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Smells like Team Spirit: How to Create a Winning Culture Through the Use of Emotional Intelligence

Developing a positive team environment, with tight social bonds between players and coaching staff, is instrumental to sustained success. In part five of our series on emotional intelligence, with Sport and Beyond’s Catherine Baker, Blake Ricardson explores the important role empathy, relationships and social awareness play in establishing the perfect club climate

Emotional intelligence (EI) is a quality that is deeply ingrained in the fabric of the Great Britain women’s hockey team.

Head coach Danny Kerry is a staunch advocate and has worked tirelessly to enlighten his players with regard to its extraordinary benefits – making believers out of them all.

The many facets of EI are now etched into the make-up of each player, running through their brains like a stick of Blackpool rock.

Kerry appreciates, like all good leaders do, that the ability to identify, use, understand and manage your emotions can be a golden ticket.

And so it proved for Great Britain in The Rio 2016 Olympic Games, when the players held their nerve in the final to make history by beating the Netherlands in a dramatic penalty shoot-out.

In previous articles in the series, we have flagged up particular components of EI and shown how these can facilitate personal performance gain.

In part five – using the example of GB Hockey, among others – we take the same approach, only this time, the focus is on examining the valuable impact EI can have on team dynamics and culture.

We will discover how utilising empathy, relationships and social awareness as a coach can help accelerate the development of your group of players and transform them into a single driving force.

Psychological safety

Emotional intelligence, as stated, plays an important role in driving team success. Imagine the players represent the engine of a racing car, and the coach is the driver, while the tactics, techniques and methodologies employed by the coach constitute the fuel. Adding EI to the mix ensures your car is powered by premium-grade petrol rather than regular grade, providing engine and driver with the significant extra boost necessary to attain optimum performance.

But recognising the value of EI is one thing, understanding how and when to use it is another entirely.

When it comes to the key elements that go into making a successful team, some ground-breaking research from Google has found that listening to one another, taking it in turns to speak and showing sensitivity to each other’s needs are paramount.

“That is summed up by the term psychological safety,” explains Catherine, an expert in behavioural performance and training.

So, in a group culture, this means confidence that a team won’t embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up. There is interpersonal trust and mutual respect, and people are comfortable being themselves.”

Three EI behaviour traits are necessary in order to reproduce this state of psychological safety within a team setting:

  • empathy – the ability to put yourself in other people’s shoes, the extent to which you can see the world from someone else’s point of view
  • relationships – your ability to build and maintain relationships and emotional bonds with others
  • social awareness – your social skills, and how you perceive and adapt in certain situations.

Happy families

As a coach, it is imperative you engage with your players on a personal level, getting to know their interests outside of the club setting.

Take on the role of a surrogate parent by showing compassion, administering praise, explaining how proud of them you are, while avoiding cheap ridicule and knee-jerk criticism.

Making the effort to get to know their unique personalities will help you get to the root of their motivations for playing sport and help you assist them in fulfilling their individual goals.

Are they introverted or outspoken? A leader or a follower? Arrogant or unassuming?

Pinpointing exactly what makes each individual tick and perform to their potential will help you get the best out of everybody.

And what about your coaching team, if you have one?

“Having a much better understanding of your performers or fellow coaches (empathy) and being able to see it from their point of view is only going to enhance the situation and lead to a better environment and culture,” says Catherine, who advises coaches who don’t feel their basic empathy levels are particularly high to ask questions.

“It’s a simple way to build up your levels,” she says.

When you sit down with a player (or coach), ask: ‘How are you? Have you just come back from holiday?’ Even basic things like that. You are eliciting information, and by doing that, you are opening up your interest and awareness of what your colleagues are up to, which will build empathy and understanding.”

Social club

Returning to the GB hockey team; one of the pivotal things that changed the way they were able to operate as a team was when they received a National Lottery grant in the run-up to The London 2012 Olympic Games, which enabled them to train full-time.

“It meant they could spend much more time together as individuals, really getting to understand each other,” says Catherine. “Not just on the pitch, playing and training, but in the canteen having lunch, going out together on team activities. All of that can be really important in building that right environment and culture in which you want to thrive as a team.”

For GB head coach Danny, who goes as far as to say “culture precedes performance – it’s absolutely fundamental”, the extra time spent in each other’s company helped him reinforce his message of collective ownership: “To create a space for people to lead in, build common purpose and get more mutual understanding within the group.”

England rugby union coach Eddie Jones also values time and social bonding as useful tools to grow a convivial environment.

“One of the first things Eddie Jones said to his England players when he was appointed coach was that they had his permission to go out and have a couple of beers. He understands the importance of getting to know each other in that social setting, as well as the setting around your sport and performance,” adds Catherine.

For grass-roots coaches who only get to spend an hour or two a week with their charges, face-to-face engagement and facilitating social connections should not be rushed or skipped.

One tip is to encourage team-mates to form connections outside of training and match days. For example, initiate group chats and conversations on the players’ social media platform of choice.

Of course, when it comes to building and maintaining relationships, for some people, this comes naturally, while, for others, the process happens a lot more slowly.

