LONDON — Years ago, there was an expectation that coaches should be gruff and adversarial towards their players, often screaming from the sidelines and even insulting their own squad. Nowadays, more and more coaches are adopting an empathetic approach to leadership, but does level-headed, emotionally intelligent coaching really drive success in elite sports?
A new book from psychologist Peter Sear, PhD, analyzed the recent shift from dictatorial coaching in sports toward more empathetic leadership, interviewing the coaches of nine different elite sports across the world along the way. Ultimately, his research suggests that empathic leadership indeed effectively motivates teams, encourages loyalty, and improves chances of success in sports.
“The head coaches who are leading with empathy are getting more out of athletes,” Dr. Sear says in a media release. “The consensus is that to have success as a leader in elite sport in the modern era, you must have an empathic approach.”
Pro athletes face enormous amounts of stress
Elite sports, of course, can be stressful. Players and coaches often experience turbulent emotions resulting from game results, individual performances, the reactions of fans, and interpretations of the media. Athletes, meanwhile, have even bigger concerns to contend with as well, such as the ever-present requirement to maintain peak physical conditioning, stay injury-free, and even keep their weight in check.
So, with all of these pressures in mind, how can empathic leaders and coaches get the very best from their teams? By virtue of philosophical and practical evidence, in combination with his own experiences in elite sports, Dr. Sear has developed a model containing seven key aspects of empathic leadership.
In his new book, “Empathic Leadership: Lessons From Elite Sport,” Dr. Sear provides clear practical advice on how people can improve their own leadership skills across a variety of considerations. Examples include relationship management, building trust, and establishing a strong line of communication.
“There is no advantage to ruling with fear – you are just losing out on powerful knowledge of your team and your athletes,” he explains. “Success as a leader depends on your knowledge and understanding of people, their emotions, perspectives, and intentions, as well as the relationships you have with them. It is in these vital areas that empathy will give you an advantage.”
Dr. Sear suggests coaches master the 7 key aspects of empathy
This includes self-empathy, which refers to understanding one’s own emotions and how they impact others.
“Understanding what motivates your players and what hinders them will improve the quality of your decision-making as a leader. If you can understand when to push your players and when to support them, and identify who has potential and who is no longer emotionally invested, you’ll make better decisions,” the author argues.
“Understanding the unique character of each athlete allows you to develop them effectively according to their needs, and get the best from them.”
Some essential skills include effective communication, the ability to recognize body language, and the capacity to make tough decisions in a pinch (such as when to bench a player). Importantly, Dr. Sear also stresses that being empathetic is not the same psychologically as being gentle.
“Empathy doesn’t equate to being soft and gentle at all times, sometimes you need to recognize that one person might need to be pushed while that other player might need a friendly ear,” Dr. Sear explains.
Empathic leadership demonstrates that empathetic leaders ultimately have more control and more knowledge, thus enabling better team management.
“Empathic leaders become strong leaders, through respect, appreciation, and behaviors such as listening, which enhances their prestige,” the psychologist continues. “Empathy inspires team members to go above and beyond their obligations. Ultimately, this means that the empathic leader yields more power.”
Dr. Sear also theorizes humans are innately more prone to respond to an empathic leader in general.
“This way of leading suits humans better psychologically. Through empathic communication and empathic relationships, emotions can be managed and needs met. The experience of work is valued, with high levels of wellbeing, which manifests in confidence and peak performance,” the author concludes.
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