Leave the Door Open With Empathy

One of the questions that I often field from coaches goes something like this:

"What do I do about (athlete x)? They are struggling and they blame it on (laundry list of small things). I don't think that's really what the problem is".

This is a frustrating and common problem, one that can even get a bit infectious under the right conditions on a team. Often it leads frustrated coaches to challenge the athlete on the validity of their claims.

I'm here to suggest another way. If you suspect that an athlete is holding something from you take a step back, have some empathy and think.

Why would they do this? Are they scared about what would happen if they told you the whole truth, nothing but the truth? 

Perhaps they have learned in life that telling people the truth about what is bothering them makes the situation worse. Maybe they confided in someone close (a parent, or a coach) and it totally blew up in their face.

You can leave the door open for them with empathy. It is often not worth it to get into the weeds of challenging the validity of what they are telling you. But you might tell them that you have a feeling there is something bigger at play, and that you would like to help them with it. You could tell stories from your own life where you've hesitated but finally reached out for help and it made a positive difference for you.

Whatever you do, signal to your athletes that you are a potential ally in whatever they are struggling with. I know one of the immediate concerns coaches have is "what if I find out something that is above my ability to help?". Bravo to you if you can recognize that, and then guide them to a person who can help them.

Not a pushover

One last point on this. The pseudo-masculinity of sports often blocks empathy. When you use a little more empathy, it's actually natural to worry that you're turning into a pushover.

Being empathetic does not mean that you have to excuse bad actions. You can still put down strong boundaries and consequences. But it does mean going beyond a simple, behavioristic model (which by the way psychology has long since moved on from) and trying to get a social and emotional understanding of what is going on, then leveraging that understanding for a better future.

Want to learn more about how to use Positive Psychology on your team? Write me