The Importance of Empathy for Athletes

This spring I have been serving as a Fellow for the Center for Sports Leadership and Innovation at the University of Texas.  Headed by Daron Roberts, a former NFL coach, we set out to improve the leadership and life skill ability of high school and collegiate athletes, as well as educating coaches on the aspects of coaching that aren’t technical: such as handling sexual and substance abuse, social media presence, academic achievement, and other such matters.  This spring we held our annual Captains Academy, during which we brought in dozens of sport captains from Austin area high schools and held workshops for them addressing vulnerability, communication, and most of all, empathy.

Daron Roberts at Captains Academy

Daron Roberts at CSLi Captains Academy

Most of us know what sympathy is.  This is the act of feeling sorry for someone and the situation they are experiencing.  Often when a teammate, friend, or family member tells us of a difficult situation, we respond by saying “oh I’m sorry to hear that/that you’re dealing with that” or some similar statement.  While maybe noble in intention, that offers little comfort and is really an expression of our own discomfort.  For example, our teammate comes to practice sulking because she received a “D” on a test, and boom here we go (or at least myself),

“I’m sorry to hear that, but at least you did good on the others and are not failing!  Shoot I’ve been getting C’s and if I have one more bad mark, I can’t play anymore.”

Sure, I sympathized but I really just belittled my teammate’s problem by making them see this “bright side” and inserted my own struggle.  This does little to help.

So then, what is empathy?  Empathy is the ability to share in someone’s emotions and feelings in order to better understand them.  This allows one to be a much better support for someone in a traumatic experience, noting that it’s not based on what you or I define as traumatic.  Yes, there are people who may have it worse, but in a moment of needed comfort, that’s not relevant.  It’s a lesson that has taken me many years to begin to learn, given how easy it is for me to brush off any issues of people who grew up more privileged than I.  Brene Brown does a great job comparing empathy and sympathy in the video below.  Afterwards we’ll talk about a couple benefits of having empathetic athletes.

As you saw in the video, she highlights 4 key points that help one be more empathetic:

  • Perspective taking
  • Avoiding judgement
  • Recognizing emotion
  • Communicating your recognition

These are some key pointers that can tremendously help your emotional and social intelligence.  Many of us fail simply to look at issues through the eyes of others without judging their decision making.  I have often done this with athletes (and people) I feel are generally underachieving.  Following that, letting people know you understand their emotional state can go a long way.  Why is this important for athletes?

Leader Buy-in

Being an empathetic leader, or having one on the team, helps build buy-in for them.  Relationships are all built on varying levels of trust, which is to be reciprocated.  To deeply understand the emotional state of a teammate and communicate that requires vulnerability, which is the leader putting trust in a teammate.  If team captains are able to make this type of connections with teammates, they are in a position to be well respected.  This also plays into having much more influence on players to motivate them and push them through the hard times of competition.  When there is optimal team buy in with the captains and the coaching staff, performance tends to be improved because the team is getting better effort output since everyone believes what they have will work.  Teams in disarray end up with selfish and/or unmotivated athletes which can often be a major hindrance to doing well.

Improves Team Morale

Empathetic leaders help create a glue for the team.  Serving as a rallying point for the team, these leaders can keep the team connected and inspire the trust needed to take a team from good to great.  Trust builds confidence, which is why people have refered to their friends and business partners as a “confidant” as being one you can put trust into.  By having your top shooting guard and point guard be guys the team believes in and trusts, it helps boost the entire team’s confidence and morale.  When analyzing chronically losing organizations, having trusted leaders on the team and in administration are often big reasons for failure.  When all the players on a team enjoy the environment and trust those around them to perform, and care about their performance, the energy and effort are improved, leading to superior performance

Empathy is one of those actions key to the interactions people have with each other.  Think about the person you know that always has a listening ear and is present for you, but doesn’t go off rattling their opinion about how to fix your problem (definitely a problem I am working on).  Improving ones empathetic ability is a great way to improve relationships among teammates and staff, gaining buy-in for the leader and growing the morale of the team.

Do you have an experience where you had a very empathetic teammate, athlete, or coach and it helped with team outcome?  Share below

My group at Captains Academy

My group at CSLi Captains Academy

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