Emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence

Jeff Mitchell – Community Coach Advisor – Sport Auckland / GACU

Coaching is a relationship between the coach and their players; the degree to which a coach influences their players is dependent upon the strength of that relationship. Building relationships requires the ability to relate with people, and this ability is drawn from a coach’s emotional intelligence.

In this article we will explore emotional intelligence and how it is related to effective coaching. We look at the purpose of coaching and how you can develop your emotional intelligence in order to effectively meet this purpose.

Purpose of coachingPurpose of coaching

A primary objective of coaching is to help your athletes to reach their goals quicker than they could without your assistance. These goals may be performance based (e.g. winning competitions) or they may be development based (e.g. learning new techniques or becoming more effective using existing ones). So while winning may be an outcome that we are after, in reality, the purpose of coaching is deeper than that – it is about assisting your players to grow and to reach their goals.

As their coach, you should be concerned with the holistic development of your athletes, not just how many games they win. While there are a number of areas you will want to develop, most of them will contribute to achieving the following two components, which make up the purpose of coaching:

  • To enhance your athletes’ performance
  • To enable your athletes to achieve their individual goals.

There are other goals that you could be trying to achieve when you are coaching, such as improving skills, increasing fitness, developing a passion for the sport, having fun, learning about the sport and developing personal skills. These are all valid, however, they generally relate to achieving the two purposes identified above: improving performance and achieving individual goals.

As a coach you can influence – but not control – whether your athletes achieve these two objectives. The role of a coach is to lead and support their athletes; it is then up to the athletes to perform and achieve their goals. So how can you achieve the purpose of coaching if you cannot directly control it?

Achieving the purpose of coaching      

The effective coach is one that gets their athletes to change their behaviour in order to improve their performance and attain their goals. This means that you need to influence the behaviours of your athletes. An athlete’s behaviour is anything that they do. This could include what they think, what they decide, and where they direct their effort. Some examples of what athlete ‘behaviour’ could include are shown in Figure 1:

Athlete behaviour

Figure 1: Athlete behaviour examples

There are different ways that you can influence your athletes’ behaviour. These include encouraging them to work on areas of their game that they need to improve, helping them to learn and refine techniques, motivating them to work harder, or assisting them to change a negative behaviour into a positive one. You will do this through the use of a variety of coaching techniques.

You will be familiar with the range of methods and coaching techniques that you can use to modify and influence your athletes’ behaviour. These include methods such as:

  • Questioning
  • Instruction
  • Demonstration
  • Goal setting
  • Error correction
  • Using training games and activities
  • Running fitness drills, and
  • Facilitating team meetings and discussions.

All of these will help to (hopefully positively) influence the behaviour of your athletes. Sometimes, however, just using effective coaching techniques is not enough to be successful. Many coaches use these techniques and still fail to improve the performance of their athletes or enable them to achieve their goals. To really influence your athletes you will also need to overcome the barriers to modifying behaviour.

What are the barriers to modifying behaviour?barriers to influencing athlete behaviour

In order to influence your players it is essential that they respect you. If they do not respect you, they will not make lasting changes based on what you ask them to do. They are unlikely to go the extra mile for you, and will often resist the changes that you attempt to make.

If you do not understand the needs of your players – or do not try to meet those needs – then you will struggle to influence them. Focusing on winning with a group of players that just want to play socially will not lead to a successful outcome for either you or your athletes. A player that needs support will not respond well to sharp criticism. Lots of technical drills will not help a player that is lacking the understanding of when to use those skills. In order to have a positive influence on a player you must understand and meet that player’s needs.

It is hard to understand and focus on the needs of your athletes if you focus too much on yourself. If you are caught up in your own emotions and needs, you will fail to read the emotions of your players. Sometimes a player will not be ready to hear or act on an instruction until one of their emotional needs are met. Even if you are using effective coaching methods and telling the players the correct information, if the player is not ready to hear it then it will not be effective. Consider the following example:

example 1

In this example, Johnny’s coach is too focused on his own emotions to accurately read how Johnny is feeling. As a result, he tries to provide a correction when Johnny is in no state to receive it. This causes the information to go in one ear and out the other, and so it does not have the desired effect on Johnny.

Another barrier to positively influencing athletes is when a coach loses control of their emotions. This loss of control will reduce the effectiveness of a coach’s communication, and also damages their relationship with their athletes. When the coach flies off the handle, they will not be able to read the emotions of their players accurately, and their performance will often cause their players to lose respect for them. When a coach’s emotions take over, their coaching effectiveness nose dives, making it much less likely that they will successfully influence their athletes.

What is required then to influence the behaviour of your athletes?Building a relationship

Your ability to modify the behaviour of your athletes comes down to the strength of your relationship. Players must trust and respect you in order to respond to you; if you have a poor relationship they will often resist what you are trying to get them to do. You need to understand your athletes and relate to them in order to build the relationship.

The coach-athlete relationship is built up over time. The manner in which you interact with your athletes will determine if the relationship is a positive or negative one. The use of praise, feedback, questioning and listening can all contribute to a positive relationship. Consistency is also important; if you are not in control of your emotions and often lose your composure, you will send mixed messages to your athletes. Players need to know what to expect from you; failing to control your emotions will make you inconsistent in how you treat your players.

To effectively build the relationship with your athletes it is important that you understand how your athletes perceive you. You also need to understand the effect that your coaching has on your athletes: are you influencing their behaviour, and in what way? This knowledge will allow you to manage the relationship effectively; without this knowledge you are basically sailing blind. This awareness and the management of relationships are aspects of emotional intelligence, which we will now take a closer look at.

Emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence refers to the ability to identify, assess and manage your emotions, along with those of others and of groups. It is very important for coaches, whether you are working with individual athletes or coaching a team. The building of relationships, the influencing of behaviours, and the understanding of others are all related to your level of emotional intelligence.

emotional intelligence quote

Benefits of emotional intelligencebenefits emotional intelligence

There are a number of benefits to having a high level of emotional intelligence. You will understand yourself, making it easier for you to understand your athletes. This allows you to show compassion and to have empathy, both of which help to build your relationship with your athletes. You are more open to criticism, something which coaches often need to deal with. As you are clear about your values and know what you want, you are able to make better decisions. You are also able to monitor and maintain your own behaviour, keeping it positive and ensuring that you interact productively with your players.

The components of emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence involves four components:

  • Self-awareness
  • Self-management
  • Social awareness
  • Relationship management.

Self-awareness is the ability to recognise and understand your emotions. Having this awareness allows you to manage your behaviours, to ensure that they are positive. As a self-aware coach you understand your strengths and weaknesses. This means that you know what you need to work on and have a good grasp of your capabilities. You are also able to anticipate the impact and influence you have on your athletes, making you much more effective at changing behaviours.

Having self-awareness means that you understand how you react to different situations, by knowing your triggers. Triggers are things that set you off or cause a change in your mood. Examples could be athlete performance or behaviour that frustrates you, calls by referees that infuriate you, or comments that you take offence to. These triggers will cause you to react negatively, reducing your ability to interact positively with your athletes and other people in your coaching environment. Having an awareness of these triggers allows you to take steps to manage them.

case study

Self-management is the ability to use your awareness of your emotions to stay flexible and to control your behaviour. This means that you are able to act in a way that is productive and that leads to a positive relationship with your athletes. It could include changing your mood (e.g. not letting a bad mood colour how you interact with your athletes), taking steps to avoid or manage situations that cause you to react negatively (e.g. player actions that cause you frustration), and acting with honesty and integrity.

example 3
Social awareness
is the ability to pick up on the emotions of other people. A socially aware coach will read when their players are ready for criticism and when they need support instead. By understanding how your athletes are feeling, you are able to select the best time and method to communicate with them to bring about a positive outcome. Being socially aware will make you better at influencing your players as you are able to understand what your players need, based on the emotions they are experiencing at the time. As you do not get caught up in your own emotions, you are able to consider the perspectives of your players.

social awareness
Relationship management
is the ability to use an awareness of your own emotions and those of your players to manage your interactions successfully. This helps you to communicate clearly and to handle conflict appropriately. By successfully managing your relationship with your players, you are able to gradually build a bond with them. This bond will increase the influence you have over your players, and eventually will lead to a more effective coaching environment.

relationship management
Coaches that have a high level of emotional intelligence are strong in the four areas above. This strength allows them to interact effectively with their players, successfully influencing their behaviours, and leading to positive coaching outcomes.

How do you develop your emotional intelligence?

Emotional intelligence is built on a foundation of self-awareness. To increase your emotional intelligence you first need to raise your self-awareness, by developing an understanding of your emotions and how they impact on others. The process of developing self-awareness generally follows five steps:

  1. Deciding what you want to be (your ideal self)
  2. Identifying who you are now (your real self)
  3. Determining how to get from your real self to your ideal self
  4. Deciding how to make these changes stick
  5. Identifying who can help you with these changes.

This process clearly fits well with a Coach Development Plan: setting a goal, deciding where you are currently, and identifying actions to take to get there. To raise your awareness you would look at the following areas to determine your ideal and current self:

  • The emotions you experience
  • The effect of your interaction on your players
  • The influence that you currently have over your players
  • How your players perceive you
  • How you respond in different situations and to different stimuli
  • Your strengths and weaknesses
  • Your values and goals
  • The impact of your thoughts and emotions on your athletes and how you coach.

To develop your awareness you will need to spend some time reflecting on yourself and your coaching practice. You should work through the areas above, examining how you coach, and building a picture of how you really are. Once you have done this you can then start setting goals and working on developing your emotional intelligence.

Emotional intelligence is a key attribute for coaches. Coaching is about influencing the behaviour of your players, and in order to influence you need to have a strong relationship. By being aware of your emotions and the effect that you have on your players, you are able to interact effectively with them. To be a good coach you must know yourself, and know how you impact on your athletes. To be a better coach, you must identify your ideal self, your real self, and then how you will bridge the gap.

Spending time developing your emotional intelligence is one of the best things you can do to enhance your coaching effectiveness. Use your Coach Development Plan to profile yourself in the emotional components, and to then identify some actions that will develop your emotional intelligence. Doing so will make you a better coach, and result in a more rewarding relationship with your athletes.


15 thoughts on “Emotional intelligence

  1. Congratulations Jeff! Another fabulous contribution to coach education, and one of my favourite subjects. The way you have constructed the article, including your detailed explanations make for a quality resource from which many coaches will benefit, I’m sure. Here’s wishing this piece will motivate those that read it, to put this into practice and improve their strategic coaching outcomes…

    • Cheers Stuart. It is such a relevant topic for coaches, as coaching is all about the relationship the coach has with their athletes. I truly believe emotional intelligence is far more important for a coach than technical knowledge. Certainly it is an area that I plan on doing a lot more research into and trying to relate it to coaching.

  2. That’s a brilliant article! I think you have listed each and everything. My particular mention to that point which deals with the behavioral aspect in learning. I means, respect has to there and has to be ‘MUTUAL’. As a teacher, you should tell your student to learn the art of temperamental dealing ( dealing with right emotions while winning or losing). Responding rather than reacting is the key for emotional management!

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