Emotional intelligence and sport

I’ve been reading about emotional intelligence in sports organizations, not just because that’s an area I’m interested in as a sports coach but also because I think there are a lot of similarities between sport and performance roles like sales (my day job).

Emotional intelligence has been defined as the ability:

  • to perceive accurately, appraise and express emotion
  • to access and/or generate feelings when they facilitate thought
  • to understand emotion and emotion knowledge
  • to regulate emotions to promote emotional and intellectual growth

 I have added the italics to emphasize the bits I think are most important. This definition contains a hierarchy that progresses from a basic skill to a highly developed psychological process i.e.

  • perception, appraisal and expression of emotion – most of us can do that to lesser or greater degrees
  • emotional facilitation of thinking – and the consequences of the opposite of that
  • understanding and analysing emotion and using emotional knowledge
  • reflective regulation of emotion to promote emotional and intellectual growth

It is this last one that I think is most difficult and also the thing that I believe is one of the main reasons why learning through reflection is so effective.

So let’s look at the four skills in turn.


How do you know someone is upset? Some of us are better at this than others. I was in a meeting recently where I was sharing some news with people that I knew might upset them (a change to their bonus payment criteria). I asked them to tell me how they felt about the change honestly. They did express some concerns and I felt I dealt with them openly and tactfully. However, after the meeting another person in the room (the team’s manager) told me she had read the body language of the individuals differently. She felt they were much more upset than I had perceived. She went back to the group, without me, discussed the news again and got a much more open expression of upset and hurt from the individuals in the room. My asking for openness and freedom of expression did not seem to permit the people to express what they really felt. This ability to read ‘false’ expression of emotion is one of the key tests of emotional intelligence and is actually used by the researchers I read to generate a score for emotional knowledge perception (it’s called the Mayer-Salovey-Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test(MSCEIT)) and in this case it’s pretty clear I fell a bit short in comparison with my colleague. I now have a desire to improve my skills in emotion perception and will develop a plan to do that.

Processing and comprehension

The second emotion ability is to do with processing emotional information. In the sports organization in the study I read (by the way I think it was UK Cycling; they’re quite good!) the most cited dimension of this was the ability to understand the other person’s emotional investment in a given situation. This was illustrated by this quote from a national manager in the organization being studied:

Some people you can read like a book when they are happy or sad or aren’t motivated, but others you need to build up an understanding over time. At the same time you can’t always use the same approach with every person. Someone who is upset one time, might not react the same way to your attempts at discussing ‘the bigger picture’ when they are upset at another time. You need to be constantly checking for how they react to what you are (or aren’t) saying.

Cripes, he could have been talking about my experience above!

If this seems like hard work, well it just is! The researchers call it ‘emotional work’ and we all do it to some extent. What I took from this was the realization that yes, it is hard but by being mindful of it, I can make better decisions about whether and how to do that work. If I’m not mindful of it I can’t make those choices. Reflection is the best way I have found to help me be more mindful of other people’s emotional investment and I can honestly say that I have got much better at this over the last couple of years, at work and in my personal life.

Management of emotional expression in self and others

This was the most cited dimension in the study and there were four main behavioural factors involved:

  • avoiding acting on impulse
  • influencing others by emotional expression
  • manipulating others’ emotions
  • masking emotions

The people in the study talked about two ways they regulated their behaviour:

  • emotional regulation (i.e. managing their feelings). In this case the most useful behaviour was sitting down with someone with whom you weren’t seeing eye-to-eye and working out a win-win situation for both parties. When you work through to a win-win situation the relationship becomes stronger and both parties feel better.
  • experience regulation. The most common ‘tools’ here was forward tracking (working through ‘what ifs’), back tracking (making sense of the situation) and trying to feel emotions you think you should.

Forward-tracking allowed people to process their emotional experience or thoughts before they had to play them out ‘for real’. It helped them consider and become more aware of other people’s emotional investment in a situation. It didn’t necessarily change their thoughts but it did help them change their behaviour. In particular, the people in the study talked about restructuring their thoughts to focus more on positive things (there’s a good example of this in the Goleman paper I posted last week).

