5 Skills for Communicating with Emotional Athletes

During a recent on-site visit working with a coach and his team, I was observing one of their games, when a blow up took place with one of the athletes. Due to a lack of effort and focus, he gave up two baskets in a row. The coach lightly challenged the young man from the sideline, who instantly got defensive during the game. As a result the coach decided to substitute him out of the game. Upon seeing this, the player literally stopped playing in the middle of the game, conceding another basket and forcing the coach to call a time-out.

Things only got more heated from there. Over the next sixty seconds, I observed as the coach calmly tried to talk sense into the player, encouraging him to take ownership of his mistake and reset his attitude. The player refused to listen to logic, forcing the coach to send him to the end of the bench with an assistant coach to help him reset.

These moments are common for coaches today. We try to coach them, but an athlete just gets defensive and emotional. The effect is coaches are more hesitant to coach and challenge their athletes, fearing potential future blow-ups. Yet, the cost of not coaching athletes only compounds as the season progresses. Growth slows to a halt. Culture is damaged. Relationships are weak.  

So, how can we better work with our athletes in these emotional moments? Well before we can equip our athletes with the psychological skills necessary to work through stress and adversity, we as leaders must develop these skills, as discussed by Dr. Michael Gervais in a recent episode of the Rich Roll Podcast. Here are a few key mental skills for you and your coaching staff to develop:


In the above story, my first suggestion for the coach was to simply pause. Instead of attempting to address a fully triggered athlete during a time-out, give the individual some space and focus on the rest of the team. Coaches often feel the need to address a mistake or behavior immediately, but creating some space (time and physical distance) is all that’s needed for some athletes to regulate.


Before you can support another, you need to be aware of your own emotional state. Self-awareness starts with the body, not the brain. Pay attention to any sensations throughout your body. What are you feeling and where? Once you’ve checked in with the body, become aware of your thinking. What stories are you telling yourself? Acknowledge these sensations, feelings, or thoughts without immediately reacting.


In the given scenario, I would likely have been enraged if I were the head coach. When you are triggered, become aware of your breath. Then choose your breath. Whether it's the physiological sigh, box breathing, or simply exhaling slowly, use your breath to help regulate yourself emotionally.


During the conversation, stay present with the person. This requires curiosity about their needs, challenges, and desires at that moment. When you are present and curious, start with questions like: What's going on for you right now? What are you noticing in yourself? What do you need? You don't have to agree with their thinking or feelings, but acknowledging their reality is crucial.

Correct by Connecting

Once both of you are emotionally regulated, it becomes possible to move forward and choose the right next step. As my friend Betsy Butterick teaches, when we correct, connect it back to the standard you’ve set as a team. Ask questions like: What do you need to do to make this right? What step can you take to be at our standard? What's one thing you can do to raise your level to the level we expect of ourselves?

Final Thought

These skills take time and effort to develop, and the context (time and place) will significantly impact how you use them. However, the great news is we all have the opportunity to work on these skills in every area of our lives – whether it’s a parenting moment, a tough conversation with a colleague, or an argument with your spouse over who didn’t put their plate in the dishwasher! Life is our training ground—so keep getting better. 

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