Emotional Fitness and Coaching

Thursday, June 11, 2015

By Leigh Russell

The modern day high performance coach is charged with a great many responsibilities on and off the field – from marketing the club, to leading and managing a diverse range of staff, to being part scientist/psychologist/master tactician and motivator of a large group of individuals that need to all sing from the same hymn sheet in order for any chance of success to happen. Leadership and vision is created and sustained in the top roles such as that of coach. It’s a pivotal role in the high pressure cooker of sport. 

Within the sporting environment however, coaches are given very little time to get it all right. The truth of the matter is this – the skills that got you the job in the first place (those being passion, dedication and knowledge of the game), are probably not the ones that are going to keep you there. Coaches need a specific sort of fitness that is going to complement all the other skills many have spent years refining. 

The one thing that makes all the difference – emotional intelligence (otherwise called emotional fitness) – is often overlooked as a ‘soft’ skill. Recent history though will tell us it is the coaches with high levels of emotional intelligence (EI) that have a chance of conquering the challenges the role presents. 

All we have in sport is people – the rest is just smoke and mirrors. People create the culture, make up the team and support the conditions that will either see a group be successful or not. Sport is played, coached and managed by people. The ability to not only relate to people but to engage and inspire them in a vision is paramount to success. However, across many sporting environments, I have met very few people that believe their EI, or lack thereof, may be hindering their success. The blame game usually includes other people, processes or players that don’t perform.

However, without a doubt – a lack of emotional fitness is the top reason senior coaches in AFL get sacked. Boards and CEO’s attempt to package this up in a myriad of ways but it almost always comes down to the coach not having enough EI to get them through. 

When you get to the top of your game, you can assume your technical capacity will be about the same to others. What separates you is something else – and that is your skill base around emotional intelligence. Your ability to leverage EI, both on and off the field, is critical to your success as a coach.

In an era where we are all looking desperately for a competitive advantage, the secret sauce is staring at us right in the face.

You could dismiss the potency of needing such fitness if you were in a role where there wasn’t a great demand for emotion – such as a scientist or mechanic – but you dismiss the benefits of EI to your coaching at your own peril. Let’s face it – the responsibility of coaching demands the use of emotions skilfully, engaging the hearts and minds of others to hopefully do extraordinary things. 

Research indicates that using emotional fitness more purposefully gives competitive advantage in four areas:

  • Greater mental health
  • The ability to be able to sustain superior job performance
  • More effective leadership skills
  • And most importantly (and directly related to coaching), those with higher EI are more likely to cope with high pressure situations / environments.

Emotional intelligence focuses on identifying, understanding and using emotions resourcefully. In team environments, strong emotional intelligence in groups starts with emotionally intelligent coaches. 

When you are a player, you train the muscles in your body to be able to do specific tasks, whether it is speed, strength or endurance. When you are a coach, the muscle you need to train is your EI muscle – to get in the game and to stay in the game. It is the thing that will set you apart from your colleagues and make people want to be led by you. 

The great news is this: that EI can be taught and developed, unlike IQ which remains fairly stable over time. And it is important to discern between EI and IQ, as they are not the same thing. You can have a high IQ but be emotionally unfit. In fact, a lack of EI can make really smart people sometimes do really dumb things, which we can observe from time to time in the theatre of the match day coaches box.

Emotional fitness separates outstanding performers from adequate ones. And in the sporting system, as we know, adequate is nowhere near good enough. 

There are four key areas of emotional intelligence which are important for coaches to consider:

Self awareness

Self-awareness is arguably the most critical aspect of emotional intelligence. It is the ability to know yourself – to really know yourself - warts and all. We are creatures of comfort, so this is a challenging proposition for most of us. 

Recognising your own emotions and behaviours for what they are and ‘dealing with this as they are, not as you wish them to be’ is about the best professional development a coach can undertake. 

Knowing what you do well, what drives you, and what brings you satisfaction is all important to know. But shining a light on what you don’t do well, what pushes your buttons, or simply being unable to deal with your emotions is unhelpful to you, but most importantly, to those around you (particularly players and fellow coaches). 

Knowing all parts of self and the impact you have is often a place of discomfort for most people so we try to avoid at all costs. But if you are a coach, you can guarantee that people are talking about how aware, or not, you really are.

I haven’t witnessed a club environment yet where people don’t make it a sport to talk about how the head coach is faring – and this is the thing – those conversations are most often not towards the coach, but out of their earshot. 

People will go to great lengths to avoid giving others the feedback they desperately need to succeed. We live with a warped view that it is not the right or kind thing to do, but in reality, avoiding it is the greatest injustice you can do to a colleague. As a coach, you need the moral mandate to lead, alongside having the title. The only way to get that is through being aware of your strengths and opportunities to develop.


Self-management builds on the basis of self-awareness and is simply the ability to control your emotions, so they don’t end up controlling you. 