For expression regulation the most commonly cited themes were not acting on impulse, expressing an emotion you think you should, and withholding emotions. The main point here was individuals becoming more mindful of the impact their emotional expression can have on others. By not acting on impulse people gave themselves time to consider both sides of a story or to get more information about the situation to better understand it. Withholding emotions also helped relationships sometimes but the authors warned against doing this too often and over an extended period of time. In fact, they cited some research which showed that some people who had undergone training in emotional intelligence actually expressed more negative thoughts and feelings but that their sense of well-being still improved. The inference being that the training helped them deal with those emotions more proactively rather then burying them and allowing them to ‘fester’. I have to say this is not something I would have bought into until quite recently but I have seen how people can feel much less defensive about their ‘deficiencies’ when they have been allowed to recognize and celebrate their strengths.

Finally, the researchers designed an intervention to explore whether emotional intelligence can be taught. They devised a training intervention that included workshops, seminars, and longer term coaching using reflective writing. They found that while the workshops and seminars were deemed as useful by the participants only those who engaged in the longer term coaching and writing actually improved their MSCEIT scores. I know I can be a bit boring about coaching and reflective writing but this folks, is quantitative evidence of its value…

Rugby and life skills

Why do you bring your child to rugby? It can hurt. Bones get broken. You’ll wipe tears and snot. You’ll spend countless hours standing in the cold and wet, never mind driving to all corners of the county on a Sunday morning when you could be having a lie-in, reading the papers. Then there’s the cost of kit and the mud all over your bathroom.

These quotes from a young man and his Dad might help explain some of it. Steve (not his real name), a clever but challenging 16-year-old, wrote this to a coach:

I could never describe the meaning and influence you have had on my life and the rest of the lads’ lives. It goes far beyond the realms of the sporting arena. True, you have developed some excellent players in the time you have coached us, however it would be just as if not more justified to say that you have developed the lads’ characters just as much.


This exemplifies to me my whole point of it being more than [sport] that you coached us on. And in no way to make this melodramatic, it was the making of me.

His Dad, wrote:

What’s to say? I could never have imagined, at the start of this, the journey we would travel. What you have done for, and with, [Steve] will be with him, and me, forever. He completely gets the difference you have made for him.

I’ve asked the question ‘why do you bring your child to rugby?’ to a lot of parents and many of them have told me about the life skills they believe rugby can help foster in young people. Skills like teamwork, leadership, and communication all get mentioned but the one I’m choosing to focus on is self-confidence.

Self-confidence has been consistently shown to correlate with successful performance in many areas of life. Back in the 70s and 80s, the eminent psychologist Albert Bandura developed a theory of self-confidence. Among a whole range of experiments Bandura and colleagues showed that confident individuals remain persistent when faced with adversity by focusing on the process of what they do (e.g. getting better at passing), whereas less-confident individuals are more likely to blame their own inadequacies and give up. Martin Seligman, a former President of the American Psychological Association, developed the concept of ‘attributional style’ to explain how optimism or pessimism can develop in individuals in situations where they experience adversity. Attributional style is what we tell ourselves when things happen to us. Individuals exhibiting a pessimistic style can believe that the adversity is:

  • Permanent for example ‘I’m never going to kick a goal’
  • Pervasive: e.g. ‘I’m rubbish at all sports, I’m just not athletic at all’
  • Personalg. ‘It’s my fault we lost, I can’t play this sport’

Whereas optimistic thinking tends to treat adversity as:

  • Temporaryg. ‘OK, I missed that one but if I keep trying I might get one’
  • Specificg. ‘I’m a bit small for a forward but perhaps I can play well in another position
  • Impersonalg. ‘Yeah, we lost, but we didn’t play well as a team’.

Seligman and his colleagues went on to show that

  • optimism and pessimism is a learned trait and dependent on the social environment;
  • that parents (especially mothers) and teachers have the most influence on attributional style
  • that an optimistic style helps us be persistent, resilient, and means we’re more likely to remain positive in the face of adversity.

