Strength coaches have a somewhat notorious reputation for being lowercase “s” stoic, egocentric, and emotionally inflexible and in my personal experience, this stereotype is more accurate than not.  Despite many strength coaches caring deeply for their athletes, many have not fully embraced how powerful and meaningful a more empathetic approach to engagement can be for their relationships with their athletes.  

I had the privilege of listening to Mike Erwin speak several months ago.  Mike is the president of the Positivity Project, an organization founded on using positive psychology to influence how teachers and school psychologists assess at risk kids’ strengths as opposed to pathologizing their perceived weaknesses.  Mike’s presentation centered on how leaders can leverage the power of empathy to build stronger relationships and affect more sustainable behavior change and he broke down empathy into three distinct, but interrelated categories: cognitive, emotional, and compassionate (which has been done before, but less formally and systematically).  The concept is similar to how we as coaches view the different metabolic energy systems as individual, yet interdependent.  

The first, and in my opinion, most important type of empathy, cognitive empathy is the "largely conscious drive to recognize accurately and understand another’s emotional state,” or simply, “perspective taking.”  In “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman identifies that humans have two systems of cognition, the aptly named systems 1 and 2.  System 1 is made up of largely autonomic processes and is the path of least cognitive resistance and system 2 is made up of more effortful, conscious cognitive processes.  Once established, emotional empathy (which will be defined later), is more of a system 1 process in that it becomes more automatic with practice and conversely, cognitive empathy is a much more involved, system 2 process.   According to Hodges and Myers (2007), “cognitive empathy is intimately linked to development of a theory of mind, that is, understanding that someone else’s thoughts may differ from one’s own.”  Theory of mind is an “understanding of another person’s knowledge, beliefs, emotions and intentions and using that to navigate social situations.”  The development of theory of mind in childhood and adolescence is what allows us to develop relationships, resolve conflicts, and learn to understand that others’ perspectives may differ from our own.  As adolescents, if we are supported in the theory of mind journey by parents, teachers, and friends, we develop into more conscientious adults.  As many coaches know, strength and conditioning came to be as a support system for football performance enhancement.  The environment of football, then and now, was/is one in which repression of any emotion other than anger has been the standard and predictably, S&C took on a similar form.  This emotional repression has led to strength coaches who have left theory of mind behind in a misguided quest to establish a “culture,” usually at the behest of an even more misguided head football coach.  

The second and far more common type of empathy is emotional empathy.  Emotional empathy is the stereotypical, social media-propagated form of empathy; the kind of empathy that, when expressed, is often associated with social aid programs and social justice movements.  Emotional empathy has also been referred to as affective or primitive empathy; affect being a synonym for disposition and primitive speaks for itself.  Emotional empathy is summed up nicely by NYU psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his book, “The Happiness Hypothesis,” where he equates the relationship between emotion and reason with an elephant and a rider; emotions being the elephant and reason being the rider (clever alliteration should make it easy to remember).  Emotions, and emotional empathy, left unchecked are like an elephant that is leading its rider, and reason alone is far too conservative of a rider to get to a destination in an efficient manner.  Together, emotion and reason, make a strong foundation for leadership and decision-making.  As coaches, allowing our affect to guide our decision-making will make us susceptible to manipulation by our athletes, so balancing emotional empathy will savvy reasoning allow us to connect with our athletes more effectively on an emotional level while still protecting ourselves from being taken advantage of.  

The third type of empathy is both a subset and combination of emotional and cognitive empathy and is called compassionate empathy.  Compassionate empathy is what results from evaluating someone’s situation or experience cognitively and through our rational lens, then associating how that experience or situation would make us feel, assuming we have similar experiences from which to draw.  If we have not had similar experiences, it is our responsibility as leaders to gather as much information as possible from our athletes to learn about their experiences, while simultaneously keeping the rider’s reigns of reason close.  Psychologist Mark Berg says compassionate empathy is “built on the skill of sharing honestly with another person,” and “allows behaviors that allow profound feelings of connection to another person, without danger to one’s own emotional balance because the compassion applies to oneself and others.”  This is a remarkable description when associated with an experience in mind of similar experiences.  Connecting with someone emotionally who you may not share a common experience with is difficult and effortful, but ultimately builds bi-directional trust between you and your athlete(s).  The effort made by the coach will demonstrate trust and respect for the athlete while simultaneously earning trust and respect from the athlete and this deeper, more symbiotic relationship is the foundation of empathetic leadership.  

Each form of empathy is important when developing greater emotional intelligence, both as a coach and as a human being.  Understanding all three and how to access them in a coaching context can be powerful tools in coaches’ ability to build stronger and more sustainable relationships with their athletes, while helping them develop more effective stress-management skills.  Honesty underpins trust and trust underpins relationships so if we as coaches are more honest with ourselves, we can be more honest with our athletes and as a result they will be more honest with us and this intersection of honesty, reason, and emotion makes us more effective leaders.

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