Learn more about Deborah Gilboah, MD.
Deborah Gilboa, MD: The standard ways that we discourage bad behavior are by warning against it and punishing it, and I totally understand why. But it turns out, that those aren’t always the most effective ways of discouraging bad behavior. One of the best ways that we can discourage bad behavior is by disrupting the set of emotions that led to that bad behavior. So, an athlete or a group of athletes are experiencing big emotions, whether it’s celebration or disappointment or frustration or shame, whatever it is, in a practice setting, in a setting of actual competition, they’re experiencing big emotions and you see bad behavior from one person or from a group, and the knee-jerk reaction is to try and shut it down, nope, we don’t behave that way, that’s not acceptable, here’s the negative consequence for behaving that way. But a great way, and I’m going to use a medical word as a doctor, that we can defibrillate that situation, we can put on the pads and shock it into a new rhythm of behavior, is through empathy.
If the first thing you say is, “Wow, I hear your frustration. I think I see that you’re embarrassed, is that right?,” or, “I’m sensing that you’re angry. Do you feel angry?” Not in any kind of an accusatory way, at all, but just asking, am I seeing what you’re experiencing? That alone, often, will completely disrupt what the expected path is in that conversation and allow that person a moment to have you really focus on them and how they’re doing before you deal with the consequences of the behavior that isn’t acceptable.
There are opportunities in leadership to interrupt bad behaviors all the time. This is something that we count on our athlete leaders to do with their peers because we know that positive peer pressure, being like, “Hey, I really admire that, let’s handle it this way,” works very well when it comes from young leaders. But, one of the reasons that athlete leadership or near-peer mentorship from a coach to an athlete or a group of athletes works really well, is because young athletes feel like, yes, I believe that you get me. I believe that you can see me, that you understand what I’m feeling, and that is the first necessary ingredient in them agreeing to behave within the social contract that you’ve created.
Most of the research about behavior change starts with what’s effective, and the research shows that the most effective, immediate reaction does come from disrupting the flow. Most coaches, most adults, have been taught to disrupt that flow by topping that person’s big emotion with bigger or louder emotions of their own, expressing their own frustration, disappointment, anger, disapproval, in a way that stops and is bigger. But that’s just a little bit like saying, “If you’re going to hit, I’m going to hit back, and I’m stronger than you are.” It’s really easy to see, especially within the context of TrueSport, that when we’re trying to raise people of good character, good sportsmanship, with excellent life skills, that’s not a really workable path, because, very soon, our athletes are going to be as big and as strong as we are. If what we’re trying to do is help them grow into people who can manage their emotions, manage their own discomfort without bad behaviors, then the research shows that using empathy and focusing for a moment on what that athlete is experiencing, so they can learn a different way to express their emotion, that’s what will help them in the long run to have fewer of those negative behaviors.
One of the main reasons that adults shy away from showing empathy in the face of bad behavior, is because we don’t want to endorse bad behavior. When an athlete behaves poorly, unsportsmanlike behavior, doesn’t follow the rules, acts out in some negative way, we’re afraid that by saying, “Wow, you seem like you’re really hurting or you’re really angry,” that we’re in some way saying, “This is the way to get my attention. This negative behavior was the right thing,” or, “I totally understand your negative behavior and I’ll excuse it because I understand your emotion.” And, I really want to be clear, that empathy and endorsement are not the same thing. We need to help athletes manage their emotions, so we have to show empathy for their emotions, but that does not mean that we tolerate bad behaviors. And, with a good leadership style, meaning one that relies on respect not popularity, you can absolutely have empathy for an emotion, while saying, “And that behavior, totally unacceptable.” Please don’t think that by having empathy and making a connection with an athlete, you’re excusing their behavior. You’re only excusing their behavior if you say, “O.K., it’s fine, no consequences, you’re not in trouble because you were upset.” That doesn’t help them.
One of the ways that empathy encourages young leaders, is that it shows your young athletes that their emotions aren’t the enemy. That how they handle their emotions and their peers’ emotions, can move them towards a leadership role. So, if that’s something they want, or that’s something they’re good at, is really seeing, noticing, and acknowledging other people, they will start to understand that that’s a personal leadership skill and will help them see themselves in a way that they haven’t seen themselves before.
The truth is, we have a lot of rules about behavior, and we should, as a society, as a team, as a family. But we shouldn’t have rules about feelings. Our athletes are allowed to have any feeling they have, but they have to behave within the set of rules that we’ve created.