Other research also shows that coaches have the most influence on the experience and learning that a child undergoes when participating in sport (Smoll & Smith, 1993). In preliminary research for this intervention I interviewed a number of young rugby players, their parents, coaches, and a teacher to try to identify behavioural traits that they hoped might be enhanced by participation in youth rugby union. The decision to focus on optimism as the focus of this intervention is influenced by the relatively robust literature linking optimism to self-esteem, self-efficacy, persistence, and resilience – all traits and behaviours that were valued by participants, parents, and coaches in my preliminary research. Also, the literature suggests that optimism is a learned trait that can be influenced by parents and teachers (and coaches), thus providing a potentially valuable outcome from an approach to coaching designed to foster and optimistic worldview in young people.

My coaching philosophy and style is intended to help kids develop self-confidence (among other things). I have had to learn to think differently in order to maintain this style (and not always successfully!) – and unlearn a lot of thinking and behaviours that really did not fit with that intention. Steve, his Dad and I think coaches can help our kids become more self-confident, not just at rugby, but in other areas of their life as well. But there’s very little properly-researched evidence to support that view and even less on how best to try to do it. The research I’m engaged in is aimed at creating evidence to support that ‘common-sense’ point of view and also to establish ways of helping coaches and parents do it more effectively. I could use your help. Let me know if you’re interested: the_peels@me.com.

Servant leadership in sports coaching

The day before the start of a new season is always a good time to reflect on what we might do differently. This is my summary of a paper on the concept of servant leadership; an approach to coaching adapted from management research.

The paper is: Rieke, M., Hammersteiner, J. and Chase, M. (2008) Servant leadership in Sport: A New Paradigm for Effective Coach Behaviour. International Journal of Sports Science and Coaching. 3(2). 227-239

The concept of ‘servant leadership’ was developed by Robert Greenleaf in the late-70s. The concept challenges the traditional hierarchical and autocratic models of leadership and advocates a newer one based on teamwork and community, joint decision-making, ethical and caring behaviour, and a focus on personal development. This paper examines how coaches who were perceived by their players as having ‘servant leader’ characteristics impacted on the players’ perceptions of their own mental skills, motivation, satisfaction, and performance. It’s an important paper as it is the first (and possibly only) one that takes a rigourous statistical approach to these issues.

Servant-leader coaches put their players’ needs, aspirations and interests above their own. Their first motive is to serve rather than lead. In a servant leader environment, players are given clear job descriptions and the role of the coach is to help the players fulfil those roles. This is not anarchy, players are responsible for executing their roles effectively and if they don’t, sanctions will be applied. The end result, theoretically, is an environment where relationships are cultivated, everyone is valued, standards are upheld, and performance enhanced.

The authors have developed what they claim is a mathematically sound model of servant leadership that measures a number of dimensions: power and pride, serving others, empowering and developing others, participatory leadership, courageous leadership, inspiring leadership and visionary leadership.

The study involved 195 basketball players aged 15-19 who attended a summer camp at Washington University. They took a number of psychometric tests that measured levels of intrinsic motivation, satisfaction, task and ego orientation, use of mental skills (e.g. mental toughness), and perceptions of performance.

Servant leader coaches, i.e. those who emphasize trust/inclusivity, humility, and a service orientation enhanced the satisfaction of their players. The players who perceived their coaches as being servant leaders felt better treated and that they got better coaching and instruction.

Servant leader coaches produced athletes with more intrinsic motivation. These athletes are more likely to feel inspired and empowered and therefore achieve higher levels of motivation. The authors suggest coaches who were more encouraging and who provided constructive feedback following poor performances produced players who felt more successful and competent, preferred to be challenged, demonstrated more effort, and who greatly enjoyed their sport experience.

Many coaches believe that an autocratic coaching style is a necessity in order to instil mental toughness and promote the growth of mental skills in their athletes. This study suggests otherwise and that the ‘keys’ to promoting mental toughness lie in the coach’s ability to produce an environment which emphasizes trust and inclusion, humility and service. This results are congruent with another study by one of the authors that suggested the servant leadership style of coaching produced players who were better able to cope with adversity, were more coachable, concentrated better, handled pressure better, and were freer from worry than athletes with non-servant leader style coaches.

