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These three short blogs were originally written for www.sportscoachuk.org. I put them together here for a slightly longer read.

Empathy: 1. Beyond Lip Service
I’m a clinical psychologist and even inside my psychology orbit I hear colleagues talking about the importance of empathy in a hollow way. I imagine the sporting world might also be vulnerable. Words and phrases are no doubt exchanged in meetings, pasted on walls, and “empathy” and “good relationships” might appear among them as a marker of a club’s mission or core values. How do they pan out in practice?

If I was worried about sloganeering in sport about empathy I had a wonderful awakening, courtesy of an interview with a football coach developer Edu Robio talking about the selection of coaches (https://playerdevelopmentproject.com/webinar/developing-forward-thinking-players/). When asked what attribute do you look for in your academy coaches his response was immediate and heartfelt: “I would say the biggest one (is) empathy.” You don’t often hear trainers of psychologists talking like that. One exception in my field is a colleague who runs a counseling service. So strong is her conviction about the importance of empathy that she asks job applicants to send her a tape of their best effort at listening, and shortlists only those who reach beyond a certain standard. If Edu dived into the psychology literature he would find his conviction strengthened: empathy has emerged from 60+ years of evaluation of psychological treatment as one of the most robust predictors of good outcome.

Empathetic listening is a skill. I’ve struggled for a log time to help colleagues like doctors, nurses, social workers and psychiatrists to grasp the value of repeated practice with skills like empathetic listening. Sports coaches, on the other hand have no difficulty appreciating the importance of practice. So I would encourage someone like Edu Rubio to take heart: your coaches can learn to get better at using empathy. How and why are questions I’ll address in a second blog if my host says he didn’t yawn once when reading this one.

Empathy 2: A useful muscle
People who feel empathized with are more likely to flourish. If they are angry, upset or confused they will calm down much more quickly if they are empathized with. I’d wager my every possession on the validity of those observations.

This is a two-step process: first to imagine someone’s experience, what its like to stand in their shoes, and then secondly, to convey this to them. In this second step your attitude and manner are important for sure, and then there’s something else, a verbal skill that’s observable, measurable and, just like a muscle, amenable to practice. This is variously called empathetic listening, reflective listening or reflecting.

You can get a get feel for that first step by watching people and imagining what they might be experiencing. Here’s a neat video that challenges you to do just this:

or you can even apparently visit an empathy museum.

The second step, the verbal skill looks like this:

Example 1
Athlete: (clearly very angry) I’m telling you now I’ve reached the end. I’m fed up with the way he speaks to me, like he’s the only one who knows how to play, ordering me around and talking like I’m some kind of idiot.
Coach: You know what’s helpful for you and this isn’t it.
Athlete: Exactly.

Example 2
Athlete: I tried honestly I did but I don’t know what went wrong, it was like I froze and stopped thinking then all of a sudden it was bang, the chance was gone.
Coach: You slipped out of gear
Athlete: Yes, you got me, and I never expected that.

Notice that what the coach in each example was a statement, not a question. I have honestly forgotten who made this observation: if asking a questions is like knocking on a door, empathetic listening is what you do when you go inside. Here’s an example of me using this skill in response to an angry patient in health care, in an unrehearsed simulation produced for a medical journal:

Notice how questions were used very sparingly.

A Norwegian colleague was struggling to translate the word for this skill into his language, so he came up with a very simple phrase – a short summary; you make a short summary of what the person said or is experiencing and leave it to them to amplify if they want to. Your summary captures the essence of what they are saying or feeling. There’s no more direct way of empathizing with a person.

Who knows how much better would sporting outcomes be if empathetic listening was widely practiced to a high standard. I’ll pen a third little article if my editor in Sports Coach UK promises me again that he never yawned once, and I’ll try to convey how this skill can save time and help to build motivation in an athlete. Its what underlies a method called motivational interviewing (MI). More on that in the third and final piece.

Empathy 3: The most useful tool of all?
In his last book, Over But Not Out, on its first page, the cricketer Richie Benaud said: “Never discard listening as a source of learning. It could be the most important decision you ever make”. What did he mean? He never really explained.

In this third and final piece on empathy I will turn to its various uses, having defined it in previous posts thus: its a skill, involving firstly listening to and imagining what someone is meaning or experiencing, and then secondly, capturing the essence of this and handing it back to them in the form of a statement, an imaginative guess, not a question.

A coach might benefit hugely from practicing empathy. Richie Benaud might have meant that the most important contribution you bring to coaching is you, in your authenticity, your ability to listen, the quality of your relationships and your desire to really help athletes develop. Practicing empathy is a direct way of demonstrating this. The effect of empathy is to leave the player with this thought: “This coach considers me as important and is really trying to help and understand me”. This also balances out the power in the relationship, from one in which the coach knows everything to one in which two equal partners are working together in the service of improvement in the athlete. You don’t have to know everything to be a good coach. Indeed, that idea might have a toxic effect on the athlete’s learning. Your vulnerability and willingness to learn is surely what Richie Benaud was thinking of? Empathy changes you.

As you practice empathy other benefits often become apparent. Here’s a useful one: there is no more rapid way of connecting with a player than by using empathy and nothing else. Consider this sequence, where every coach contribution is an empathetic statement in an exchange lasting just a couple of minutes:

Coach: Hey, good morning, you look a bit rushed
Player: I’m rough to be honest, but I’ll improve as the day goes on
Coach: (sitting down alongside) You’re not at your best
Player: Say that again, I hardly slept and I’m still angry with myself after last week
Coach: You don’t feel you did yourself justice
Player: or you sir. I’m sorry about how I performed
Coach: You wish you could have done better
Player: I know I can do better, my confidence was slipping
Coach: and that’s something you want to improve on
Player: Definitely and I hope I can find a way
Coach: You want to at least get some benefit from today’s practice
Player: You guessed right there. That would help a lot, and I’ll sleep much better.
Coach: It might help a little with your confidence.
Player: A little might help a lot
Coach: Let’s see now. Two heads will be better than one…..

Imagine the above player, on another day, furious with a teammate, red hot angry, shouting and refusing to even speak with her colleague. What’s the most efficient and effective way of calming the situation down? My experience in other fields is that if you only use empathetic listening it does exactly this. Quickly. Then you can consider how to turn this into a learning experience for both parties.

Empathetic listening can be used to steer a conversation gently in the direction of change and improvement, a discovery that gave rise to a counseling style called motivational interviewing. You will notice this use of empathy in the last few statements of the coach above (“and that’s something you want to improve on”, “You want to at least get some benefit from today’s practice” and “It might help a little with your confidence”). The statements are all purposefully forward-looking, and the athlete’s response is to talk about change more clearly. How motivational interviewing can be integrated into the coach’s conversation toolbox is yet to be properly explored.


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Stephen Rollnick

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