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

Valuing: My Coaching Philosophy

The concept of establishing values and practicing those values has always been central to my education as both a teacher and a coach. As a result, I have spent a great deal of time considering what my values are and how they apply to my practice. Moreover, my coaching career has centred around building programs, both at the grassroots and high performance level. Therefore, the ability to articulate values and achieve buy-in from athletes, colleagues, and other stakeholders has been critical to my success.

Although I am satisfied with my coaching philosophy in its present form, I am aware that philosophy is an evolving set of ideas and I am interested to see how it changes through my time in this program. I will also be interested in seeing if my philosophy shifts as my athletes target a more elite level of performance. I don’t anticipate a change in my core values but I am interested to see if some of the more specific behaviours or leadership styles outlined in my philosophy shift or change based on my coaching context. In terms of a more specific outcome, one of my goals in this program is to position myself as an expert and serve the sport as a leader via coach education and program development. So part one way in which I can measure the success of my philosophy will be whether I can model the way for others in responsible and ethical coaching practices that align with their personal values.

In terms of evidence, the following is a document, which I frequently annotate and update. This is the document from which I draw and adapt pertinent points to use in presentations with athletes, prospective athletes, colleagues, and other stakeholders. It is based on the NCCP template of coaching philosophy as an intersection of purpose, leadership style, and values.



This coaching philosophy is a representation of what guides my decisions both inside and outside of the coaching realm. I share my philosophy with all of my athletes, colleagues, and stakeholders and my experiences with these individuals continue to shape my philosophy. My purpose, my leadership style, and my values each contribute to the philosophy that guides my coaching.


My purpose in coaching is to partner with people to build themselves and their communities into something greater. This is not simply my purpose in coaching, it is my purpose in life. It guides my interactions with my athletes, my students, my colleagues, and the people in my community. My success in achieving my purpose can will be measured according to the following three criteria:

          1. Of the athletes that I coach, how many of them did I help to achieve success at the level they targeted for themselves?
          2. Of the athletes and participants that I coach, how many of them continued to be involved in the sport in an Active for Life context after their progression was complete?
          3. Of the athletes and participants that I coach, how many of them have taken positive experiences from the sport and used those experiences and skills to achieve success in other areas of life?

Leadership Style

My leadership style centers around the NCCP core leadership practices of “inspiring a shared vision” by “modeling the way”, which “enables [the athletes I coach] to act”. The reason for this is simple: our program operates in a similar manner to most provincial or national teams. Our athletes spend the majority of the year spread out across the province. So, although they are following detailed training and competition schedules, it is impossible for me to monitor the minutiae of their lives. Therefore, our success depends on my athletes’ belief in our shared vision. In order to inspire that belief, they need to trust my values and that I have their best interests at heart by walking the talk. This in turn, allows my athletes to feel equipped and empowered to communicate with me honestly and to act in their own best interests on a day-to-day basis. It is through this formula that we will achieve success.

My Values

My personal values align closely with the NCCP core principles and ethical standards of behaviour. I believe that the ultimate purpose of sport is to contribute to the mental and physical well-being and the ultimate success of the individual on their chosen path. Moreover, athletes and coaching must be ambassadors for the sport in their behaviour both in and outside of the sporting context. If sport is not contributing to those outcomes in the athletes that I coach or our behaviour is not worthy of ambassadorship on behalf of the sport, then I have failed in my responsibilities. As long as I am prioritizing the safety and health of the athletes, understanding and respecting the authority that comes with my role as a coach, conducting my relationships with the utmost integrity and transparency, and treating both athletes and the sport with the utmost respect and inspiring that respect in them, I will be a successful and ethical coach.

My Philosophy

My coaching philosophy is built on six pillars, each of which support my mission statement. This philosophy guides every interaction with my athletes, colleagues, and stakeholders. I encourage these individuals to speak up when they feel that I have made a decision that does not align with this philosophy. My philosophy is expressed through the following six statements:

My coaching is inclusive. There is nothing more important in sport than the person within the athlete. My coaching environment is inclusive for athletes, regardless of their race, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, or gender identity. An athlete cannot be successful if they do not understand that they are safe in my coaching environment.

My coaching is athlete-centred. Every decision is made by placing the outcomes that will affect the athlete at the centre of the decision-making process. This includes decisions regarding my personal development or the development of the program at large. If an outcome that is best for the program or for me personally but is incongruous with the best interests of the athlete, then the decision and the parameters therein must be re-examined.

My coaching matches the athlete’s passion. While it is my responsibility to inspire a shared vision with my athletes, I cannot create passion for the sport or motivation to succeed. I can only show them the path for them to act on their passion and achieve success. For my own well-being as well as the overall success of our program, I cannot be more invested in an athlete’s success than they are themselves. However, I am committed to maintaining an inclusive environment for athletes at different stages of their long-term development and will always match their passion.

My coaching prioritizes values over rules. I value sport because it contributes to the ultimate success of the person in their chosen endeavours. My coaching decisions and interactions reflect that value. I do not want to train athletes to follow my instructions because I said so. I want to teach athletes to identify their own values and buy in to the collective values of the program and regulate their own behaviour accordingly.

My coaching walks the talk. In my interactions with athletes, colleagues and stakeholders, it is crucial that I never ask them to do something that I would not do myself. If I am asking for their patience, it is because I have demonstrated patience. If I am asking for their perseverance, it is because I have persevered in service of their success. I am confident in my ability to elicit peak performance if the athletes understand that I am working just as hard to facilitate their success as they are working to achieve it.

My coaching is driven by life-long learning. In the same way that sport requires an athlete to push themselves to improve, coaches must continue to improve. If I am to “walk the talk” and be the resource that pushes my athletes to success, I must continue to learn and improve my coaching practice throughout my career. As soon as I allow my own development to stagnate, it’s only a matter of time before I am no longer a useful resource for the athletes that I coach.