Emotional Regulation for Everyday Coaching

Last week I wrote about Optimism and it was well received. It’s part of an ongoing effort to explain a little bit better, including to the teams I serve, how to put some of this stuff into practical use.

Emotional Regulation might be the most important skill for young people to learn in this day and age. I’ve been talking to another coach at length about how important it is, and the challenge that coaches face with it.

In many ways, the young people we coach are more emotionally vulnerable than any of us were when we were coming up in the system. But many of us were not coached to emotionally regulate. So essentially as coaches now we face the challenge of breaking a cycle that’s been going on since the beginning.

I’m getting ahead of myself already. What is emotional regulation? To me, it’s the ability to manage the thoughts that follow from an emotionally charged situation. Crucially, it is not the ability to change your actual emotions, and this is where I’ve gone very wrong with it in my own life and career. Your emotions are your emotions, stuff happens and you will have an emotional reaction.

The thoughts that follow often seem as automatic as the emotion, but they’re not. Your lazy rational brain often comes up with some lazy, often not useful thoughts after an emotional reaction. Let’s get into some examples from my coaching life:

Parent Drama

When I was a college coach, I mainly got to skip out on the stress of parent interaction that plagues so many of my colleagues. Not so when I became a club coach in Denmark.

As I describe to many of my American colleagues, Danish swim meets frequently had no spectator area, meaning I was standing SHOULDER TO SHOULDER with parents of swimmers I coached.

I can remember once I held a swimmer out of a meet. It was our hosted meet of the year, the first one. The swimmer hadn’t been practicing, and I didn’t see any point in putting him in a competition he purely wasn’t ready for.

Well, his father was the head of the parent board of the club. He was pretty surprised to see that his son was not in the meet, and angry. We got into it in my office.

I got pretty angry too- I felt my decision was justified and I was rankled by a parent confronting me like that. It became a big distraction for me at the competition, taking me away from where my focus should have been- the swimmers that were competing in the meet.

Right or wrong doesn’t matter in these situations as much as your actions, and to the extent that my actions were hurting people who had nothing to do with that fight I needed to right the ship.

The thoughts that follow from anger often start with the simple one “This is not fair”. I was RIGHT, damnit, and so this was totally not fair. I ruminated on that for a while and my mind raced with all the justifications for why I was right for what i did.

This is a good lesson in confirmation bias. Our reasoning part of our brain being lazy, it often works to find simple evidence that justify whatever emotion we are having.

So how did I pull out of the emotional tailspin?

I thought about my own child. When you are a parent, and your child is upset, your overriding instinct is to make that child feel better. It’s natural. I thought about the parent I was dealing with and had some empathy for why he was angry. I still didn’t think he was “right” but I understood why he was angry.

But how I got there was another crucial step in emotional regulation: other people. Every single person I coach in emotional regulation, I tell them that they need to recruit a squad to help them regulate. Other people make it so much easier. In this case I had assistant coaches, and friends, and a spouse that could all help me to set straight.

In a situation like this, you actually need some people that will not just let you “vent”. Venting is fine, but eventually you need to turn the corner. Develop a relationship with other people in your life that they will acknowledge your emotional state but be ready to help you pivot.

Capitalizing on the Good

Growing up, I had a bit of a confounding relationship with my mom. Privately she would be extremely critical of me. Every time I had a disagreement with an authority figure, she assumed I was wrong. I was chastised for being an underachiever.

When I would go into her workplace, it was evident she had told a completely different story to her colleagues. They all greeted me as if I was somehow a golden child that could do no wrong.

I internalized a lot of this into my early coaching, and it made me miss a lot of opportunities to capitalize with athletes. Capitalization is when someone has a success or event that triggers positive emotion. Being able to share that with them is pretty crucial to relationships, especially one in coaching where you may have to deliver some tough love later.

I would often miss these opportunities. I was uncomfortable with direct praise. So I would do as my mom did, often raving about athletes and their accomplishments to anyone BUT the actual athlete.

I eventually got confronted by someone I coached about this, and it made me start to change my ways. I started looking for opportunities to capitalize, especially with athletes I was having the hardest time with. I realized what I was modeling was disinterest in them doing well. Who wants to swim for a coach who actively ignores you doing well?

Emotional regulation is a tough skill with a lot of nuance, but something well worth investing time with and teaching to athletes. We all coach a lot of athletes whose reactions to emotions end up being really counterproductive to them having a good experience doing the sport of swimming, and their number is only growing.