Emotional Navigation for Coaches During the Pandemic
Like many others in the world, the soccer community has been devastated by the cancellations and restrictions caused by COVID-19. We’ve experienced an abrupt separation from the sport we love, leaving most feeling an unimaginable loss that dragged on for longer than we hoped. In our collective effort to keep the spirit alive, soccer has been transformed into conversations that aim to teach, analyze, and reflect on a game we once coached, watched, and played. Of most importance has been our role in using soccer to keep our players connected, motivated, and disciplined in their time at home.
As I listen to the community throughout the pandemic, I’m realizing that the coaches, including myself, are struggling more than the players we service. Stress, that was at first acute, turned into a chronic state as jobs are lost, and our services are frantically adapted to a completely digital world. As a coach who feels a great sense of accomplishment watching my players perform, I’ve wondered, what is my value in this new cyber training environment? Without a doubt, we are living in a moment of adversity that is testing our character, along with our emotional endurance to thrive.
And as I’ve taught my players, sport psychology is the perfect tool to build resilience and fortitude, especially in times of doubt and fear. In fact, my research as a Certified Mental Performance Consultant has led me to develop a tangible tool called the 5 A’s Emotional Management Process ©, which has shown significant results with my youth players (both boys and girls). At its core, this process teaches performers how to manage emotions when triggered into an unfavorable state. And since emotions are universal, my clients have demonstrated an ability to transfer these lessons to triggers in other areas of life. For example, the pandemic.
As leaders of a team, club, or organization, we have a responsibility to ourselves and our players to demonstrate mental strength and perseverance. In my personal experience, I have repeatedly turned to the 5 A’s to help me cope with the losses I’ve endured, both professionally and financially. I’m sharing this process with you today, in hopes that it will help you as it has for me.
Awareness is the first step to managing your emotions because you must identify your current state before determining how to move forward. This includes labeling your emotions, connecting with your physiological (internal) state, recognizing the quality and quantity of your thoughts, and identifying triggers.
When considering your emotions, both my players and I scan an emotion chart for visual guidance and accuracy. This helps to be specific in identifying the mix of emotions you are most likely feeling. And since each emotion is as a signal of your perception, the more specific you are, the more insight you will have to move forward.
Each emotion can also be identified by the energy it produces in your body cells. To test this process, consider the emotion you are feeling at this very moment. What sensation does it send through your body? Pay attention to your heart rate, ease of breathing, muscle tension, stomach, speed of thoughts, etc.
And finally, recognize the specific thoughts running through your mind. Are they positive or negative, rapid or calm? Then ask yourself, what triggered me to be in this current state? The more awareness you develop of your emotions, physiology, thoughts, and triggers, the more control and preparation you will have in the future.
There are two key factors that you will work to accept – the situation and the resulting emotions. First, what is the reality of your situation? There is a lot to include in this section because coaching, for most of us, is our livelihood. We’ve lost training sessions, games to coach and watch, events, social interactions with our players and coworkers, income, and for some, an entire organization or league. To expand upon this, I want you to recognize the things that are happening in your life that you cannot control. Be sure to leave out your opinions and just stick with the facts.
By accepting your reality, no matter how difficult, you are allowing yourself to connect with the true emotions of the situation. To help ease the physiological discomfort of these feelings, I tell my players to take a deep breath at this time – or a few. And as you breathe, notice how the oxygen circulates through your body and works to move your emotions towards a calming state. If you do not have a regular practice of breathing, I urge you to participate in meditation, yoga, or other guided training (Apps like Smiling Mind, Headspace, or Calm; YouTube). For many, we are experiencing a variety of emotions at a higher frequency than normal, so be sure to remember that breathing is your number one tool for emotional management.
Since acceptance often brings about unpleasant feelings, it is critical to proceed with a tool that boosts your self-esteem and encourages you to persist. In my practice, I have players establish a character list and highlight at least three traits that make them feel proud and confident. This has been a very effective tool because the carefully selected traits are reliable descriptions of behavior. For example, I KNOW that I am driven, passionate, and creative because I’ve demonstrated these traits throughout the years. And because of this, I feel confident that I can professionally adjust to the current situation. So, I will ask you to take a moment and identify three strong character traits that you KNOW describe you as a coach and professional. And remember, regardless of what is happening, you are still the same person.
Another way to access positive emotions is to develop a WELL. Like a well that stores water, your performance WELL is a collection of positive memories of growth and success, ready to be called upon when needed. In this case, I recommend recalling a moment in time where you have coped with a difficult situation or loss. For example, I trust in my ability to persist because I’ve effectively managed my emotions after a career-ending injury. This memory gives me strength, courage, and determination to endure. Can you recall a moment that is meaningful in your life?
Now that you’ve accepted your reality and connected with more positive emotions, it is time to get focused on moving forward. Normally I would just ask a player, “What do you want?” However, I will be more specific because you may be thinking, “I just want to coach in a game this weekend.” And as you can see, this goal is problematic because it indicates a resistance to your reality.
Instead, let’s think about our controllables. Maybe you want to adjust to this new style of coaching, strengthen connections with your players, learn to develop autonomy in your players, or explore creative alternatives to coaching. Whatever you choose, be sure to connect with a goal that inspires motivation. This will be your focus, or aim, as you move forward.
With your motivation sparked, it is now time to identify the process to achieve your goal. In other words, what are the necessary actions you will take to get what you want? When considering your actions, I have one rule – they must be controllable. As a result, your self-motivation and development will be further enhanced.
To help you get started, I will provide an example list of actions for the goal of adjusting to this new style of coaching:
- Determine a functional way of connecting to players.
- Create a new schedule and daily routine.
- Research and practice using technology.
- Study soccer through video analysis, e-learning, discussion, and books, etc.
- Establish a social media message.
- Check in with colleagues, friends, and families.
- Strengthen discipline for self-care, including good nutrition, exercise, meditation, and sleep.
- Learn and try new things.
- Express joy and gratitude towards what you have.
Now that you’ve completed the 5 A’s Emotional Management Process ©, I want you to re-connect with your emotions. How do you feel right now? Relieved, determined, optimistic? Or maybe you still have the lingering feelings of loss. Don’t worry, that’s completely normal. I know for myself that emotional management takes time and repetition, especially now that we are living in unprecedented times. As leaders, we must commit to the process and know that with each repetition, we grow in courage and resilience.