Keep'er Fit

Gary Wallace

Coach with empathy, live by empathy

Over the years my own coaching style has changed dramatically and one word which has shaped how I coach, and more importantly live my life is empathy.

In times like this I turn to good old Wikipedia for a definition. It defines empathy as ‘the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference, that is, the capacity to place oneself in another’s position’.

When I look back to when I first started coaching, I was in college and thought I was brilliant at coaching. I knew I had a lot to learn but I thought that everyone was on the same wavelength as myself. So when they didn’t understand a drill or didn’t have the same passion as me when it came to sport, at times I couldn’t understand why.


As I matured in years and with more coaching experience, I began to understand that not everyone is built the same and more importantly everything I said and did, wasn’t taken the same way by everyone.

Even though I didn’t understand the word empathy at the time, this was my first encounter of it. It wasn’t until I reflected on my own coaching and actions that I could really help the people I was working with. In other words, rather than blaming them I took a different approach and asked is there was anything I could do differently to make both their and my own experience better.

In the book InSideOut Coaching – which is all about how sport can transform lives – there is a chapter dedicated to empathy. One line stuck out for me: ‘Once you have empathy for yourself, you are then able to be empathetic toward others’. It’s a very powerful statement and something that has taken me a long time to realise.

Through my own life experiences and coming through some difficult times, it has helped me to be empathetic towards myself.

It’s not a case of laying blame at other things or people or covering problems up, but realising and exploring with an open mind that there may be other reasons as to why you are feeling a certain way or where your life has taken you thus far.

Once I was able to do this, then it took my own coaching and especially coach educating to the next level. In a number of coach and life-skills workshops which I host, I use a slide with a load of different words on it like patience, experience, fun, enjoyment, knowledge, empathy etc.

I ask the participants to pick the word that is most relevant to their coaching or life. Of course I pick empathy and it starts some really interesting questions about the people we work or live with in terms of relationships, ability, attitude, commitment etc.


For example, in a sporting context some coaches may say that the parents never get involved with any of our youth programmes – they blame them for not getting involved. The first thing I say is never assume that the parents think they have the ability or know how they can help.

The next step is to explore ideas to help attract them into your club. The final thing is to be empathetic towards them. Maybe they are a single parent and have other kids at home or this is the only hour they get during the week to themselves.

I don’t want this to sound like ‘Disneyland’ where we are all best friends with each other, but what I am saying, is try to step back from blame, and any other negative emotion you are feeling, to really consider and ask how people are feeling.

The same can be said about your actions and how they affect other people. I have been guilty of this a few times on the pitch where maybe I let my emotions run too high and said or did things that were out of character. But I did pride myself after the heat of the battle in making sure I respected each and every opponent, coaching staff and supporter after each game.

Could I have been more empathetic on the pitch. Of course I could and it is something I would like to help young players with.

Again I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be competitive and go out to win. The teams I coach I want them to be warriors, to respect, but don’t fear and win.

More importantly I want to help develop men and women along the way who use sport to enhance their own positive morals.

Can we use sport to explore our emotions and move away from stigmas? Can we use sport to understand, help, guide and support how people are feeling? Sport is a powerful tool. It can be used for both good and bad, but let’s make it as positive as we can.

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