Communicating with Empathy and Constructiveness During the Pandemic (Valuing)

It doesn’t take an expert psychologist to figure out that the stressors of the pandemic are creating a negative impact on people’s mental health. Nevertheless, the evidence is there; people are struggling not only with the stress of the Covid pandemic but also the restrictions that have been put in place to protect us from the virus. Obviously, this has extended into our sporting contexts, as restrictions affect our ability to form teams, practice, and play games.

In my sporting context, this is compounded by the jobs that my officials hold simultaneously with their athletic pursuits. Of our seven NextGen officials, four work in education, healthcare, or law enforcement; two work in retail; the other is a full-time first-year undergraduate student. So all of these young women are following their training plans, they are working with me via Zoom, and they are holding the stresses of their full-time responsibilities. I want to praise them for being resilient but I also dislike how resilience has become a buzzword in our society that prioritizes “pushing through” over actually making changes to support people. Nevertheless, they have shown strength and dedication and I am proud of them for that.

Despite this strength, there have been moments of challenge. Recently, one of our athletes, Lisa*, approached me with a problem. Lisa was feeling that another one of our athletes was not conducting herself appropriately in their athletes-only group chat. The purpose of the group chat, which the athletes set up on their own, is to provide a platform for them to stay in touch with each other and share life updates, successes, and challenges. Lisa didn’t say which of her teammates she was talking about but from the particulars of the story, it was easy for me to infer who was causing the issue.

Michelle* works in law enforcement and although this has been her goal for a while, she’s been in the job for two years and it’s not what she was expecting. She frequently talks to me about her options as far as re-focusing her career but feels stuck in her present situation. On top of that, her job has obviously become a lot more stressful during the pandemic. As Lisa* shared with me, the unnamed individual was clearly experiencing a lot of stress at work but was taking it out in the group chat. This is how I knew she was talking about Michelle. Instead of interacting with her teammates, she was dumping her work stress into the group chat in the form of “overwhelming negativity” (Lisa’s words). Additionally, some of the experiences that Michelle is sharing run the risk of violating privacy and professional standards and Lisa is worried that this could get Michelle in trouble professionally. Moreover, Lisa is now avoiding the group chat (turning off notifications, going days without checking it) because it was becoming a source of stress, rather than a mechanism for positive connection with her teammates.

Lisa’s question was simple but not easy to address: “how do I communicate that I support and care about my teammate while also expressing that I find her way of expressing it really detrimental to my experience in our team environment?” Michelle looks to Lisa as both a friend and a colleague and Lisa doesn’t want to damage that relationship but she also knows she needs to save the relationship. Lisa also knows that I look to her as a leader within the group and feels some responsibility to address this issue before it becomes a greater issue.

When Lisa shared this dilemma with me, she was very clear that she wanted to handle it herself. This was an athlete-to-athlete issue within the athlete-only group chat and she wanted to keep it that way. So, as we chatted, I provided her with two possible avenues or pieces of advice.

My first piece of advice was for Lisa to be self-centred. I felt like Lisa’s best chance of addressing this conflict was to speak in self-first language to prevent Michelle from feeling attacked or judged. Moreover, Lisa indicated that she was perfectly willing to have Michelle share her frustrations and be a pillar for Michelle to lean on but perhaps in a more constructive way.

So rather than approaching from a “you shouldn’t be doing this” perspective, which is valid but likely unhelpful, I recommended that Lisa bring in language that centred her own experience. If Lisa can help Michelle see that Lisa is also struggling and looking to the group chat as a place of distraction and positivity, that will give Michelle a positive reason to change and re-orient her behaviour.

For example:

    1. I recognize that you are in a really stressful situation because of the pandemic.
    2. I value our relationship and want to remain close, including being there to support you during this time.
    3. I’m finding that when you share frustrations related to your job, they often coincide with when I am also feeling frustration and looking to be distracted. So seeing it in the group chat can really bring me down when I’m already feeling frustrated or discouraged.
    4. With that in mind, I am happy to be a pillar and support you. Could we arrange for a weekly call when we can vent about our frustrations? Or could you text me directly when you need to vent, rather than putting it in the group chat?

I suspected that Michelle wasn’t truly aware of the extent to which she was dumping her negative emotions into the group chat. If that was true, this approach would provide Michelle with an “easy out” where she could modify her behaviour without having to admit that she was wrong in the first place.

However, I also recognized that the first part may not achieve the desired result and it’s always good to have a backup plan. Fortunately, back in October, we spent a great deal of time building an athlete agreement for this exact situation. As I wrote about in a previous post, I set aside a chunk of our precious and expensive centralization time for the athlete agreement because I wanted to accomplish four key goals:

    • Clarify and commit to group values
    • Express those values in terms concrete behaviours
    • Provide a basis for communication and resolution of conflict throughout the season
    • Create a document to ground the program as athlete-centred and guided by values, rather than rules, as detailed in my coaching philosophy

Rather than a traditional athlete agreement, this was more about providing mutually agreed-upon framework for the operation of the program and the athlete’s interactions with both the coaching staff and their teammates. Not only did everyone agree to the four fundamental values but Michelle was one of the ones who brought forward the values of teamwork and constructiveness.

The four fundamental values of the program, as recommended by the athletes, and detailed by the athlete agreement.

With that in mind, the athlete agreement would provide Lisa with a backup. This was something that they had agreed to, not something that had been imposed upon them. I didn’t expect Michelle to push back against Lisa but if so, there was something more concrete, a specific set of values to which all members of the group were equally accountable.

Throughout this process, I was impressed with Lisa for keeping the values of the agreement at the forefront of her own thought processes. She was committed to maintaining a positive environment, which would allow all members of the group to grow their passion, and was prepared to hold both herself and her teammates accountable to prioritizing teamwork above all else. More than anything, Michelle was violating one of the values but not out of a lack of care but out of deep-seated frustration with a situation over which she has no control. Something with which we can all empathize and hopefully, move forward from.



*Not their real names

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