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The Coach-athlete relationship: does emotional intelligence help?

Updated: Apr 28, 2020

Emotional Intelligence and coaching are inseparable1

Sir John Whitmore, Founder,

Performance Consultants International

The Coach-athlete relationship: does emotional intelligence help?

Emotional intelligence (EI) is an area of psychology that has been utilised within business but is becoming more prominent in areas such as sport. Despite being a relatively new concept, it has become a major research area2 over the last two decades.

So, what is emotional intelligence?

Emotional intelligence3 is the ability to control one’s own and other’s feelings and emotions, understand their meaning and use this to guide your own thinking and actions. Emotional intelligence has been described to be like a skill4, we all have some level of it, however, some may be experts, and others may be beginners or somewhere in between. We all have some level of emotional intelligence but the quality of it depends on its degree of development.

Emotional intelligence is a psychological construct within the brain

Daniel Goleman’s 4 Quadrant Model5 of Emotional Intelligence

Self-awareness is the ability for an individual to feel and assess their own emotional state, social awareness is the integrating of other individual’s emotions and being aware of how your own emotions can also affect them. Building upon this understanding of awareness is self-management, this is the ability for an individual to control their own emotions. Relationship management, this is building strong relationships with others through the awareness of your own and other’s emotions.

The 4 Quadrant model shows the ability to build relationships is an integral aspect of having high emotional intelligence, so you’d think the coach-athlete relationship and emotional intelligence would be a highly researched area?

Its not all about emotions, there’s much more to it than that…

The answer is no not really, despite numerous researchers of either emotional intelligence or areas within emotional intelligence suggesting interpersonal relationships can be positively affected through higher levels of emotional intelligence6, 7, 8, a recent review9 found no empirical evidence concerning emotional intelligence and the quality of the coach-athlete relationship within sport. Highlighting the need for greater research in this area.

Despite a lack of interest in sport & exercise, nursing10 is one field that has investigated emotional intelligence and its effect on relationships. Within nursing good interpersonal skills are required to develop empathic and therapeutic relationships11, which are essential to be able to communicate information and give support to patients and families. Like coaches with their athletes, nurses have a need to build rapport with their patients which is essential for a trusting relationship, these factors can be enhanced through increasing one’s emotional intelligence.

Research within sport so far?

Graham Henry & Wayne Smith12, former coaches of arguably the most successful New Zealand All Blacks rugby team of all time, suggested that emotional intelligence was a key coaching skill and facilitated a greater working coach-athlete relationship. They also suggested ‘Better people make better All Blacks’ possibly insinuating that individuals who are ‘better people’, will generally be higher in emotional intelligence and will therefore become better athletes. Research has generally provided support for this, proposing an athlete higher in emotional intelligence will be more successful9.

Having high emotional intelligence has led athletes to have more pleasant emotions during exercise13, whilst also having a protective role against stress. Having an arsenal of psychological skills is important for athletes and coaches alike, having high trait emotional intelligence has been linked with a more frequent use of psychological skills such as; self-talk, imagery, and goal-setting.

I imagine for any coaches, future coaches, athletes, or possibly even some academics reading this, a question you may have is whether this skill can be trained?

Well, thankfully this seems to be an important question for some researchers too, as a couple of studies have researched this exact question. One of these studies14 provided training to 24 cricket players, they received 10 three-hour training sessions that targeted emotion perception, facilitation, understanding and managing emotions. This training was found to increase emotional intelligence ability. Further evidence found that one-to-one coaching sessions involving emotional intelligence helped increase self-efficacy and decrease anxiety in netball players15. Despite the limited knowledge in the area this may suggest that us coaches might be able to modify our athletes’ level of emotional intelligence through training.

How can this help the coach-athlete relationship?

“At a very young age I realised that if I wanted to survive in this job, I had to get control of my emotions”– Arsene Wenger, former Arsenal FC Manager16

The importance of learning to control your own emotions as well as others cannot be understated when such a significant individual, such as Arsene Wenger, is attributing his success and longevity as a top-level coach to gaining control of his emotions in the early stage of his career.

Athlete and coach enter a relationship that should be challenging, positive & trustworthy.

Emotional intelligence has been found to be an important skill for high-performance coaches17, for a coach to be considered successful, they need much more than just sport-specific knowledge and tactical acumen. To be successful, high-performing athletes are necessary, building bonds of trust is essential to facilitate an effective relationship and high athlete performance. As these relationships will encounter multiple feelings and emotions, having the ability to understand these and react appropriately for each individual athlete is likely to improve your relationship with the athlete and lead to greater performance outcomes.

The emotional climate created by coaches is integral to help develop a successful coach-athlete relationship, this climate needs to be positive and challenging, whilst the coach in particular should display empathy and the ability to contain emotions. Appreciating the link between stress and emotion, whilst also having the ability to understand an athlete’s emotions may give a coach better knowledge of how EI develops and why some athletes perform badly. Simply, it is quite possible that having higher emotional intelligence can contribute to a successful and more effective coach-athlete relationship.

Learning to control these emotions is a long process and there is no quick fix to aid in regulating them, however, Andrew Hamilton has devised a six-stage process18 to help assess and put in place strategies to help enhance an individual’s emotional intelligence:

Enhancing emotional intelligence is a step-by-step process.

  1. Developing emotional self-awareness – this involves the individual assessing their own emotions and those of the people around them and highlighting which are associated with better performance.

  2. Developing self-awareness of emotional states during daily performance – effectively provides a ‘running commentary’ of daily emotions.

  3. Identification of strategies to regulate emotion – using music was an example given that has been found to help regulate several emotions.

  4. Set emotionally focused goals – once an individual is aware of their emotions setting goals to try and modify these emotions is the next step.

  5. Engage in positive self-talk – involves changing what runs through our mind when experiencing the undesired emotions.

  6. Role play to develop emotional control competencies – this is an effective way of working with emotions and works more successfully when using emotions from daily performances.

The key aim of this narrative was to provide coaches and athletes with some key information on emotional intelligence and how it may be able to help facilitate a better coach-athlete relationship. In summary, higher levels of coach and athlete emotional intelligence may help develop a more successful coach-athlete relationship.


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