Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Empathic Accuracy and Sport Coaches

A predictor of outcomes

Key points

  • Empathic accuracy is employed by successful coaches in various sports.
  • Coaches gather impression cues and make inferences about how players are thinking, what they're feeling, and how they will react.
  • Empathic accuracy can reveal information about the opposition as well, both players and coaches.
Football Wife/Pexels
The Coach.
Source: Football Wife/Pexels

With another weekend of sports over, another week of professional coaching begins. Empathic coaches will be considering how the events of recent competition have impacted their athletes, both on an individual and team basis. Gaining such understanding will influence how the coach proceeds and the way they interact with each of those they lead.

What is empathic accuracy?

Empathic accuracy is the ability to accurately infer the psychological state of an athlete (Lorimer, 2013), and it is considered a strong predictor of leadership outcomes (Goleman & Boyatzis, 2008). Empathic coaches aim to achieve this through forming understandings of athletes by collating snippets of information, often referred to as impression cues.

Impression cues

Impression cues include impressions of the athlete’s performance, appearance, attitude, and behavior. Coaches will also take into consideration all events that may have impacted the athlete on or off the field. There may be stories in the media, on social media, or issues with an athlete’s home life.


The inferences made by the coach come together to create an expectancy of how the athlete is feeling, how they will react or perform in forthcoming situations, and what they need from the coach in the days ahead that will help them to fulfill their potential. This process becomes more efficient as the coach gets to know an athlete better. Empathic leaders have closer relationships with those they lead, and this closeness garners deeper understanding. This can also help in prosecuting the potential of athletes and how they will perform in certain situations.

In competition

Empathic accuracy is also considered helpful in the heat of action (Lorimer & Jowett, 2009). Athletes do their most important work in spaces that the coach cannot enter. The coach’s proximity limits communication, and in some sports, the faces of athletes are covered, so inferences can only be made based on body language and performance. Again, these inferences will be more accurate if the coach is in a close relationship with the athlete.

Keeping up-to-date

Regular conversations provide essential knowledge that cannot be gained by merely observing an athlete in training and competition. The coach needs to keep their knowledge of the athlete up-to-date and then make modifications in their expectancy and decision making.

The opposition

A head coach may also employ empathic accuracy to determine how they expect athletes representing the opposition to perform. Their coach too! Collecting impression cues from the opposition can provide opportunities to gain an advantage. This is well summarized by Gilin and colleagues (2013): “Success in strategic social interactions often necessitates an understanding of the underlying motives, feelings, and likely behaviors of one’s opponent.”

Knowing the opposition well helps. Coaches who have worked with opposing athletes before will find it easier to recognize what can be inferred from certain behaviors. The body language of a stranger is harder to decipher.


It seems clear that empathic accuracy offers sports coaches an advantage in their day-to-day work and during competition. Coaches will enjoy more success if they focus on knowing and understanding athletes, whatever colors they wear.


Gilin, D., Maddux, W. W., Carpenter, J., & Galinsky, A. D. (2013). When to Use Your Head and When to Use Your Heart. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39(1), 3–16.

Goleman, D., & Boyatzis, R. (2008). Social intelligence and the biology of leadership social intelligence and the biology of leadership. Harvard Business Review, 86(9), 74–81.

Lorimer, R. (2013). The Development of Empathic Accuracy in Sports Coaches. Journal of Sport Psychology in Action, 4(1), 26–33.

Lorimer, R., & Jowett, S. (2009). Empathic accuracy in coach–athlete dyads who participate in team and individual sports. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 10(1), 152–158.

More from Psychology Today

More from Peter Sear Ph.D.

More from Psychology Today