Is Empathy The Enemy In Holistic Athlete Development?

Is Empathy The Enemy In Holistic Athlete Development?

“No Soft Ears”

This is a phrase used in the meeting rooms of high performance coaches around the world to portray the need to have unity in message and culture, to limit the availability of kind counsel that offers refuge to weak-minded athletes.

This is done to create discipline, teamwork and personal accountability. This is done as an act of tough love; to teach young men and women to take responsibility for their efforts as individuals and as a team, and designed to get the best out of both.

Done resolutely it provides clarity, promotes action and teaches resilience towards achieving individual and team goals. It is usually the athletes who go in search of the most reassurance that learn most from the firm support; they learn the lesson that they have what is needed within them to be successful.

Does Holistic Athlete Development Have Soft Ears?

In an era where we are increasingly aware of the performance benefits of the holistic development of athletes, of developing them as well-rounded individuals with life skills and interests alongside of their sport, a tendency towards overly empathetic off-field support can diminish the growth of the individual and the benefits this can bring to their performance and well-being.

By assuming responsibilities on the athlete’s behalf, letting them out of doing it themselves or delaying it until the point of their retirement, are we stunting their growth? Are we allowing them to stay in their adolescent bubble, only allowing maturation as an athlete and not a person?

By empathising with the emotions of athlete, at times intoxicated by the charisma of the individual or engrossed by the performance vision itself, do we as coaches, managers and development practitioners provide soft ears, soft hands, feet, mouths and wallets to relieve the athlete of these ‘off-field distractions’ and in doing so, keep them infantile?

To clarify, I am not saying that empathy does not have its place in coaching or high performance; I believe it is the start of caring. It is the start of loving your athletes enough to do what is right for them to reach their goals. Nor am I saying that there shouldn’t be ‘soft ears’ at the right moment for those that need counsel and assistance on serious matters of mental health or personal concern.

What I am asking is: Is it our job to put ourselves in the shoes of the athlete and alleviate everything that gets in the way of performance, or is our role to teach them how to manage all aspects of their life, to develop them as people?

empathy holistic athlete development
The Dalai Lama preaching compassion at his 80th Birthday. Image: Huffington Post

Is Empathy enough?

I believe the distinction can be found by understanding the difference between empathy and compassion, a distinction made clear to me in reading the words of the most unlikely and no doubt unintended of guides on athlete development, the Dalai Lama.

In his collaborative interview with the Archbishop Desmond Tutu in ‘The Book of Joy’, The Dalai Lama distinguishes them in the following way, “Empathy is simply experiencing another’s emotion, whereas compassion is a more empowered state where we want what is best for that person.”

He continues by using this analogy about compassion in order to paint a picture of the difference between the two:

“If we see a person being crushed by a rock, the goal is not to get under the rock and feel what that person is feeling, it is to help remove the rock.”

With so much conversation in the global media at the moment about athlete welfare, mental health and transition, the question has to be asked…are we happy getting under the rock with athletes or are we willing to do what’s best for them and take action to remove the rock?

What can change

In the past two years as I have travelled the world and spoken to dozens of elite level athlete welfare programs, and I have been surprised by how many times organisations have told me;

“It’s just hard to get time with the athletes”
“We can’t get them to open emails”
“It’s hard to get them to think about anything else”

At the risk of pissing off some of my potential clients, the desire to always put themselves in the athlete’s shoes – to empathise with the performance expectations, the pressure, the time commitments – risks bordering on apathy, not empathy. However, many welfare programs are kept out of the broader athlete development discussion, where the development of the person is seen as separate to the development of the athlete…and this, in my opinion, is the problem.

As an elite-level coach, if we knew something was important for an athlete’s development, we put it in the program. If weights were important…it was in the program. If recovery was important… in the program. No questions asked, no half-measures or voluntary sessions.

This was particularly true in development programs or academies, so as to teach younger athletes the value of certain aspects of elite sport, to help them move the rock standing between them and their dreams. If they were 1 minute late, we stopped them participating in the session. If it happened more than once we reprimanded them. In this way we took the tough approach to teach them what we believed was in their best interests.

So whose responsibility is it?

Until welfare programs are afforded the same position in athlete development, and until sports show the same tough love in developing the person as well as the athletic asset, the athletes will not see the value in it. This is the rock that is crushing our athletes…the belief that performance alone is the only measure of their value, their identity!

This starts with the organisations taking the lead, followed by the coaches agreeing that it is important enough to put in their programs, communicated through the senior players to the next generation.

This is a cultural shift; a fundamental change in elite sport administration and coaching to manage a generational shift in the experiences of modern athletes.

Rugby league coach Wayne Bennett seems to be one of those coaches who has the knack of knowing when to empower his players and when to give them tough love. Image: ABC

Redefining Welfare Coaching

On a recent trip to the States and UCLA, I was asked by a staff member at the Athletic department, “What is a coach?”. I responded with an unpolished version of assisting people to become the best they could be, but it prompted a search for a more succinct and powerful response.

In famous NFL coach Tom Landry’s precise summation, I came across what I was looking for.

“A coach is someone who tells you what you don’t want to hear, and has you see what you don’t want to see, so that you can be what you’ve always known you can be.”

If holistic athlete development is about helping our athletes becoming better people as well as better athletes, then surely we need to show them that athlete welfare can do tough love just as well as performance coaching. We need to tell them what they don’t want to hear, and show them what they can’t see…distracted by the bright lights of the business of sport.

The hundreds of athletes around the world who have courageously shared their stories of transition and shone a light on the challenges facing athletes at all levels, have given us a choice.

As sporting organisations, coaches, parents and friends, we can empathise with them, or…we can help them discover all that they can be and we can help them move the rock!

Greg Mumm

Greg is the Managing Director of The Final Whistle. He spent 10 years as a professional rugby coach working at all levels from school to international level, including assisting Fiji at both the 2007 and 2011 Rugby World Cups. He co-founded CareerHQ with his father John, a career guidance platform which helps young men and women create their own unique and fulfilling career paths.

Interests: education, leadership, family, business, coaching, values facilitation, human behaviour, rugby.

First Article: February 2016

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