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The Emotionally Intelligent Coach

Considering the importance of emotional intelligence in coaching

The coaching role and our perception of it continue to evolve. The traditional view of a coach is that one observes their athlete or team, identifies areas for improvement, provides feedback, and finally, structures appropriate training sessions to enhance performance (Knowles, Borrie, & Telfer, 2005). However, we simultaneously hold an implicit expectation that a coach will have an adequate understanding of sport psychology and physiology, look out for the athletes’ best interests on and off the field of play, and enact behaviours so that one serves as a positive role model.

When working with teams in the areas of performance enhancement and mental skills training, my pitch at the beginning is usually based on the notion that as athletes improve and move up the ranks, we see smaller variances in physical characteristics. Athletes will generally have a good tactical and technical base; however, the differences are usually noticed during competition where we see athletes who are able to make the right decisions and perform optimally under pressure, while others experience a decline in performance. It will largely come down to psychological matters (e.g., management of focus, concentration, arousal, anxiety) that will determine the nature of our performance.

A similar type of paradigm exists for coaches. Generally speaking, at a particular level of sport, coaches have a comparable level of expertise. It appears that what sets great coaches apart is their ability to relate, motivate, and understand athletes. Having a substantial understanding of the tactics of a particular sport becomes irrelevant if one is unable to communicate effectively with his/her athletes, or is unable to maintain a productive mindset themselves. Having an extensive understanding of the various nuances of a particular sport is critical, but it is important that one is able to regulate his/her own emotions (and subsequent behaviour), as well as have a positive effect on the athletes in order to be a quality coach.

During the 90’s, a concept referred to as Emotional Intelligence (EQ) was popularized by well-known psychologist, Daniel Goleman. He defined EQ as “… the capacity for recognizing our own feelings and those of others for motivating ourselves, and for managing emotions well in ourselves and in our relationships”. Goleman understood the importance of developing an awareness and ability to control our emotions in developing and maintaining positive relationships. For a coach, establishing productive and positive relationships with athletes is an essential element to sporting success.

EQ refers to our awareness and management of emotions in two contexts; self and others, and is further broken down into the following elements; (1) self-awareness, (2) self-regulation, (3) motivation, (4) empathy, and (5) effective relationships. As with IQ, the good news is, that EQ can be developed through deliberate practice, and is an area that should be constantly reflected upon.

Self-awareness refers to one’s ability to be aware of what emotions (positive and negative) are triggered in various situations. Having an awareness of habitual thought patterns in specific situations provides a platform of which one can then seek to improve thought processes. Through this awareness, and by identifying effective strategies, self-regulation can begin to take place. This will help ensure that as a coach, one is in the right mindset to lead successfully. Such a mindset is accomplished through a greater efficiency in noticing their thoughts and emotions, and subsequently, implementing strategies to either heighten positive or alleviate negative thoughts.

Self-motivation is concerned with engaging in an activity for the inherent joy that it provides or self-determined reasons (e.g., the pleasure of improving). By maintaining positive motivation for activities, experiencing positive feelings and emotions that lead to quality relationships is much more likely. This is due to feelings of control and enjoyment being maintained, opposed to anxiety and tension that are often promoted when involvement is underpinned by extrinsic reasons (e.g., beating the opposition).

Shifting attention to empathy, this skill is about not only sympathizing with others, but also understanding what they are going through. Quality coaches seem able to do this well. Considering what athletes are going through enables coaches, and other support staff, to adapt their approach to maximize the athletes’ chances of success. For example, if a coach notices that an athlete is experiencing significant pressure, then he/she may decide to focus on something small (e.g., tactics or technique), rather than the significance of the upcoming race.

Finally, effective relationships are a key aspect to EQ. Being able to establish and maintain effective relationships is important in sport as success relies on a sufficient level of trust and relatedness between the athlete and coach. Developing relationships is a complex process and can be aided by various characteristics from a coach including, but by no means limited to; enjoyment, trust, honesty, care, autonomy-support, and coaching philosophy. Effective relationships can also manifest as a by-product of the previous elements of EQ.

Some suggestions for strategies in which to enhance EQ are herein considered.

1. Engage in (secular) mindfulness or meditative training.

As noted earlier, the first part of EQ is developing an awareness of our emotions. If we are not aware of what is occurring internally, then it is difficult to manage productive emotions, or understand, for instance, why at times we get overly excited or frustrated. Once a day, find a quiet place and shift your attention to your thoughts and try to tune in to what the nature of your cognitions are. If they are positive and productive (e.g., “training went well today”, “the team seems to be improving”, “I really enjoy my job”), then this is great. However, if thoughts are based on negative images and dialogue, then you can use this opportunity to adapt and redirect your thoughts to a more controlled and productive area.

2. Develop skills to regulate productive and positive feelings.

Seek assistance in acquiring new skills around positive self-talk and imagery, time-management, planning, and goal setting, to improve your own wellbeing. EQ suggests that an important precursor to helping others is maintaining one’s own wellbeing. Developing new knowledge around strategies can be accomplished in many ways (e.g., talking to colleagues, attending workshops, reading articles and books, etc.). Developing new psychological skills will have a positive effect on not just yourself, but also the athletes that you work with.

3. Think about what motivates you to coach.

In today’s competitive sporting environment, it is easy to lose sight of why one begins coaching in the first place and become overly engrossed in objective success (i.e., winning). It is important that from time to time we stop to smell the proverbial roses, and remember what it is about coaching that we enjoy (e.g., the joy of watching athletes improve, the satisfaction of preparing and performing, etc.).

4. Practice empathy.

Finally, put yourself in the shoes of your athletes from time to time. Attempt to understand what they are going through as this will help you engage with them more positively and productively. One way of improving empathy is through talking with athletes about what they experience - It does not have to be guess work. This will assist in gaining a better understanding of the demands that are placed on athletes and how they perceive the environment they are in.


Goleman, D. (1996). Emotional Intelligence. New York, NY: Bantam Books

Knowles, Z., Borrie, A., & Telfer, H. (2005). Towards the reflective sports coach: issues of context, education, and application. Ergonomics, 48(11-14), 1711-1720.