Consider the worst boss you ever had. Think about the impact they had on you. Almost always, these are the people who were poor at self-management, which had major repercussions on how people behaved around them. 

Self-management in the sporting environment is really the ability to control emotional impulses which lead to poor performance, and the capacity to create specific emotions which lead to high performance – and of course, to know when to switch on to do either option.

People who have poor impulse control are hard to be around, and change the dynamic of the environment. People stop acting comfortably around them, they hold information back for fear of upsetting them, and don’t speak up when they should. The mood of the leader, determines the mood of the team.

This is particularly problematic in a high performance environment where any ‘elephant in the corner’ has the ability to derail success. I have been in far too many football meetings where people do not say what they want to, for fear of upsetting either the senior coach or someone up the hierarchy. This compromises high performance and contributes to a negative culture.

It is important to remember, people don’t leave clubs or organisations or companies – they leave people. 

They leave their leaders. They leave YOU!

Of course, while a certain amount of emotion is required in coaching, it is a physiological impossibility to make good, effective decisions when under large amounts of stress, such as when you have allowed yourself to become angry or anxious. The ability to manage your emotions, and therefore your behaviours is critical for the coach leader who is also trying to manage the emotions of others. 

Social awareness

Social awareness is the skill-set used to pick up on, and understand the emotions and feelings of other people both individually and in group situations. With well-developed social awareness you can accurately read situations and people because you are able to understand and empathise with their emotions. This gives the coach a strategic advantage, as you will be see the power dynamics within your environment with clarity and be able to navigate a way through the politics. 

This means using all the tools of communication at your disposal, including elevating the need to listen effectively to not only the verbal, but the non-verbal messages – body movements, gestures and other physical signs of emotion. 

Using empathy effectively is an underrated leadership tool – but being able to ask better questions, using feedback to clarify what is understood and acknowledging feelings of others even if you disagree all enhance leadership. Likewise, so is holding back from making comments or statements that are judgemental, rejecting, belittling or undermining. 

Coaches who do not have good social awareness set unreasonable demands on their players and coaching team, and miss the signs people give when they are disengaging. When coaches are sacked and it comes as a surprise to them, that always surprises me, but gives great insight into where they might sit in relation to their own social awareness.

Relationship management

Relationship Management is about your capacity to connect and build trust. How you get the best out of others - your ability to inspire and influence, to communicate and build bonds, and your ability to help them change, grow and develop is crucial in the high performance environment. Think about the number of different stakeholders a coach needs to engage with. If the ability to connect isn’t well developed, this can present significant challenge to coach success. Relationship management isn’t luck however – it is a deliberate success strategy.

Great relationship management allows you to connect with others in ways that help them feel understood and supported. Managing relationships is an essential emotional intelligence skill that enables you to effectively become a coach leader.

Effective management of relationships relies on your self-awareness, self-management and the level of social awareness you might have. Once a coach is using all four areas to their advantage, they are operating with sound emotional fitness.

Developing your emotional fitness

The cornerstone of emotional fitness is self-awareness. Any tool that helps to build this for you and your team is valuable in enabling your high performers. There are many – formal tools (such as DISC or MBTI, 360 feedback) or informal tools such as mentoring and coaching (don’t underestimate the power of conversation with the right questioning). Also, give someone in your environment ‘permission’ to be a barometer for you around your behaviours and impact you are having – positive, neutral and negative.

Emotions are a filter that shape what we see and how we evaluate information. Emotional intelligence allows coaches to perceive and manage these filters so they get a more accurate and useful understanding of players and staff, leading to high performance. 

By placing emotional fitness as a priority, or seeing it as just as important as the other aspects of a coaching role, you will have a greater chance of utilising effectively the one resource that is unique to you and your club: the people within it. 

Emotions are contagious – choose them mindfully. When coaches develop emotional intelligence they are more skilled at accessing and generating the emotions that let them connect with, and influence the people around them to deeper reflection and more powerful motivation. Leadership is set from the top – but conversely, the ‘fish rots from the head first’. As a coach, you set the tone of the environment.

Consistent reflective practice habits are under rated for coaches. We ask players to be reflective on their performance as part of the routine, but don’t often integrate this practice at the coaching level. The culture of busy-ness is killing our capacity to lead with high emotional intelligence. Actively managing this part of the high performance environment is pivotal for success. 

If you'd like to know more about emotional intelligence, here are a few suggestions:

  1. Australian Sports Commission
  2. "The Sport in Mind"
  3. The work of Daniel Goleman - recognised as a leader in the emotional intelligence field

This article is based on a keynote address presented by Leigh Russell at the 2015 AFL National Coaching Conference.

Leigh Russell GAICD - is an organisational development specialist, board director, performance coach, and public speaker / facilitator with qualifications in the arts, teaching, counselling, career counselling and business.

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