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Emotional Intelligence: The Secret Ingredient in Coaching

By Kurt Lindley: sports coach UK Development Lead Officer (Coach Development)

It is important that coaches understand their actions, behaviours, words and expressions can affect an athlete’s performance – and that coaching is largely a social activity, at the heart of which is an emotional bond built on trust between coach and athlete.

Coaching is more than just the instruction of skills and drills. It is also about building quality relationships and having the emotional expertise build those relationships.In sports psychology it is called Emotional Intelligence (EI).

Why is Emotional Intelligence Important?
EI is a learned ability to identify, understand, experience, and express emotions in healthy and productive ways. Do not underestimate the benefit of such self-awareness in building positive relationships.

For example, to lead and manage and achieve performance outcomes a coach needs to build bonds of trust with the athlete, their immediate support network (e.g. parents) and a number of sports professionals (such as sports scientists). On top of this they need to establish positive working relationships with officials and organisers to ensure the best possible preparation.

EI is important in building these relationships and ultimately contributes to performance.

EI Strategies
If we accept Emotional Intelligence refers to the ability to:

  1. perceive emotion (and recognise their meanings)
  2. use emotions to facilitate thought (understand their relationship);
  3. understand emotions (including recognising those of others); and
  4. manage emotions (manage relationships with others)

 And we recognise that the development of EI is progressive the following strategies may help.

  • Observe how you/your athlete react to people. Do you/they make rush judgments before knowing all the facts? Do you/they stereotype? Put yourself in their shoes; consider their point of view and be more open to their perspectives.
  • Examine how you/your athlete react to stressful situations. Do you/they become frustrated when there's a delay or something doesn't happen as expected? Consider how you/they react and create simulated sessions where emotions can be felt and managed in a controlled setting.
  • People tend to have a very small emotional vocabulary using catch-all words such as happy, good, positive, angry, sad. Using this black and white language means people struggle to express themselves accurately. A broader vocabulary would help people express the ‘shades of grey’ they might be feeling. One solution may be to google ‘emotions and feelings words’ and print off and reflect on the words that can help people express themselves emotionally.
  • People tend to want to steer away from the true question and start their responses with ‘I feel that...’. Any response that starts this way won’t be about emotions e.g. I feel that it went well. A solution would be to repeat or reframe the question so that people can reframe their response.

And Finally
Remember being ‘emotionally intelligent’ is not about having a sunny disposition. If it is worth anything, it is to ensure coaches and athletes alike are ready to cope with the full array of emotions that accompany the challenges of sports participation.

Next Steps

If you found this blog helpful ConnectedCoaches - our free online community for coaches of all sports and activities – has lots of Emotional Intelligence content that will help improve your coaching.

Scenario-based videos

4 Emotional Intelligence videos with actions, tools & techniques that will help you improve your coaching. In these videos, ConnectedCoaches Content Champion Catherine Baker talks about how coaches can recognise and approach coaching participants in a variety of coaching scenarios:

  1. a nervous participant at your coaching session
  2. an overconfident ‘know-it-all’ participant
  3. a participant losing interest
  4. participants for ‘the big game’

Watch the videos here.

Blogs and Podcasts

  1. 'Emotional intelligence is integral to becoming a great coach
  2. 'Inside story: The value of self-awareness as a tool for improvement'
  3. 'Dealing with feelings: The importance of getting your head around emotion perception'
  4. 'How to develop behavioural agility in your coaching to get the best out of yourself and your players'
  5. Smells like team spirit: How to create a winning culture through the use of emotional intelligence
  6. The power of emotional intelligence: Turn a season to forget into a season to remember


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