It is the role of a good coach to ascertain, through focusing on each player as an individual (and, where feasible, through individual profiling), where each player sits on the EI ‘relationships’ scale so that they can formulate a game plan for those who need a boost.

Devise ways to encourage all-round social interaction. For example, try partnering shy individuals with more outgoing characters who could discreetly perform the role of training buddy to tease them out of their shells.

Perhaps have a word with your captain and tell them you want to enlist their help in bolstering player A’s confidence, as helping them feel more at ease in their surroundings will encourage them to be more vocal and adventurous in their game play.

A safe place to fail

Another area important in building team culture is growth mindset, the concept developed by renowned American psychologist and educationalist Carol Dweck.

She proposes that our talents and abilities are not fixed but can be cultivated, as our brains are like muscles that can be developed and stretched.

“There are various attitudes that need to be in place in order to encourage that in a group environment,” says Catherine.

One of those is feeling encouraged to stretch and challenge yourself, and if things go wrong, not to feel like it’s the end of the world – rather, that you can learn from your mistakes.

“Having that environment in place in a team culture can be fantastic in ensuring that psychological safety. An understanding that you can take risks, you can try things, and when things go wrong, you can admit to it and share what happened with everybody else – which, of course, is far more beneficial than keeping it to yourself, with the danger that the same mistakes might get replicated by team members over and over again.

And because you’ve got the understanding that abilities and characteristics aren’t fixed and set in stone, there is the belief among the coaching staff and the players that it’s worth spending the time and effort to develop and improve everybody because you know that as a consequence you will get a better performance.”

Real-life scenarios

But what if not everyone in the team possesses a growth mindset, and several members lack empathy, relationship skills and social awareness?

We all know someone for whom the phrase ‘like a bull in a china shop’ might have been written. There’s a strong chance that there is at least one person like this within every group of athletes.

Imagine you are facing your players in the changing room, having just delivered your team talk ahead of a big match. Morale is high, the players are buzzing, and then a team-mate chirps up with some remark that is about as welcome as a plate of sprouts at a kids’ party.

“The room instantly freezes and the temperature drops, and everyone is wondering why someone just said that,” says Catherine.

“That is often down to that individual not having as high a level of social awareness as they could do.”

So how is a coach supposed to react in that situation?

One thing you can do is make a bit of a joke of it, or at least make light of the comment.

Catherine advises: “We know what that person is like. So, call them up on it in the changing room. ‘Oh, so and so has done their usual. I think we’re just going to ignore that piece of sophisticated advice’. Just make a thing of it so the atmosphere is lightened, everyone is aware that it is just the approach that person takes, and that they don’t mean it maliciously.

The other thing to do, on the side, is actually to spend some time with that person to try to help that individual build up their levels of social awareness.

“After the event, take them aside and say: “You made this comment. What do you think the impact was on the room and on the team? It’s a team game remember so reflect what you could do better next time’.”

Common purpose

The secret to nipping these types of distractions and disruptions in the bud is to have a strong mission statement that the players have bought into.

Collectively agreeing the team goals means, whenever standards (in behaviour, training or match-day performance) slip below the level expected by the coach, you can reference the team mantra and remind them what you are trying to achieve as a group.

The Lionesses are a shining example of how every experience that a team goes through – no matter how trivial or unrelated it may appear – leads directly towards that single ambition.

“They wanted to win a tournament and inspire a nation,” says Catherine. “That was their clearly stated ambition. So, if there had been a situation on the training field or in the changing room where there had been a bit of niggle between a couple of the players, which wasn’t leading towards group harmony, one of the coaches could have said, ‘Look, girls, remember, this is our ambition, this is what we are aiming for’.

“Having an overriding aim in your head can really help focus your mind.”

Psychology of success

While it may not be possible for a coach to bottle what goes into making a successful team, the application of EI will certainly improve your chances of creating a harmonious band of brothers or sisters who share the same strong work ethic – significantly boosting your chances of success.

You may have a team that, on paper, looks great. It should be a really high-performing unit but, for some reason, it is just not gelling.

Learning how and when to implement the various components of EI in a team setting will assist you in manoeuvring all the elements neatly into place.

Simply learning to watch and listen will help you get to know your players as people, as well as players, and understand their individual improvement needs.

Through your control of empathy, relationships and social awareness, you can aspire to achieve a climate of psychological safety, which is the ideal environment needed for players to flourish.

Read the rest of the series

  • Emotional Intelligence is Integral to Becoming a Great Coach

  • Inside Story: The Value of Self-awareness as a Tool for Improvement

  • Dealing with Feelings: The Importance of Getting your Head Around Emotion Perception

  • Emotional Intelligence: How to Develop Behavioural Agility in your Coaching

  • The Power of Emotional Intelligence: Turn a Season to Forget into a Season to Remember


Sport Psychology Toolkit

We explore eight sport psychology themes in detail in our Toolkit, with each theme containing a tips sheet, MindMap, animation, podcast and activities to use with your participants.


Related Resources

  • Tips for Developing Children’s Emotional Literacy

  • Psychological Safety: Developing an Environment to Maximise Potential

  • The Importance of Emotional Awareness


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