The results also showed a correlation between servant leadership and performance. There was a significant positive correlation between the trust/inclusion measure and the service measure with the athletes’ perception of team performance and in actual seasonal wins. There was also a significant negative correlation between trust/inclusion and the number of losses. These results show, quite simply, that servant leader coaches in this sample win more games than non-servant leaders. This is the first peer-reviewed statistical confirmation of this effect.

The authors suggest these findings should act as a reassurance for coaches to continue to ‘do the right thing’. They quote Stoll and Beller:

We must reconsider how the win-at-all-costs attitude that permeates virtually every aspect of our athletic programs affects the moral character and development of participants. While teaching the will to win does not have to be eliminated, coaches…must re-evaluate their philosophy regarding the importance of winning as it relates to character development, particularly when the participants are children and young adults.

The servant leader coaches in this study were also the most successful suggesting that ‘winning at all costs’ behaviours are not necessary, nor desirable, for winning outcomes. Coaches who emphasized trust/inclusion, humility and service are more likely to help their teams win.

Finally, the results showed that players preferred coaches who scored higher on the trust/inclusion and service measures. The authors suggest coaches should foster an environment of trust inclusion and service and that these results were congruent with the thoughts of Westre who suggests that modern athletes are no longer satisfied with autocratic leadership and top-down hierarchical structures. Modern athletes want coaches who seek their input regarding decisions related to the team, provide positive feedback and recognition, exhibit sincere sensitivity to the needs of the athletes both in and out of the sport, and generally demonstrate a people-centred attitude.

In summary then, the results suggest that players who perceive their coach to be a ‘servant leader’ also display higher intrinsic motivation, are more satisfied with their sport experience, are mentally tougher, and seem to perform better.


Stoll, S. and Beller, J., Do Sports Build Character? In: Gerdy, J. ed., Sports in School: The Future of an Institution, Teachers College Press, New York, 2000, 18-31.

Westre, K.R., Servant Leadership in Sport, Unpublished Doctoral Dissertation, Gonzaga University, 2003.

Treating young rugby players equally benefits everyone

Treating all players equally benefits everyone


One of the most hotly-debated topics in youth team sports coaching is whether coaches should select teams based on ability or whether every player should be given an equal opportunity to play and develop their skills. Pressure to select winning teams comes from players, parents, other coaches and from a coach’s own competitive instincts. This is, after all, a sport and winning is a key element in sporting success. The RFU’s equity policy states that everyone in the game must be offered equality of opportunity regardless of race, gender, age or ability. The first three potential prejudices are rather obvious but the latter one often gets overlooked, especially in the heat of competition.

What is often not discussed in these mandated policies is the growing evidence from coaching science research that suggests equality of opportunity for all abilities benefits the more able as well as the less able. This article will present some of the established evidence in the hope that you might use them to inform your coaching and team selection.

Team cohesion

In a study of rugby coaching, Boardley, Kavussanu and Ring (2008) showed that players commitment, effort, enjoyment, self-motivation and sense of fair play were directly related to their coaches’ ability to influence the psychological skills of their players, provide effective instructional feedback, develop effective game plans and focus on the personal growth of their players. One of the key benefits of effective coaching was improved team cohesion resulting in more effort and player enjoyment. It could be argued that if some members of the team feel they are being treated differently from others, regardless of their personal performance, team cohesion may be impacted with consequent effects on effort and enjoyment. Other studies have shown that team cohesion is higher in teams with coaches who exhibit high levels of democratic and delegative decision styles (Carron, Eys, and Burke, 2007).

MotivationCoaches are critical in creating the right motivational climate for their players. Psychologists identify two types of motivation: task-oriented (sometimes called mastery-motivated) and ego-oriented.

