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A Different Type of Intellect

Though it’s not a concept that’s often talked about, emotional intelligence plays a critical role in coaching and athletic performance. Bo Hanson, four-time Olympian and Coaching Consultant & Director of Athlete Assessments, explains how to become more emotionally intelligent and why this is so important to your success and the success of your athletes.

Hanson defines emotional intelligence as:

  • The ability to recognize your own emotional state (i.e. how you’re feeling).
  • Sensing emotions in others.
  • Knowing how to motivate yourself to create your best performance.
  • Building productive relationships with others.

Everyone already has a level of skill in emotional intelligence, but to varying degrees. Those who have a high emotional intelligence are very effective at identifying and managing their own emotions and the emotions of others. Having this ability is very helpful for coaches, as they will better be able to stay calm and focused in high-pressure situations and help their athletes to do the same.

Hanson identifies six aspects (or competencies) of emotional intelligence that he believes are most important for leadership:

  1. Emotional self-awareness
  2. Accurate self-assessment
  3. Self confidence
  4. Emotional self-control 
  5. Empathy
  6. Influencing others

For coaches, the first step is to develop a high degree of self-awareness. This means identifying and understanding your strengths, limitations, and how your emotions impact your effectiveness as a coach. Hanson explains that developing self-awareness can help you recognize specific triggers that create certain emotional and behavioral responses that might be inhibiting you. This can help you see where you might need to change your behavior. Once you have this self-awareness, you will be on your way to becoming a better communicator and developing relationships with your athletes and staff.

The next step is to improve your emotional self-control. This will help you remain levelheaded and be consistent with your coaching approach, no matter how stressful the situation. When you have a high level of emotional self-control, you will be able to control emotional impulses that negatively affect your coaching, and create emotions that help your athletes perform their best. 

“For example, when watching you’re athlete perform poorly, although it makes you frustrated, are you able to recognize this frustration (emotional self-awareness) and then are you able to adapt this emotion to a more productive one, before you begin interacting with your athlete?” writes Hanson. “If you spend some time to consider, are you able to produce the type of emotional state which you know helps you to perform at your best?”

Having social awareness and empathy is also part of having a high emotional intelligence. When you have empathy, you will be able to “read” your athletes and gauge how they’re feeling. This means noticing the small signs, such as body language, which can tell you whether an athlete is stressed, fatigued, or dealing with negative emotions, and you can then take the necessary steps to get them back on track, such as talking with them one-on-one, giving them a rest, or changing the activity. Coaches who lack the proper social awareness and empathy often put unreasonable demands on their athletes and don’t notice or don’t care when an athlete is disengaged.

As you develop these various aspects of emotional intelligence, it will become easier to build relationships with your athletes and have a positive influence on their behavior and performance. The key is to develop trust, and that requires getting to know each athlete and what makes them tick. When you show that you understand an athlete’s individual needs, they are often much more willing to follow your instructions and are more likely to stay engaged. You can then help them develop their own emotional intelligence, which will guide them in sports and beyond. 

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