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How to gain the trust of players as a coach when you first join a team

How to gain the trust of players as a coach when you first join a team

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This blog was written when I was on my MSc in Sport & Exercise Psychology so it's slightly lengthier and more academic than normal. However, this blog still provides good insight into the role a leader's emotions can have in positively influencing their teams emotional states and how leaders can be more tactical with their emotions to drive positive results.

The experiencing of strong positive and negative emotions is ever-present in the sporting arena as the margins for success or failure are often within a hair’s breadth. Certainly, long gone are the days of great man theories, where leaders were thought of as those with superior personality traits such as charisma. Nowadays it is recognised that how well coaches navigate through the treacherous landscape of the sporting arena is more down to the mental strategies they employ than any personality gift. Thus, coaches are no more immune from experiencing strong negative emotions than their athletes. For the sake of their athletes, however, coaches are often expected suppress their negative emotions to present an outward appearance of unshakeable confidence to support their athletes confidence in times of stress. Coaches therefore have to ‘walk on water’ at times – a reference to the biblical passage of Mathew 14-22-33, where Jesus is said to have demonstrated godlike ability by walking on the sea of Galilee to calm his disciples and instil trust in them that he can deliver on his grand promises. In the scientific literature putting on a positive appearance despite feeling different inside is known as emotional labour, so let's discuss this concept in more depth.

What is Emotional Labour?

Hochschild (1983) coined the term Emotional Labour as the requirement of “one to induce or suppress feelings in order to sustain the outwards countenance that produces proper states of mind in others” (1983, p.7). As Hochschild explains, once we represent a professional role we are obliged to display the emotions that are necessary to deliver their service. This led Hoschschild to recognise that a regular practice of people in work settings is to manufacture their emotions to meet ‘display rules’ of the job. Two strategies can be used to do this. Surface acting would incur a coach to suppress felt emotions (i.e., anxiety) to falsely display the required emotions (i.e., confidence) they believe is needed to benefit their athlete. On the other hand, deep acting would involve a coach exerting effort into actually feeling this confidence, therefore spontaneously exuding it to the athlete (Hochschild, 1983). 

From interviewing elite level coaches, Thelwell, Westan, Greenlees, and Hutchings (2008) proposed that given coaches often employed many psychological skills (i.e., imagery) for the primary purpose of managing their negative emotions they are “performers” (p.38) in their own right. However, perhaps anyone placed in a position of leadership is a ‘performer’. For instance, Friesen, Devonport, Sellars, and Lane (2013) found that Ice Hockey captains were hypervigilant of their own and their fellow athlete’s emotions; using this awareness to only filter through certain emotions to their team that they believe would benefit them (e.g., calmness). Quite fittingly, then, are the words of Former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once said: “Where there is great power there is great responsibility “(Parliamentary debates, 1906, p. 1239). It seems the social expectations that is ascribed to a leader whether they be a coach or team captain does seem to breed a sense of responsibility on their behalf to ensure their emotions create a positive team environment.  

In their extensive review of 20 years’ worth of theory and research investigating the effects of business leaders emotions in the workplace, Gooty, Connelly, Griffth, and Gupta (2010) concluded on a clear finding: a leader’s positive mood unconsciously infuses itself into their follower’s emotional state, producing favourable outcomes for both parties (leader and follower), such as creating a shared identity, a more optimistic vision of the future, and developing better quality relationships. On the contrary, a leader’s negative mood is, by and large, detrimental to their effectiveness and transmits into poorer workplace productivity. Armed with such a strong finding, coaches and captains perhaps have a unique opportunity to improve their athlete’s mindset through using emotional labour strategies (surface and deep acting). 


Is Emotional Labour Important in Sport?

