Under the spotlight during the Winter Olympics, the struggles of superstar skier Mikaela Shiffrin brought back memories of gymnast Simone Biles at last year's Summer Olympics. Biles entered the Games as a gold-medal favorite and ended up withdrawing from multiple events in large part due to her mental health struggles, thereby highlighting the human side of athletes under the crushing pressure of expectations.
When Mikaela crashed out of two races, the outpouring of support was a sight to behold, especially the empathy shown by former skiing superstar Lindsay Vonn and Shiffrin’s boyfriend, Aleks Kilde, a Norwegian Olympic Medalist in his own right. "This is really heartbreaking to see, but she’s so talented, has had such a storied career, and this does not define her career in any way," Olympic Gold Medalist Lindsay Vonn shared on Shiffrin. "The more empathy we can have for each other in those moments, the better," she added.
"Most of you probably look at it saying, 'She has lost it', she can’t handle the pressure or ‘what happened?’… which makes me frustrated, because all I see is a top athlete doing what a top athlete does! It’s a part of the game and it happens,” Kilde shared. “The pressure we all put on individuals in sports is enormous, so let’s give the same amount of support back. It’s all about balance and we are just normal human beings!"
The sentiments shared by both Vonn and Kilde point to one very important element in the world of sports and beyond: empathy. As fans, athletes, parents, teammates, competitors, and especially coaches, the value of empathy cannot be underestimated- both for athletic performance but also as human beings. So as we watch this Winter Olympics, we’d like to share 10 Tips for Coaching with More Empathy. It is only with empathy that Shiffrin could, in her own words, “Be the girl that failed, but could also fly.” Coaches, let’s learn from this moment and coach our athletes with empathy at the forefront.
10 tips for coaching with more empathy
1. Understand trauma’s impact on kids
Kids who face frequent and prolonged adversity without supportive adults in their lives can experience something called toxic stress – the excessive activation of the body’s stress response system. This can lead to long-lasting impacts on the body and brain. As a result, kids can exhibit the effects of serious trauma exposure such as the inability to control impulses, aggression, and a heightened sense of fear. Recognizing the impact of trauma and toxic stress on your players enables you to better understand the players’ experiences and the context behind their actions.
2. Don't assume emotions
Seek to understand and confirm what emotions your players are experiencing. Ask them how they are feeling and confirm back to them what it is they tell you.
3. Use empathetic language
Athletes learn and implement their coach's behavior into their own lives. By using language and phrases that promote empathy, your athletes will be able to learn and copy this behavior. Phrases such as "Show compassion" and "How would you feel if that were you?" are great starters to promote empathy!
4. Listen to understand
When listening to your youth, listen with the goal of understanding their perspective and not with the goal of responding to what they have said. By focusing on your players’ perspectives, you can better connect to how they experience things.
5. Communicate your understanding
Let your player know that you heard them by repeating back what it is you understood and asking for confirmation. To build a relationship where your athletes know they can rely on you begins with the coach's involvement.
6. Engage in cooperative games
By allowing athletes to participate in games together, it allows them to cooperate through formulating new strategies and ideas with each other. To go the extra mile, join in on the games yourself! Being able to empathize means being able to relate to your athletes, and by playing games with them, not only are your athletes getting the opportunity to learn about each other, but they also get to learn about you!
7. Appreciate your relationships
While listening and communicating are great first steps, it's also important to constantly reflect and appreciate the connection that was forged between you and your athlete. This can help reinforce positive relationships, behaviors, and strengthen the relationship further.
8. Remove judgment when giving feedback
Empathy is the ability to understand what another person is feeling without judgment. Try to remember that players come to practice with the influences of their lived experiences, and that may show up through their actions from time to time. Instead of presenting yourself as judgmental through criticism, work with your players and ask what they are feeling, begin your listening, understanding, and appreciation steps to forging a better relationship.
9. Help your athletes identify and communicate their emotions
Young athletes may not yet understand how to express themselves or have trouble forming the right words to communicate it. Watch for nonverbal cues, body movements, and other details that could help you understand how they currently feel. Collaborate with athletes to name their emotions and identify ways they can react differently.
10. Empathy is a process that takes years to master and implement in our daily lives
Remember that while this is a learning process for the athletes, it is also a learning process for you, the coach. Implementing empathy into all facets of coaching, from motivation to behavior guidance.