Working in sport, I often see really good coaches who are really bad at working with young people. Some believe that content is King; that we can deliver the same training, in the same way, to adults and children and expect to see the same improvements in performance.
To truly be a great coach of young people, we have to be willing to be in service of young people. This means a dedication to doing something to improve a life outwith our own. We have to be able to put ourselves in their shoes.
Empathy – the ability to see a situation from another person’s perspective – requires us to talk WITH young people, not talk AT them. For me, this one of the strongest indicators I look for when watching coaches. Who is trying to connect with their athletes?
When a young athlete does not perform well, the best coaches don’t try to fix the problem. Instead, they see it as a chance to connect with them, to sit with them in that frustrating, awkward place, and help them feel heard and seen.
This takes an incredible amount of skill and patience from the coach. Young people can sometimes find it difficult to find the words to articulate how they are feeling, especially when they are not performing well. Sometimes they will tell us what they think they want us to hear because we are adults. When this happens, we lose an opportunity to deepen our connection.
The long-term benefits of a close connection between a coach and a young athlete are enormous.
It is vital that our coaches are comfortable with empathy, offering emotional support, and understanding young people. The Millennial generation prefer non-oral forms of communication, such as texting and emails. When it comes to emotional support, research suggests that texting – simply reading words off a screen – is comparable to not speaking to anyone at all! Interacting online is reducing empathy, which requires 1-to-1, face-to-face interaction to develop into a quality skill.
Coaches need to sell. They need athletes to hand over their time, attention and effort because doing so will make them improve their performance. How we sell is more important that what we are selling, especially when we are dealing with young people.
As educators, we need to be building coach education systems that recognise the importance of empathy – and other emotional intelligence (EQ) competencies – to ensure our workforce is best prepared to help young people flourish. Emotional intelligence determine how well we apply all of our skills, including those we have learned through coach education. Yet often we value sporting content more than EQ in our educational systems.
We can train people how to coach, but it is far harder to train them how to connect with others, which is more important. In my opinion, success in coaching is now less to do with technical skill and IQ, and more to do with empathy and other EQ competencies.
Athletes who are angry, anxious or depressed don’t learn. We are not therapists, but we do need coaches who are intentionally developing their empathy skills and offering emotional support to our young athletes if we are to help them – and us – flourish.