotional intelligence, or EQ.
Coaches with a high level of EQ are able and willing to adjust their communication style to the needs of their athletes. They are aware of their own attitudes and behaviors and how these impact the training environment. Emotionally intelligent coaches reflect on how they can continually improve their ability to communicate and inspire the best performance in their athletes.
Imagine refining your leadership skills to develop an even more effective relationship and communication style with your athletes. Consider how the ability to quickly develop trust, buy-in, and enthusiasm can help you further unlock their potential.
The good news is that emotional intelligence can be developed. Just like a movement skill, it can be broken down into individual components that can improve with training.
The 5 skillsets that comprise emotional intelligence are:
- Social Skill
Let’s look at how you can add EQ to your coaching IQ by developing the individual skill sets of emotional intelligence.
Self-awareness is the ability to identify your strengths, weaknesses, values, and impact on others honestly and accurately. This awareness can be general or situational.
Developing the skill of self-awareness can be challenging, as it requires you to be vulnerable enough to move past ego and insecurity. When something isn’t working in the coach/athlete relationship, it requires you to honestly reflect on your role in this shortcoming.
To develop this skill set, self-reflection is critical. However, it’s also important to gain feedback from colleagues and mentors while resisting the urge to become defensive. Record yourself coaching and evaluate what you do well from a communication standpoint, and what you can do better.
Identifying a personal weakness doesn’t suggest failure any more than identifying a strength suggests complete mastery. The goal of continual personal assessment isn’t to label, justify, or judge your behavior. It’s merely information. When you are aware of this information, you have the ability to develop and access more effective coaching tools that match the needs of your athletes.
Self-regulation is the ability to consciously control your actions, reactions, and moods.
Gaining control over emotional response can be difficult. Consider, however, how your mood and/or emotional reactions impact your training environment. If you show up to a training session in a bad mood, already agitated, how do you expect your interactions with athletes to go? When this happens frequently, what does this do for your ability to gain trust and buy-in from your athletes?
To develop the skill of self-regulation, consider the situations that bring out your most ineffective emotional responses. In what specific ways do these emotional responses impact the training environment? Is this the training culture you aim to create? Now, identify and write down more effective ways to deal with these situations. As you are coaching, look for opportunities to exercise these more effective emotional responses.
Motivation is a measure of your drive to succeed.
It could be assumed that all coaches are motivated to create success with their athletes. However, notoriety, promotion, financial gain, and other self-serving aspects of motivation can come into play. While pursuing success for your athletes can result in all the above, the most effective coaches are motivated by achievement for the sake of achievement.
What motivates you as a coach? Consider the aspects of coaching that have made you voluntarily go above and beyond. What gets you excited? What pulls you to give everything you have to your athletes?
Do you get just as excited when a young athlete improves at a skill as when a high-profile professional athlete does? Why or why not? There’s no wrong or “bad” answer when you reflect on your personal sources of motivation. Just be aware that when athletes trust that your core motivations are in line with theirs, you have the greatest opportunity at positive impact.
Empathy is your ability to understand and acknowledge others’ emotions and how these emotions impact their performance.
An empathetic coach tries to put themselves in their athletes’ shoes and considers their emotional makeup. A struggling athlete may be having problems at home or in the classroom, impacting their on-field performance. Acknowledging these struggles and offering words of encouragement while still holding high standards for this athlete is more effective than continually rebuking their performance.
The age, ability level, and background of our athletes can impact their emotional make-up on a daily basis. Consider the person you were when you were in middle or high school. How about college? What were the different challenges you dealt with? How would you want a coach to help you manage these challenges while helping you improve your athletic ability?
Empathy is not merely justifying and/or accepting any and all athlete behavior. It’s merely acknowledging that your athletes come from diverse backgrounds and experiences that impact their emotional makeup. Developing awareness and effective strategies to manage various emotional states shows you care about the athlete as a person.
Social Skill is the ability to develop rapport with others. As a coach, it’s critical for your athletes to know you have their best interests in mind. This goes beyond the tactics of training.
A coach with great social skill can quickly relate to and gain athletes’ trust by connecting on a “human” level. This can be as easy as asking an athlete how they are feeling, or what they did over the weekend. It could be demonstrated by actively listening and asking questions when an athlete shares something about their life. Either way, this demonstrates that the coach/athlete relationship isn’t merely transactional.
When you demonstrate a genuine interest in your athletes as people, they learn to trust that you have their best interests in mind.
Great coaches are always looking for opportunities to become more effective in leading their athletes to excellence. Consider the skill set of emotional intelligence and your own improvement with these skills could significantly impact young lives.
Brett Klika is a youth performance expert and a regular contributor to the IYCA who is passionate about coaching young athletes. He is the creator of the SPIDERfit Kids youth training program and has run successful youth fitness programs all over the country. Brett is an international speaker whose passion for youth fitness has helped thousands of people learn how to create exceptional training experiences for young athletes.
The IYCA Certified Athletic Development Specialist is the gold-standard certification for anyone working with athletes 6-18 years old. The course materials were created by some of the most experienced and knowledgeable professionals in the industry, and the content is indisputably the most comprehensive of any certification related to athletic development. Learn more about the CADS certification here: