Many different thoughts and feelings can arise within ourselves when we hear the word empathy or being empathetic towards others. When you look at the strength and conditioning or fitness field it can be associated with being soft, weak, or associated with accepting excuses when we should just "shut up and do the work." Believe me in that I am a big believer of having the conversation with yourself to understand what drives you and when you need to put your head down and eyes forward to get the job done. However, these two schools of thought are not opposing. Being an empathetic leader or coach, whether with yourself or others, allows you recognize that we are all human and help to get the most out of ourselves and the people we have the honor of guiding.
It took a bad foot injury over 10 years ago for me to have a wake up call of what really being empathetic meant. As a young strength coach in the collegiate setting, I was all about using the weight room as a way to teach lessons, accountability, and instill values that drew me to love training. From being on time, to tying your shoes before you came in the weight room, or any other rule I deemed the standard. I was still what would be considered an athlete first coach but I had a long way to go in development. After a torn ligament in my foot, multiple surgeries, years of rehab and frustration, it become a blessing in disguise. I was given the gift of connecting with others who were working through their own injuries, as well as the fact we are all going through our own journey routed in different backgrounds and experiences. It took the crawling across the floor to the kitchen to get a glass of water, the extended time to get ready and clean up, and the hassle of just living, to learn that I needed to connect at a deeper level with people before scolding them on being late for events or thinking I knew what was going on in their heads. That doesn't mean you don't hold people accountable but the more you know will allow for more impactful "whys" to be addressed.
As an empathetic coach or leader you truly have to start with caring about those you work with and work for. If you are viewing them as YOUR athletes and YOUR employees, then I would suggest a look in the mirror first to check what the mission is and everyone's roles. Do the work you personally need to to tap into why you care for the people you work with. Only then can you begin to work on what you or your organization can do to set people up for success. A majority of the time like any other relationship, this starts with great communication. ASK! What do your people want out of your relationship? What are their goals, measurements of success, what drives them, what does their dream job or end goal look like? These questions and conversations can be endless and should be ongoing. We are forever adapting, changing, and growing. What we want this month, might change to the next or what we thought was a our dream role might be filled with responsibilities or commitments that are different than we thought it would be. You will never know until you ask and sometimes as leaders or coaches, we have a tendency to think we've seen it before and know what they want. So we project our own goals for them on them without asking. We expect us out of them which doesn't set anyone up for success. It all starts with conversations and caring.
Once you've established the care and communication, which never ends, then the fun stuff can start to happen. This will lead to increased trust between all parties, which in turn can open up the door to a sense of belonging, which fosters community, and can create a culture that transcends individuals. If that environment can be built, it will allow for people to become the best versions of themselves. Collectively, you can speak open and honestly about how training is going or how work and life are without fear of judgement. The ability to be creative and empowered will then allow everyone to take more ownership in all that they do, thus enabling you to be the guide as designed, not the leader they rely on. Although that may sound scary as we don't want to lose athletes, employees, or clients out of fear of them out growing us, it will actually do the opposite. They will be able to become the high performers that they wanted your help with in the first place and that connection between coach and athlete or mentor and mentor and mentee will only grow stronger. And if you reach a point where it's time to part ways, then all the better but it will be done the right way everyone should be proud of which only strengthens the overall community.
Being empathetic will not just benefit your clients or employees, you will become a better person and leader. The goal of understanding and knowing what others are feeling and their "why" will allow you to push and pull for people at a level that wouldn't be possible otherwise. The detail in which you can make adjustments, the information you'll have access to make decisions, and foresight provided will enhance your ability to guide and and the results will reflect that.
You have to have honest conversations with yourself on where you are coming from. Are you leading with curiosity and questions? Or are you trying to demonstrate your own experience and knowledge? Even if you are a subject matter expert, are you willing to put trust in the person you are working with in that they're truly the only expert on themselves and their own lives. That takes a lot of checking of the ego to do, so you better bring your patience as it won't just happen. This also doesn't meant you aren't using your tools when they are needed, but if you don't lead with care, you'll never get to a point where you get a chance to really coach or lead.
The constant challenge not just for myself but for all of us is to be more empatheic leaders and coaches. It can be easy to jump to conclusions. To think, "that with my experience or knowledge I know best so who does this person think they are challenging my authority!" However, take a minute to reflect, connect, and put yourself in their shoes. Go back to conversations that have been had or should be had, to better understand and learn what's the best way forward and where are you both coming from. We all will benefit and be able to motivate, lead, and achieve at a higher level. Don't mistake empathy for weakness, it's one of the most crucial tools we need to learn to use in that toolbox for us to lead successfully.