Empathy Driven Coaching in Sports

Just for a minute, forget about all your qualifications, education and past experiences as a sports coach. Ask yourself one question- How do I understand what my athlete needs? If you erase all the past conditioning you had through education, experiences and formal instructions, there is only one answer that will come to mind- ASK! Ask your athlete what they think and feel they need from you.

 

Empathy is a natural or innate human trait. We are all born with empathy and none of us need to learn how to be empathetic, we need to learn how to dissolve our egos in order for empathy to flow through us. For those who don’t understand what it means, it is your ability to understand another person’s thoughts and feelings about a situation. As a sports coach, you are always taught to ‘teach’ ‘instruct’ and ‘have authority’ over the learning of your athletes. Learning is important here because your sole purpose of coaching is for your athlete to learn. Don’t think about how you will ‘teach’ them, think about how they will ‘learn’. This perspective allows you to hold your athletes responsible while becoming more athlete-led in your coaching approach. 

Learning can be defined as “a process that leads to change, which occurs as a result of experience and increases the potential for improved performance and future learning” (Ambrose et al, 2010). If you focus on this definition of learning it is all about change as a result of experience. The first step to becoming more empathetic in your coaching is to accept that you don’t know everything as a coach, only then will you be able to become more proactive in ASKING empathetically driven questions.

Setting your intention

Intentions matter the most when it comes to human interactions. If people don’t trust your intentions, they will not feel comfortable with expressing their problems freely. Trust comes from expression of honest intentions followed by clear actions.

 

What is my intention for coaching this team?

 

Many answers will come to mind. Money, power, and all of the superficial stuff, you can get that through another job as well. Why do you coach this team? If you love the people, love the sport, love the process of changing people’s lives then your intention will lead you in the right direction towards being more empathetic. The process becomes a bit easier.

Proactive Empathy

Self-awareness is extremely important to build an empathetic habit. Assessing your own intentions, thoughts, and emotions before you communicate can make the difference. When you are designing your training plans, dealing with pressure from management, and completing all the paperwork; there will be days where you are fed up and tired. Allow yourself some rest, meditation, or alone time before you start the training sessions. Five minutes will also make a difference.

When you prepare yourself for instruction, zone into a ‘feel good’ state of mind. I know this can be challenging every single time but when you find your ‘feel good’ zone, you have more energy, more interest, and more clarity in your communication. It does not mean that you are expected to be ‘happy’ all the time, it simply means that you allow yourself to enter a ‘feel good’ zone before you face the athletes. Every interaction matters so you can even practice getting into your zone before video analysis sessions or one to one performance meetings. When you feel good about yourself, empathy flows through you.

Asking Empathy Driven Questions

When you communicate with athletes, you often feel like you need to solve their problems. You are a facilitator in their learning process, you are not the author of that process. Detach yourself from feeling absolutely responsible and attach yourself to an absolute understanding of an athlete’s situation- the overall situation. You can only understand the athlete’s issues when you ask the right questions.

For example, if they are feeling like they are not satisfied with their performance in training, it is important to differentiate between your perception and their perception. If you simply tell them that ‘No, you did very well, they often think that you are simply saying that because that’s ‘your job’. Forcing your perception, even when it’s positive and you think it will motivate your athlete is not really going to help. Your athlete will feel dismissed and often feel helpless because they have had no real solution to how they are feeling.

 

Instead, ask them ‘What specifically made you feel like you are not doing well in training? Then understand if the problem is simply their perception or coming from their comparison (with others or their own performance from the past). Ask them how can I change my behavior to make sure that you don’t feel that way. Would you like more encouragement or constructive feedback to feel like you are doing well in training? Would you like more challenging things to do? Once you have agreed on a certain plan, put that in action and later ask your athlete how they felt. Seek immediate feedback after you have executed the plan to make sure your athlete knows that you care.

 

If you think something might be confusing to discuss, ask yourself ‘Does this statement show empathy?’ If you are not sure, wait before you speak and pause to reframe the sentence. Taking your time to give an empathetically driven response is better than giving an insensitive quick response.

In conclusion, start taking small steps towards being more empathetic and in no time, it will become natural and you won’t have to think or do things consciously.

About the Author

Sarah Majid is a Sports and Performance Psychology Coach who uses a Person-Centered approach to help her clients. She believes in an empathetic and compassionate approach which allows her clients the space to explore their human aspect and redefine success by prioritizing what they ‘want to achieve. 

 

Sarah has worked with individual and team sports athletes ranging from 11yrs to 75yrs. She supports GB, Pro, and recreational athletes to improve their performance in balance with well-being.  She encourages her clients to grow as individuals and free themselves from the mental constraints of ‘impossibilities’ and help them to immerse into all the possibilities for them to become their ‘ideal self’.

You can write to Sarah at sarah@sarahmajid.com for speaking engagements and workshops.

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