A task-oriented climate shows the following characteristics (Smith and Smoll, 2007):

  • The perception of ability is owned by the player not the coach or the parent
  • Success is measured by skill improvement
  • Irrespective of perceived ability these players will work harder at improving their skills
  • More effort is given by all players
  • Players show greater persistence and try harder
  • Teams perform to their potential more consistently
  • Teams are continually working on their game

In an ego-oriented climate success is judged by external measures e.g. winning or being better than another player. This may not be a problem if the player or the team is ALWAYS winning or is ALWAYS better than everyone but that is unrealistic. Consequently when an ego-oriented player’s ‘superiority’ is challenged the following negative effects are more likely:

  • The player begins to question their ability
  • They hold back effort – self-handicapping
  • Anxiety increases
  • Player drops out

The work of Frank Smoll and Ron Smith has shown that task-oriented coaches create

  • Greater enjoyment and satisfaction
  • A belief that effort is an important cause of success
  • Perceptions of more positive and instructional support
  • Better intra-team relationships

While their players and teams exhibit:

  • improved self-ratings of performance and improvement
  • better adaptability, lower burn out
  • higher levels of cohesion
  • a greater work ethic
  • positive moral functioning e.g. less cheating
  • less self-handicapping and making excuses before a game

Ego-oriented coaches create

  • Higher anxiety and performance related worry
  • Belief that ability is an important determinant of achievement
  • Drop out
  • Comparison of self with others
  • Greater self-handicapping
  • Less moral reasoning, more cheating

Player motivation is also affected by the players’ self-esteem. In another study (Smoll et al 1993) coaches were encouraged to focus on behaviours that promote self-esteem, including:

  • verbal and non-verbal encouragement of good play
  • instruction following a mistake
  • encouraging effort over winning
  • separating their teams sense of self-worth from their win-loss record
  • rewarding persistence
  • involving the players in team rules
  • developing their own self-awareness through self-monitoring and individual feedback

The study went on to show that coaches trained in this way had the following effects:

players viewed their coaches more positively

  • there was better team spirit
  • there was increased self-esteem with the biggest increases in initially low-self-esteem children
  • more enjoyment
  • all players liked their coach and teammates more
  • there was lower performance anxiety
  • there was lower drop out – down from 30% to 5%
  • importantly there was no difference in win-loss percentages compared with the control group who did not receive the training

Recruitment and retention

In a study of young swimmers Fraser-Thomas, Côté and Deakin (2008) showed that dropout rates were higher in swimmers who:

  • Were engaged in fewer extra-curricular activities i.e. they over-focused on swimming
  • Did more rigourous swim training as opposed to swim play
  • Received less one-to-one coaching

Dropouts tended to reach developmental milestones such as club first teams, representative squads, high level training camps, before the swimmers who remained in the sport. Dropouts tended to have parents who had also been committed athletes, were more likely to have been the youngest in their training group, and were less likely to have a best friend at swimming. In summary, early success often led to burnout caused by pressure to train and compete from coaches and parents.

At my club there are two key points at which drop out from mini and midi rugby occurs:

  • When contact is introduced. Currently this is at under-9. Nationally drop out rates run at 40% at this stage
  • At under-13

The reasons for the increase in attrition at under-13 are complex and include players beginning to specialise in fewer sports and increased workloads at secondary school. Historically at my club we have experienced higher rates of attrition among players from independent schools. This has led to some dramatic reversals in performance for some age groups with a large proportion of independent school players in the ‘first’ team. Teams that have been undefeated county champions one year have been at the bottom of the county league tables the next.

Players under the age of 13 at independent schools benefit from playing more rugby at school, often with better trained and more experienced rugby coaches, and by playing with more able players. As a result these players are often the core of any successful club first team. So it becomes a circular process, the better players get even better because they get to play more, the less-able play less and don’t develop their skills. Then, come the under-13 season, a significant proportion of the better players no longer play for the club and the age group is left with the less-able, less-experienced players whose skills and playing time have been neglected in the previous seasons. While this is anecdotal evidence, it is seen so often in this and other clubs as to be recognized as a real and problematic trend.