One could be excused for questioning whether the evidence for emotional labour found in the business domain can translate to the sport environment. To answer this valid question, one avenue can be to assess the consequences of coaches' and captains' positive emotions on their athlete's emotional states. Tamminen et al. (2016) interviewed 14 university athletes about their own, and their teams use of emotions within their team environment. The athletes consistently spoke of how important the coach or captain’s emotional display was on the team as it set the ‘emotional tone’ for the group. Athletes elaborated on this point by stating that when coaches or captains expressed positivity during stressful times (I.e., suffering a defeat), this helped reduce the stress athletes felt from their performance and raise their optimism. 

In another study by Tamminen and Crocker (2013), interviews were carried out with a high-performance Curler team over the course of their season. What emerged from the data was consistent with, and adds to the findings of the previous study. The captain spoke at length about having a responsibility to project neutral or positive emotions to conceal negative emotions (surface acting) that she felt would poorly affect her teammates. This use of surface acting seemed to reap many benefits for the team during competitions, with athletes particularly highlighting how the captain became a source of inspiration that helped them to stay more confident when performing. Hence, these anecdotal accounts from athletes suggest when leaders radiate positivity in the sporting arena — especially in times of stress and pressure — through emotional labour strategies, both parties tend to derive many psychological benefits such as increased confidence. 

Another attempt to conclude if emotional labour is an effective strategy in sport is to perhaps observe if highly successful coaches engage in emotional labour. A study by Lara-Bercial and Mallet (2016) is the most recent publication to come out of the Serial Winning Coach project which aimed at understanding the psychological characteristics amongst other things, that made-up seventeen of the world’s most successful sport coaches. Between them, this special cohort of coaches had accumulated 160 Olympic gold medals/major championship titles in their careers. For these coaches, it was imperative for them to be a source of confidence for their athletes. Creating this aura of confidence was thought to be best achieved by persuading the athletes of their capability through leading by example with their emotional state (i.e., remaining calm under pressure). Moreover, of utmost importance to these coaches was to use emotional labour to produce productive behaviours (e.g., energetic) that would cultivate an emotionally stable training environment that would allow their athletes to put 100% of their focus into their sport. 

Similar to the previous study, Olusoga, Maynard, Hays, and Butt (2011) were interested in understanding the core psychological characteristics that coaches felt was vital for successfully performing on the Olympic stage. To investigate this, eight coaches from one of Great Britain’s most successful Olympic team were interviewed. The strongest and most recurring psychological characteristic for Olympic success discussed by coaches was the ability to control their emotions and display certain emotions tactically to benefit their athletes. Again, emotional labour was viewed as essential in “optimising the environment for the athlete” (p. 5) and to project an “aura of confidence” (p. 4) to keep athletes believing in the coach’s capabilities to bring about success despite the stress and pressure the athlete and coach were under.

What stands out from these studies, is when operating within the pressure-cooker environment of high performance, athletes, coaches and captains all believe the need to exude confident and positive behaviour through verbal (i.e., emotional tone of speech) and non-verbal (i.e., body language) communication skills is imperative to being successful; mirroring the findings from the business domain (Gooty et al., 2010). For coaches and captains, enacting emotional labour perhaps reimburses them with greater influence, affording them more liking, trust and respect from their athletes. For athletes, coach or captain’s emotional labour likely induce in them a more productive emotional state (e.g., confidence) which helps them perform better, and help them to respond better to stressors during performance (i.e., follow the captains lead). 

Is Emotional Labour Psychologically Harmful?

Humans were not designed to project emotions they do not actually feel, and this has consequences for our health. In a song called “walk on water” by rapper Eminem, he remarks “Kids look to me as a god, this is retarded, if only they knew, it’s a façade and it’s exhaustive”. As Eminem alludes to in these verses, his failure to truly believe in this ascribed godlike status from his fans leads him to feign an aura of self-assurance which is incredibly draining. The draining nature of Eminem’s situation is what is referred to within the literature as emotional dissonance — “a perceived emotional state [typically negative] representing the dissonance between felt emotions, and emotions that is perceived to be required” (Rubin, Tardino, Daus, & Munz, 2005, p.192). It is well documented that emotional labour, especially surface acting, leads to emotional dissonance. This is important because the more significant the emotional dissonance we incur from using emotional labour, the more psychologically harmful this will likely be to our well-being (Rubin et al., 2005). 

