Athletes in Emotional and Challenging Moments

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We all have experienced the hard, emotional losses both as a coach and as a player. Your team may get blown out. They may have been upset by a “weaker” team. Or you may have come so close to knocking off a better team that you would rather have lost big!

Either way, losing hurts! Emotions run high and you can struggle with the right thing to say after a loss.

But it is in some of these moments that our athletes need us at our best as coaches! So, what is the most beneficial way to operate as a leader in these moments? Luckily, the experience of other great leaders and science can give us some guidance.

Leading with Vulnerability, Empathy, and Ownership

My first game wearing a South Carolina Gamecock uniform was a home game against one of the country’s top teams at the time—the University of Pittsburgh. We weren’t a ranked team and were most definitely not favored to win the game, but we were winning most of the game regardless—only to lose by a few points in the last couple of minutes of the game.

Now, I have some great memories of this day, but the most memorable is what happened in the locker room after the game. The mood was somber as we sat on stools in a circle, with the majority of the players hanging their heads. Players were disappointed that we had let a big win slip away. It was what you would expect a locker room to look like after a loss… until what happened next.

Now, just to give you some context, during my four years of playing high school basketball, every loss and mistake had been OUR fault, never the coaches’ fault. Failure to execute was due to our lack of discipline. Failure to give a good effort was because WE didn’t want it badly enough. And pretty much every loss was followed by an emotional beating about every one of our failures. So, on this day, I anticipated that would be exactly what Head Coach Dave Odom would do!

Instead, Coach Odom did something entirely different. The first thing I remember surprising me was his body language as he walked into the locker room. It didn’t communicate blame or anger, just disappointment—the same kind of disappointment we felt ourselves. Sitting there, you could feel his empathy and understanding for every player’s frustration.

And then he said to the team, “Fellas, a tough one today—I know it stings. Today’s loss is on me. You all played your hearts out, and our failure to execute late in the game was due to my failure to prepare you for this moment. I am going to do everything I can to make sure we don’t lose like that again and we are ready the next time that moment comes.”

It was moments like this one that kept our team moving forward through some high highs and some low lows during that 2005-2006 season. We beat the eventual National Champions—the Florida Gators—twice during conference play, but still only put together a 6-10 SEC record! And then we managed to win our last 9 out of 10 games that season, losing in the SEC tournament to Florida by two in the last few seconds, and then we went on to win the NIT Championship.

When I look back on that season, I know it was Coach Odom’s vulnerability, empathy, and ownership that kept the team going.

Connect and Redirect: Connecting the Left Brain and the Right Brain

Psychologically, Coach Odom  did something very smart in that moment and it is only recently that I have come to fully understand the benefits of the things he said—and didn’t say—the way he said them, and the order in which he said them.

As you well know, our brains are incredibly complex things. The left side of our brain desires order; it is rational and uses language. The right side of our brain is our emotional and nonverbal side, which communicates through body language. As Daniel Siegel says in The Whole-Brained Child, “The basic idea is that while the left brain is logical, linguistic, and literal, the right brain is emotional, nonverbal, experiential, and autobiographical—and it doesn’t care at all that these words don’t begin with the same letter.”

So, why does this matter? Well, in order to be happy and mentally healthy people, we need a well-integrated brain—essentially, a balance between the right and the left. So, when people are upset (right side), we need to connect with them emotionally (right side), before we can use logic and reason (left side).

Far too often in coaching—as well as in nearly every other conflict in life—we struggle to integrate the two. As coaches, we tend to be more left or right-brained. I know my tendency is to forego all emotion—let’s get straight to the solution! Other coaches may want to comfort and connect over the loss and struggle to move forward logically.

But Coach Odom didn’t just take ownership over our failure to execute—which is a CRITICAL leadership principle—but he connected with his team’s emotional side as well. Using his body language, posture, and facial expressions, he connected with his players by letting us know he was “attuned” to our emotions. We knew he cared! Then, when he did speak, the tone and language he used was understanding and vulnerable.

After he connected with us, he discussed the rational and logical steps forward. We needed to see this as an opportunity to grow and improve, and he modeled this by acknowledging it himself.  He did this all in just 1-2 minutes and that was all that needed to be said.

Relive It: The Power of the Story

In The Whole-Brained Child, Daniel Siegel discusses how storytelling allows us to understand ourselves and our world by bringing the left and right sides of our brains together.

After Coach Odom connected with us and hinted at the logical steps forward, it wasn’t until the next day that we relived the experience by talking it through. Coach Odom still owned the team’s failure to execute, but he started to break down the game film of what players could have done better. Emotions had settled, and now, we were able to see, think, and discuss clearly as a team what happened, why it happened, and how we could keep that type of breakdown from happening again.

When we relive the experience though storytelling, the left brain can put things in order, while the right brain can recall the emotions and memories of the experience. We need both sides working well and in tandem to fully understand our experience.

In previous articles and podcasts, I have discussed the importance of journaling and how to do this as a team. Siegel confirms in The Whole-Brained Child that the power behind journaling is its ability to help us heal, learn, and grow from our experiences because storytelling uses both the right and left sides of the brain. Therefore, when we journal, we are training integration.

5 Strategies to Lead Athletes in the Emotional Moments

  1. Listen, Ask Great Questions, and Use Warm Body Language.

  2. Be Vulnerable. Share your feelings and own them! Leaders need to own everything that happens to their team.

  3. After Action Review/Team Discussion:

    • What happened? What went well? What went poorly?

    • Why did these things happen?

    • What can we do to improve our weaknesses and sustain or grow our strengths?

  4. Journaling/Telling the Story:

    • Write down your fears. This alleviates concerns and helps improve performance.

    • Write down the things that went well. This helps retrain your thinking using positive psychology.

    • Write down 1-2 things you learned, 1-2 areas for growth, and 1-2 ways to take action. This helps you to see the opportunity for growth. It also trains a growth mindset and connects the emotional (senses and feelings of failure) to the rational and the logical (steps that must be taken to move forward).

  5. Reading or Hearing Stories. Share your stories, ask coaches to share their stories, and read the stories of other people who have overcome struggles. Studies show that reading or hearing stories help inspire and promote a growth mindset.

Call to Action

We need to be intentional about how we handle these moments. The hard part is that we can be just as emotional as our athletes—or sometimes, even worse!

So, we have to train our behaviors for these moments. Start small by implementing just one of the above strategies after your next game!

-J.P. Nerbun