From experience with such athletes, it appears that all have one thing in common: a high level of empathy. Developmentally, as children grow into adolescence they become better at regulating their emotions in a variety of experiences, which includes the ability to empathize with others and adjust to others’ feelings. This development varies across individuals and may happen at a greater depth for some. Often, parents recognize a high level of empathy as sensitivity, where such athletes have learned to care more about the wellness of their teammates or the concerns of their coaches as opposed to putting ones needs first. Some examples of high empathy include:
- I don’t want to mess up because my teammates will be angry.
- My teammates are relying on me to score so I can’t miss, they will be disappointed.
- My coach wants me to mark up today. I can’t let my player go or else he/she will be upset with me.
- The seniors on the team have more experience. I am going to pass instead of shoot so they can get the goal and feel the satisfaction.
- My parents want me to play D1 and I must perform well so they aren’t disappointed.
The main concern with high empathy athletes is that they have many thoughts and feelings in most all situations. Subsequently, as situations develop it may become difficult to shift from one thought and emotion to new, more appropriate ones. Eventually the athlete is muddled with confusion and frustration, performing below capabilities.
Specifically, the high empathy athlete has a desire to perform or behave in a way to please or fit in with those in his/her surroundings. Therefore, thoughts and emotions are often concerned with teammates, coaches, parents, or the opponent. All of which are factors that are uncontrollable. When focus is maintained on factors that are uncontrollable, then the athlete is distracted from focusing on controllables, such as task and skill performance, effort, and decision-making.
Since athletes high in empathy are more aware of others’ emotions and emotional regulation, they are quite gifted in their ability to:
- Predict the next move of the opponent
- Anticipate what their teammates are going to do
- Be coached
- Maintain a high work rate
With that said, if an athlete is deemed to have a high level of empathy or sensitivity, it is important that they learn to:
1. Consider the information from your environment
- As opposed to trying to ignore the emotions of others’, be aware of them. Consider what is required of you as well as the team in a given situation, then . . .
2. Determine what your needs and desires are in that environment
- Here is where you need to be a little selfish. What is it that you would like to achieve? And what emotional state will help you perform your best?
3. Focus on the tasks/skills that are necessary to obtain your desired outcomes
- After determining what you would like to achieve, now focus on the specifics of what you have been taught. Whether it is a certain tactical task, an actual skill, or a decision that must be made, you need to spend your mental energy on your own performance – not those around you.