Secrecy is defined as “an intention to conceal information from one or more individuals” (Slepian, Chun & Mason, 2017, p.2). Hence, emotional labour, or more specifically surface acting, is perhaps analogous to keeping a secret. In a series of studies by Slepian and his colleagues, it was found unequivocally that keeping a secret was harmful to our physical and psychological well-being. Poorer well-being that festers through keeping secrets seems to occur because of the amount of time we spend stewing on concealing information from other people, making us feel as if we are behaving inauthentically (emotional dissonance). Indeed, Ryff and Singer (2008) extensively reviewed the concept of well-being, concluding that it can be collapsed into two parts: our degree of happiness (hedonic), and the extent to which we feel we are living a meaningful existence by acting in accordance with our core values and beliefs (eudaimonia). Ryff and Singer went on to explicitly state that we cannot have one without the other. In other words, experiencing dissonance is likely to thwart our eudaimonia well-being, leading to unhappiness as we are not at one with ourselves. 

Another adverse side effect that stems from emotional labour is the need to exert a considerable amount of self-control. When engaging in surface acting, we exert tremendous psychological effort to suppress our felt emotions, and instead, project fake emotions. In a study with 430 coaches from 21 different sports, Lee and Chelladurai (2016) found that the more coaches used surface acting, the more burnt out they were. Deep acting, however, did not lead to burnout in the coaches. Perhaps this is a logical finding, given deep acting requires a coach to feel the required emotions before projecting them. Therefore, there is bound to be little emotional dissonance when engaging in this form of emotional labour. 

Can the Psychological Harm from Emotional Labour be Prevented? 

Pragmatically speaking, it would be inappropriate to advise coaches and captains to stop using emotional labour. The consequences of being transparent with their athletes about their negative emotions might be beneficial in some situations. However, for the most part, it can lead to a host of negative outcomes for both parties (Thelwell, Wagstaff, Rayner, Chapman, & Barker, 2016). Fortunately, research is afoot to understand how to counteract the psychological harm of emotional labour. Increasing coaches and captain’s emotional intelligence — developing a greater self-awareness of one’s feelings, and understanding how one’s emotions may influence the environment— appears to be a promising strategy at reducing the psychological cost of emotional labour. Lee and Chelladurai (2016) found the more emotionally intelligent a coach was, the less likely they were to suffer from emotional exhaustion when engaging in surface acting. It is thought that a greater self-awareness of one’s own emotions affords the coach the ability to understand why they suppress certain emotions. Such an understanding may reduce the amount of emotional dissonance felt, as coaches can feel a greater sense of choice over engaging in emotional labour, making it feel more authentic and therefore less likely to hurt their well being. 

Another advantage of increasing emotional intelligence is it can promote the use of deep acting instead of surface acting. As previously mentioned, deep acting incurs little emotional dissonance as it involves feeling the required emotions before projecting them. Recently, Edelman and Knippenberg (2017) successfully increased business leader’s deep acting through a 3-hour workshop. One tip from this workshop is to use what is known as implementation intentions. When anticipating a difficult situation (i.e., about to address the athletes in a team-talk after a defeat), take a couple of minutes away from everyone. In this time, reflect on what show of emotions are necessary to achieve your goal in the upcoming situation. This self-reflection should help you to be better prepared to display the emotions you wish to show, and better project the emotions you intend to display once in the situation. All in all, whilst emotional labour can be emotionally draining if done frequently, practising deep acting by planning the emotion you want to show ahead of time and developing your emotional intelligence by becoming more self-aware of how you purposely use your emotional sates should help you reduce the psychological costs involved with emotional labour whilst providing your athletes with a host of positive benefits. 








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