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Emotional Intelligence: A Critical Reflection – Part II

What role might emotional intelligence play in coaching? In this conclusion to his two-part blog, we follow the personal journey of A-Licensed coach Sam Grace, Youth Development Phase Coach at Reading FC, as he seeks to understand the importance of emotional intelligence and how applying the principles outlined by leading psychologist Daniel Goleman can help coaches.


For the past four months, I have been on a mini-journey trying to establish the role emotional intelligence plays in my own coaching. I have done this through a series of tasks based on Daniel Goleman’s (1988) five characteristics of emotional intelligence: self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation to succeed, empathy and social skills. I also interviewed several elite coaches in order to understand the role emotional intelligence played in their career to date.

Goleman (2004, p.3) defined motivation as, “a passion to work for reasons that go beyond money or status: a propensity to pursue goals with energy and persistence.” Individuals who displayed this had a “strong drive to achieve” and “optimism, even in the face of failure”. As part of my reflections, I took these two characteristics and recorded any occasions where I felt they were exhibited. Historically, I strongly identify with these hallmarks, from years of coaching at varying levels and times, in the name of development, to persevering with the profession, despite being made redundant due to the disbandment of a thriving youth department. All successful coaches will have their own unique story, and whilst there wasn’t any significant challenge to my motivation in this period, I was challenged at times by potentially losing games. In these matches, I believe I still endeavoured to achieve and find a solution, whilst also injecting optimism into players irrespective of the score. In all honesty, the games where you know that the result is gone I find hardest, but I battle against the perceived futility by segmenting the game, setting alternative team targets, looking at individual challenges and focussing on the controllables.

An example of this was the National Cup game mentioned in Part 1 of this blog. During this game, once the result was gone the focus changed to playing out from the back more effectively. The optimism in the face of failure demonstrated by the players was admirable – to continue to practice under pressure, with a willingness to accept and adapt from mistakes, showed real motivation from them to improve. I would highly recommend any coach to personally reflect on how they deal with losing, during and after the match. What behaviours do you exhibit and how do you think it affects your players?

“You can be a devil one minute and an angel the next.” England’s head rugby coach Eddie Jones has galvanized them from underachievers to equaling international rugby’s unbeaten record. The quote above outlines his skill in treating people with empathy, knowing when to push for better performance and when to keep quiet or reflect.

Goleman (2004, p.7), defined empathy as “the ability to understand the emotional makeup of other people: skill in treating people according to their emotional reactions.” For a coach, empathy is intrinsic to numerous decisions that are constantly being made, such as assessing the mood of the group, individual performance and team selection to name just a few. Each one of these scenarios offers the coach the opportunity to put themselves in the players’ shoes (Richardson, 2016), assess their behaviours based on their viewpoint and then act accordingly. To assist me with this process I employed the consultation and relational empathy measure (CARE), which allows the user to focus on the process of the interaction, rather than the outcome (Mercer et al., 2004). This checklist approach that can be applied retrospectively, combines putting the player at ease, giving them a chance to give their story, acknowledging their feelings, empowering them to take control and make a plan. In reality this was not always possible, as conversations during matches and between session parts meant there wasn’t always time to complete all 10 elements. Consequently, a stream-lined version was employed that acknowledged their feelings, allowed them to explain their thoughts, and finally plan the next step. If the issue was unresolved, then we spoke at a suitable point without time pressures. Potentially such a process can be hard for U13 boys who are traditionally unwilling to express emotions, and the method did require me to consider my social skills.

Social skills are defined by Goleman (2004) as the “proficiency in managing relationships and building networks: an ability to find common ground and build rapport.” As part of the study I was video recorded, so all facets of my communication could be analysed. However, this would be with players that I already had an existing relationship with, therefore I challenged myself to try and interview elite coaches. Could I firstly obtain an interview and build my network? Could I then establish common ground and a connection, so that they’d be willing to share personal information (Spradley, 2016) regarding their career and emotional intelligence?

I managed to secure interviews with Nigel Atkins (former Premier League manager of Reading and Southampton), Peter Moores (former England national team head coach and current Nottinghamshire CC head coach) whom I’ve not previously met, and Richard Dobson (Wycombe Wanderers assistant manager), whom I’ve known for over 10 years. Along with obtaining insight from a variety of coaches, this method also allowed me to compare and contrast my social skills with strangers and a friend.

To assess my social skills, I applied Spradley’s (2016) four stage rapport process, where apprehension is followed by exploration, then cooperation and finally participation. In the interviews with Nigel and Peter the apprehension stage was diminished with generic questions not specific to the interview, such as “did you watch the match last night?”. This was followed by a non-judgmental descriptive question to starting the interview, such as “How has your emotional intelligence developed over your coaching career?” Being able to listen to the coach talk gave me opportunities to employ the CARE measures, specifically letting them tell their story and really listening. Prior to the interviews, I’d researched active listening as it’s been shown to facilitate positive relationships (Duan & Hill, 1996). Thus, I was conscious to combine eye contact, with nods of the head and smiles, followed up with questioning or reflecting out loud once they’d finished talking. Such statements helped establish a non-judgmental outlook in the exploration phase that affirms trust (Spradley, 2016).

The cooperation phase is where the interviewee feels comfortable to share personal information. I felt this was established with Nigel, due to the length of time in his presence, the honesty to which he answered potentially sensitive questions, and the sharing of stories strictly for our conversation only. In the participation stage the interviewee feels confident to share different insights regarding their practice and culture. I felt participation was achieved to an extent with Nigel and Peter as they both offered invaluable insights outside of my initial questioning, but which were relevant to me as a coach. Developing rapport is vital for a coach as it helps them to enhance performance of their players and staff, and the quicker this can be achieved the sooner the results will come.

Self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy and social-skills are interconnected in all of our actions. Emotional intelligence is integral to a modern coach’s success, and having the self-awareness to adapt to individual player needs, and the group’s emotional state, is a hallmark of the best (Cote & Salmela, 1996).

Ultimately there is no right emotion for a coach to display, both positive and negative perform numerous functions, it’s the skill of the coach to be aware of what they’re feeling, how it affects their behaviours and if it helps their message to be received.


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