It’s not easy to be a sports coach today. From the outside looking in, people may perceive a coach’s role as all fun and games, with expectations or stress. But for those coaches reading this, you know that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Coaches “coach” for many reasons, and it all begins with a love for the game and for their athletes. But the recent sports landscape has gotten very complicated, and the skills required to be an effective coach have grown significantly in scope. External expectations, complex social and media dynamics, and vast administrative responsibilities, can immerse coaches into unchartered waters, without the skills needed to “return ashore”.

Recent research has found that within this changing landscape of sports leadership, the nature of sports coaching necessitates that effective leaders must understand their athletes’ emotional experiences and attempt to align their goals and efforts accordingly (Lorimer, 2013).

In 2018, Davis et al. conducted a study to examine associations between the quality of the coach-athlete relationship and athlete exhaustion, by assessing physical and cognitive consequences. During the research, athletes provided saliva samples to measure their cortisol, which is a stress hormone that can cause negative emotional and physical symptoms.

The athletes also completed questionnaires measuring exhaustion, and a survey to measure their relationship with their coach. Results of the study revealed a positive relationship between the quality of the coach-athlete relationship and cognitive performance, (meaning the better the relationship between coach and athlete, the more positive and focused the athlete’s mind-set).

In direct contrast, the study found negative relationships between the quality of the coach-athlete relationship and cortisol levels in high-intensity exercise, cognitive testing, and exhaustion. (Meaning that the better the relationship an athlete has with his or her coach, the less cortisol (negative stress hormone) is released.

Thus, attitude, performance outcomes and healthy functioning among athletes, are significantly based on the relationship that they have with their coach. Research has also found that the key to obtaining a better coach-athlete relationships may be found within the subject of Emotional Intelligence (EI).

EI is a topic which has proven integral in the global corporate world since Daniel Goleman’s book “Emotional Intelligence” became a best-seller in 1996. Yet, the topic has received little attention within the sports domain. EI may help sports coaches to navigate their pivotal relationships with athletes, as seen below:

5 Ways Emotional Intelligence Can Optimize The Coach-Athlete Relationship

1) Self-Perception – A higher level of self-awareness allows a coach to control his or her feelings and behaviors, manage emotions in healthy ways, take initiative, follow through on commitments, and adapt to changing circumstances.

2) Self-Expression– A self-aware coach has an increasingly keen ability to understand how others perceive them. They can also understand the emotions, needs, and concerns of their athletes, and pick up on their emotional cues, and also recognize the power dynamics of the team as a whole.

3) Relationship Management – By expressing themselves in an effective manner to their team, coaches have a better understanding of how to develop and maintain clear communication, manage conflict, motivate, and inspire and influence their athletes.

4) Decision Making – the best decisions, whether in the heat of the competition or in a planning session, require consistent and reliable information. A coach’s decisions are only as good as the information that he or she has at the decision point. Managing relationships in (#3 above) , allows information to flow effectively in a trusting, success-oriented environment. This process optimizes a coach’s decision-making.

5) Stress Management – Decisions determine one’s outcomes. Bad decisions negatively impact coaches in many ways, both professionally, personally (and even physically). The better a coach makes decisions, the more success and well-being they’ll achieve.

Written by Dr. Patrick Elliott

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