Dan Abrahams on Being Autonomy-Supportive: Using Empathy as a Tool For Success
Empathy used to be a word associated with weakness — and great athletes were tough … they didn’t ask for empathy, but today’s emphasis on keeping kids in the game, developing lifelong soccer fans and the new, ultra-competitive nature of soccer requires more for success than ever before. Empathy now is a requirement. This word has gained new respect and reflects real soccer IQ and intelligence.
Great insights from Dan Abrahams who works with coaches and players in the English Premier League, as well as those in the MLS and USL on this side of the Atlantic. Abrahams also has a program for youth soccer clubs.
In my last Soccer Today article, HOW SOCCER COACHES CAN HELP PLAYERS FIND THEIR OWN SOLUTIONS, I discussed the value of autonomy-supportive coaching: the brand of coaching that empowers players to find their solutions to the problems they encounter on the pitch.
I’m going to use this article to extend this concept to off-pitch challenges. And, we all know how tough off-pitch challenges are — and how plentiful they can be in the life of a coach!
Now, we know what we want as coaches, don’t we?
We want talented players who turn up on time and who demonstrate great attitudes. We want coachable players who listen. We want players who have fun but who behave themselves. We want great teammates. We want eager students of the game. I could go on … we have a long wish list as a coach.
Does our lengthy list ever get fulfilled? Rarely!
We coach human beings and human beings, no matter their age, are imperfect creatures.
But no problem. No worries. You’re a coach who is equipped with a super-sized bag of linguistic tools. You’re ready to help those players creep a little closer to being consistent with the kind of behaviors we’d all like to see in a happy, healthy team.
And the really cool thing about you as a coach is that with this super-sized bag of linguistic tools, you can help your people in a happy, healthy way. You can help them without too much insistence, without too much stress, and … without too much involvement from yourself.
You’re an autonomy-supportive coach armed with the latest linguistic gadgets that help players find their own unique solutions to their own personal problems.
You instruct when it’s important to and you take charge when you need to.
So let’s unwrap some of these language tools.
Back in December, I spoke with Professor Stephen Rollnick on my podcast The Sport Psych Show (it’s a great listen, even if I do say so myself!) Professor Rollnick is brilliant! Rollnick devised a psychological framework called Motivational Interviewing (MI) over 30 years ago. It’s a framework that helps psychologists to empower people who are dealing with trauma, depression, alcoholism, and other brutally challenging life situations, to find hope in their life and to find some solutions to their problems.
Central to Rollnick’s MI approach is the notion of empathy. Specifically, demonstrating empathy for the person in front of you in order to establish a relationship with them and to help them take small steps to move forward.
Empathy is often confused with sympathy. Empathy is not sympathy.
Nor is empathy a form of agreement. It’s not saying “Yeah, I agree with your actions.” This is an important distinction to make. Empathy is a listening statement. It’s saying “I’m here and I’m listening to you. I hear you. I hear the specific challenge you have right now.”
Allow me to use a soccer-specific example to illustrate the power of empathy and why it’s so important.
Let’s imagine you’re a High School coach and your most talented player is also a person who struggles to arrive at practice on time. He or she’s often late and it’s a real problem for both of you.
Now, of course, you can lambast this person. You can drop her from the team. You can punish her. And, of course, you can incentivize her with a reward if she adheres to the practice time.
All those are tried and tested approaches. In fact, they’re the norm. But the reality is they rarely evoke behavior change, and even if they do, even just a little bit, the player isn’t often in the best headspace to engage in the practice.
So what can this coach do? This coach can have a conversation with her:
Coach: “I see you were late today.”
Player: “Yeah, sorry!”
Coach: “What happened?”
Player: “I just didn’t get my work done. I’ve got so much to do.”
Coach: “It sounds like life is pretty full right now!”
Ah, now there we go…there’s your listening statement. Rather than becoming angry at this player for being late you’re showing empathy. You’re showing a degree of curiousness as to why she was late. You’re not judging, you’re merely reflecting back the situation to her.
Player: “Yeah it’s mad right now. I feel like I can’t breathe.”
Coach: “Your busy schedule is affecting how you feel”
Again, empathy … a listening statement. The player isn’t being shouted at and may now feel a little more comfortable. She’s being listened to. She’ll feel less threatened by you. Perhaps she’ll feel she can open up a bit and further explain her situation.
Player: “Massively! I so want to get to practice on time, but I feel so overwhelmed.”
Again, empathy. This player, this person, now feels you care. You’re not there just to judge her. Now, she’s contemplating you may be able to help her and see how her actions are impacting others.
On the subject of helping her, it’s now time to do so. But not by advising or by insisting on this way or that way. That’s not what autonomy-supportive coaches do initially.
Autonomy-supportive coaches want to empower the person to find their best solution.
So they’ll ask an open question like this:
“Is there anything you feel you can do that can help you in this situation?” Or you might ask this: “Is there anything that’s worked for you in the past?” Or another open question might be: “Is there anyone you know who has overcome this kind of challenge?”
Of course, I appreciate the answer to all these questions might be a “No!” But that matters less now because you’ve probably built this player’s trust in you. You’ve positioned yourself to be able to say “Would you mind if I make a few suggestions?”
Through empathy, you’ve elevated your own solutions in her mind. “Coach cares, so I probably need to listen to what he or she has to say.”
This, ladies and gentlemen of the coaching community really is how you impact behavior.
There’s no insistence on attitude.
There’s no ranting about effort or letting others down.
There’s a quiet conversation. There are the gentle tones of someone who cares. There’s a linguistic arm around the shoulder. There is, quite simply, unwavering support for the human being in front of you.
Dan Abrahams is a global sport psychologist specializing in soccer and a best selling author. Abrahams’ books are available on Amazon. He is based in England and has some of the leading turn-around stories and case studies in English Premier League history.
Abrahams is sought after by players, coaches and managers across Europe and his 2 soccer psychology books are international bestsellers. He is formerly a professional golfer, is Lead Psychologist for England Golf and he holds a master’s degree in sport psychology.