A personal view

I have been coaching junior rugby now for 10 years both at Wallingford and at the county school of rugby. I came across a lot of the research evidence cited above while studying for a Masters degree in sports coaching at Loughborough. I wasn’t looking for these issues specifically and indeed equity in coaching was not a specific part of the curriculum. However, for a number of reasons the findings I came across caused me to question my own practice.

Over the 10 years I have been coaching I have been involved in a number of debates about the benefits of ‘streaming’ players according to their ability. Over the years I have gone from one extreme to the other in my opinions from being firmly against streaming to being very much in favour. However, throughout that change in opinion, I was never in a position where I was able to stream – everyone had to play as much as possible because I didn’t have enough players to do otherwise.

At under-15 however, we had attracted a sufficient number of players so that selection did become an issue. One or two players spent more time on the bench than others either because they did not attend mid-week training or, to be honest, because I felt they were less able. This culminated in a title-decider where three of the players did not get on the pitch at all. I had never done this before and even while I was making that decision it felt wrong. Moreover, we still lost the game!

When I reflected on why we lost I realized that the players and I had put too much pressure on them to win that game – to put it simply, we choked. Worse, I had sacrificed what had been one of my core values – that of equality of opportunity for all – to the desire to win. Consequently, we had the worst of both worlds.

Happily, the team bounced back. We came within a hair’s breadth of winning the title and had our most successful season ever. Many of the lads went to the County school of rugby and Wallingford provided a significant proportion of players for the county teams last season. Several lads have gone on to be involved in the under-16s development squads; one has represented England under-16s and three have now joined the London Wasps advanced apprenticeship scheme.

My views have come full-circle. I am now firmly convinced that equal playing time and mixed ability teams are the best way to provide long-term development opportunities for all players not just the less-able. The more we do to improve the skills of the less-able, the better the standard of rugby for all, and the more secure the long-term viability of an age group. While I may not always be able to achieve a perfect balance of playing time for the whole squad, the principle of equality will be the basis for all my selection decisions.


I hope that by highlighting research evidence for the importance of coaches in helping to improve team cohesion, motivation and self-esteem I can convince you that one of the least helpful things you can do as a coach is tell a player he is better or worse than another one. In branding a player as an A, B, or C teamer you are directly affecting his self-perception of his ability in relation to others. This is especially true with Tag which favours small, fast and nippy players over bigger, stronger, slower players. You’ll need both when contact starts.

In writing this article I tried to balance my own prejudices by trying to find evidence that streaming in young players was beneficial. I simply was not able to find such evidence. As coaches your views will be formed by your own experience, values and prejudices and as a club or a Union we do not mandate how a coach structures his squad or teams. However, as a fairly experienced and widely-read coach, I would seek to persuade you that my experience as well as that of many others is that an equable selection policy benefits everyone.




Boardley, I., Kavassanu, M, and Ring, C. (2008) Athletes’ Perceptions of Coaching

Effectiveness and Athlete-Related Outcomes in Rugby Union: An Investigation Based

on the Coaching Efficacy Model. The Sport Psychologist, 22, 269-287

Carron, A. Eys, M. and Burke, S. (2007) Team cohesion: Nature, Correlates and Development. In Social Psychology in Sport Eds: Jowett and Lavalee. Human Kinetics: Champaign. IL.

Cushion, C.J. & Jones, R.L. (2006) Power, discourse and symbolic violence in professional youth soccer: The case of Albion FC, Sociology of Sport Journal, 23(2), 142-161.

Fraser-Thomas, J., Coté, J. & Deakin, J. (2008) Understanding dropout and prolonged engagement in adolescent competitive sport. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 9, 645-662.

Smith, R and Smoll, R (2007). Social-Cognitive approach to coaching behaviours. In Social Psychology in Sport Eds: Jowett and Lavalee. Human Kinetics: Champaign. IL.

Smoll, F. L., Smith, R. E., Barnett, N. P. & Everett, J. J. (1993) Enhancement of children’s self esteem through social support training for youth sport coaches, Journal of Applied Psychology, 78, 602–610.