The SECRET of hard conversations with today’s players

We’ve all experienced the frustration that comes from having a gifted player who neglects to realise their potential. To help, you need a visit to the doctors.

We know players who have generally excelled above their peers with ease. Some have never really had to push themselves to be the best. Later, as they compete at higher levels, they can’t seem to find it within themselves to work as hard as they must to excel.

Because we are competitive like our players, the easiest reaction is to yell louder at them. We think if we just push them harder, they’ll get it… and some do. But today’s player generally doesn’t connect with angry, screaming coaches. In polls, student-athletes continue to prefer relationship-based coaching styles. This should not surprise anyone.


So how does a relationship-based coach pull out the best in players?

The answer might surprise you. The solution lies in an often-neglected quality few coaches exhibit to their players. Leaders who show it are presumed to lack backbone, but in the ones who master it, this could not be further from the truth. The quality is empathy.

Empathy is like a tool in the hands of a carpenter, a weapon in the hands of a soldier, or a key that unlocks the door to a room you want to enter.

Consider this: Young athletes today consistently feel that coaches, school and, sometimes, even parents don’t really understand them. So when a coach screams at them to “do better” or “work harder,” their immediate but silent reaction is: “You don’t really understand what I am going through right now. You don’t get me.” The fact is, we may not.

Often, players shut down, but coaches who can communicate empathy for what their player is facing—and relay that they both feel for them and care for them—quickly earn the right to say hard things to that player.

In fact, a coach who sits down and displays empathy towards a player who’s performing poorly will usually gain incredible results.


When a leader demonstrates empathy first, they can get by with saying almost anything and expect to receive buy in. It’s sandwiching the hard feedback they need with belief and understanding. This is what kids feel they don’t get from us.

Let me put this in memorable terms for you as a coach. The equation is simple, yet profound. In many ways, you are like a doctor, diagnosing where they need to improve, then prescribing what they must do to achieve it. Let’s use scientific terms to describe the process:


This is what a doctor uses to listen to the heart of their patient. This is the empathy step where you pause, listen and feel with them.


This is what scientists use to look into a distant space. Likewise, step two is for you to look at the player’s future potential, spot bright spots and tell them.


This is what doctors and scientists use to see details. At this point, they need you to see and describe in detail what they need to do to reach that potential.

It’s that simple: Empathy + Belief + Critical Feedback = Positive Improvement


How well do you communicate empathy for your players? When you’re frustrated at their performance and want to tell them, can you start with words of compassion and understanding?

Step into their shoes for just a moment. Once you do this, you gain “heart” access to proceed into the reason for your high expectations and the belief that they are capable of more.

Read more about this on Tim’s website, Habitudes for Athletes

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