Empathy in Coaching – Jim Kielbaso

Many coaches pride themselves on having high expectations and holding athletes to them. Setting standards and holding athletes accountable is a great way to raise their levels of performance and maturity. But, as the concept of emotional intelligence (EQ) grows in the coaching world, we’re finding it more and more important to understand what’s underneath the way athletes act rather than always taking the “my way or the highway” approach.  While a balanced approach is optimal for most situations, it’s important to understand how EQ can positively contribute to many coaching situations.  

In Daniel Goleman’s book Working With Emotional Intelligence, he determined that there are five fundamental features of EQ, each with their own benefits:

  1. Self-awareness
  2. Self-regulation
  3. Empathy
  4. Motivation
  5. Social skills

While all of these are important, empathy may be the most difficult for coaches to utilize. To be empathetic means you are able to identify and understand others’ emotions i.e. imagining yourself in someone else’s position.  It does not mean you have to take on their feelings or change your expectations.  

Coaches often have a difficult time with this because we are focused on processes, strategies, solutions, and outcomes. Anything that might get in the way of progress is to be demolished so the goal can be accomplished. Having empathy seems like it’s going to slow everything down which often makes coaches feel like they’re lowering their standards. That’s a misapplication of empathy, and usually suggests a lack of understanding.

Let’s take a look at the benefits Goleman laid out and some ways he suggests for developing empathy (these have been altered slightly for coaches):

Benefits of empathy:

  • Provides you with an understanding of how an individual feels and why they behave in a certain way. As a result, your compassion and your ability to help someone increases because you respond genuinely to concerns.
  • Especially helpful when delivering constructive feedback.
  • Being empathetic shows your team that you care. For example, if a coach reacts angrily after finding out that an athlete has been arriving late because a family member is unwell, the team is likely to react negatively towards the coach. It would be more favorable for the coach to be understanding and agree on a plan of action with the athlete.
  • Athletes will respect you more and subsequently, performance, unity, and cohesiveness will improve.

How to develop empathy:

  • Imagine yourself in someone else’s position. Even if you have not experienced a similar situation, remember a situation where you have felt the same emotion an athlete is experiencing.
  • Practice listening without interrupting. This can be very difficult when you are angry, so self-control must be practiced.
  • Observe the athlete and try to gauge how they’re feeling.
  • Never ignore an athlete’s emotions, for example, if an athlete looks upset don’t disregard this – address it.
  • Try to understand first, rather than form a judgment immediately. For example, you may initially feel annoyed by an athlete who seems cold or disinterested. However, after discovering they suffer from social anxiety you may feel more sympathetic, which can help you communicate more effectively with that person.
  • To communicate your empathy, keep your body language open and regulate your voice to show your sincerity. This does not mean you take on the feelings; you simply understand them.

Because empathy seems “soft” to many coaches, it can feel like you’re giving up a lot of control and lowering expectations. Coaches often (incorrectly) assume that they have to take on the burden of an athlete’s emotions. This is not the case at all.

Understanding feelings and taking them on are two very different things. Coaches should strive to understand, but you rarely want to take on the emotions of others. That’s not only unhealthy, it will cloud judgement and your ability to lead and make decisions.

While you’re understanding one athlete, you also have to be aware that the rest of the group still needs you, so you have to learn how to address emotions without disrupting everything else around you. Sometimes you’ll need to wait until there is a natural break in activity. Other times, you can pull an athlete aside while the others are completing a task that doesn’t require as much direct supervision.

Coaches also make the incorrect assumption that they have to fix everyone’s problems if they listen to them. Again, this is not the case. Understanding emotions does not mean you are responsible for fixing whatever created them. This can be difficult because coaches love to solve problems, but that is not usually recommended.  In fact, it is often appropriate to explain to an athlete that you are not there to “solve” their problem.  Instead, you may be able to adjust your approach based on the knowledge you have about what they are dealing with.  

Having empathy may be most important with younger athletes who have yet to experience true “ignition.”  Ignition is essentially a potent experience that causes a person to fall in love with their passion.  For athletes, that can be experiencing success, having fun, or meeting someone impactful.  Daniel Coyle wrote about ignition in his book The Talent Code, and wrote an excellent essay called Rules of Ignition that is a highly recommended quick-read if you’re not familiar with the concept.  

Once a child falls in love with a sport, he/she will go to great lengths to participate and improve their skills.  This is what drove Wayne Gretzky to practice shooting hour after hour or Magic Johnson to dribble and play from sun-up to sun-down.  Unfortunately, most young athletes never experience this.  Without a passion for a sport, it makes it very difficult for kids to fully enjoy practicing and makes it nearly impossible for them to spend the energy necessary to achieve great success.  

When we recognize that an athlete has not experienced this kind of ignition, we may be able to take a slightly different approach than we would if the athlete was 100% bought-in.  Because we know how important passion is to athletic success, we may even try to be the catalyst that creates that passion.  Simply knowing that an 11 year old athlete had a bad experience with a sport may be enough for us to realize how important it is to create an exceptional experience in order to get the “train back on the tracks.”  A properly timed word of encouragement, an honest compliment, or a little extra time spent 

On the other hand, knowing that a 15 year old athlete is fully engaged and motivated may prompt us to turn up the intensity and raise the demands in order to accelerate progress. 

Other times, a good coach can use EQ to actually motivate an athlete.  By putting yourself in the athlete’s shoes, you’ll have a better understanding of what might motivate them.  You’ll know what to say, how to say it, and when to say it.  Rather than using generic motivational statements, you’ll be able to personalize the message because you’ll see each athlete as more than a science experiment. 

Seeing the whole person through EQ allows a coach to use a much wider range of coaching, teaching, and motivational tools.  It will help strengthen relationships and open up more opportunities to make a positive impact.  Taking the time to develop empathy and EQ can pay off in ways that other coaches will never experience, and should be seen as being just as important as technical skills.  Practice the tips above, and over time, you’ll notice positive changes in both yourself and your athletes.  

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