As a coach, finding success on the field goes beyond wins and losses. According to research, a successful coach-athlete relationship can also create a connectedness that motivates and supports the athlete.
Connecting with an athlete on an individual level additionally impacts the athlete’s development of personal values, ethics, and emotional literacy. Emotional literacy is defined as the ability to recognize, understand, handle, and appropriately express emotions.
Coach José M. Burgos, the head soccer coach at Catalyst Maria High School in Chicago, Ill. – and recently recognized inaugural Champion Coach of the SportsEngine, Inc. and TrueSport award program – is a strong advocate for building a team culture that encourages athletes to lean into their feelings and embrace caring harder and loving deeper, which ultimately enhances their performance on and off the field.
However, not all coaches are equipped with a game plan to teach their athletes about emotional literacy, so here are five coaching strategies you can use to boost emotional literacy on the field.
A study showed that athletes viewed their coaches as teachers, mentors, friends, and parental figures; and although athletes often placed their coaches on pedestals, they also saw them as human.
The athletes in the study described how their great coaches were not afraid to make mistakes, show faults, or admit that they did not have all the answers. One athlete shared, “They don’t act like they are better than you or above you. [Instead, they] come down to your level and act human.” The athletes also felt that their coaches were particularly human and relatable when they expressed emotions.
“I believe that the emotional aspect of [coaching] is fundamental,” Burgos explains as he compares coaching skills and drills to coaching for the development of an athlete as a whole. He adds, “You’re going to need the human touch of someone who believes in you, particularly for athletes like ourselves who have personalities. Because we’re not just machines and we have feelings. As soccer players, we need to be loved. We’re very emotional beings. Most of us athletes, former athletes, or coaches, there’s some aspect of art inside of us where we get sad. We win and we lose, and we feel empty afterwards.”
When coaches and athletes acknowledge that everyone is human and everyone has feelings, it facilitates an atmosphere of understanding and acceptance. So, take the time to get to know your athletes at a personal level. Share aspects of your life outside of the sport. In the study, an athlete explained how their “coach shared enough about his own life and his own past experiences and his own kids and his wife that made him seem more human.” Additionally, once realizing a coach was more than just a coach, another athlete at the collegiate level shared that “being away from home and really having someone to look up to and coach you, and mentor you, and help you with anything you needed [was important]. It gave you a sense of not only to want to win for your team, but to want to win for [your] coach and make him proud of you.”
It’s not always about what coaches say, but what they do that influences their athletes.
“I coach high school, and kids are very sensitive. It’s important to remember that they’re not there to perform at the same level that we see on TV, or that we see in magazines. If they do, that’s wonderful. But I think a lot of times, coaches’ expectations are too high and that creates stress, and then the stress is shown to the kids. And to me, it’s not about that,” says Burgos.
Supportive coaches display and encourage positive attitudes and language, caring behaviors, and effective emotion management. It’s recommended that coaches monitor their behaviors and emphasize positive feedback and encouragement, providing athletes with clear goals and instructions, while minimizing unsupportive behaviors such as yelling, manipulating, and threatening athletes.
Burgos explains, “If [a] coach decides to be authoritarian, or if he decides to apply tough love on [athletes], then we’re now creating a scenario where I don’t think the toughest survive, but those who are just willing to put up with it. It shouldn’t be about that, it should be holistic. We should talk about what brought us onto the field in the first place.”
Finding out what brought your athletes to your sport can help spark the ways in which you motivate each athlete individually. Study results explore the fact that “some players [are] motivated because their coaches were enthusiastic, caring, and/or passionate. Others [are] motivated by the desire to please their coach.” The most important finding, however, was that “their coaches ‘touched something inside them.’”
When you know what motivates your players, it becomes easier to provide them with the support they need when they’re lacking vision or purpose.