The Role of Empathy and Sympathy in Coaching

The role of a coach is broad and diverse. A simple definition does the job no justice. A coach must assist people as they work to reach their goals. They must analyze and adjust their training plan to improve their performance. They must know the finer details of their sport. Finally, they must foster a relationship and learn the strengths and limitations of their contender.

In addition to physical training, a coach has to take a psychological approach. To master the art of coaching, coaches must learn to feel what other people are feeling. They have to hone their emotional intelligence skills and provide a balance between support and correction, motivating and hand-holding, empathy and sympathy. While various skills are essential for success, the development of empathy and sympathy play an integral role when interacting with contenders.

This article will show you:

  • How empathy and sympathy can impact your relationship with a coach;
  • How sympathy and empathy can help you reach your fitness goals; and
  • How you can tell if your coach has the experience required to help you succeed.

Empathy vs. Sympathy: What’s the Difference?

Often used interchangeably, sympathy and empathy are two different branches of the same tree. In simple terms, sympathy is a feeling you experience in reaction to someone’s situation. Empathy, on the other hand, is understanding the feelings of the other person during a situation; you let yourself feel what they feel.

When discussing sympathy and empathy, people often make the mistake of saying that someone is overly empathetic. The behavior they're seeing is actually related to sympathy, as an empathetic person tends to have more boundaries and self-awareness than someone who is overly sympathetic.

To remember the difference, one can look at the origin of the words. Sym derives from the Greek word meaning “with.” Em originates from the Greek word meaning “in.” With sympathy, you feel bad for a person. With empathy, you experience their emotions.

Applying Sympathy to Coaching

In coaching, sympathy comes in the form of a coach relating your problem to a similar experience. For example, you experience an injury that prevents you from doing the exercises you enjoy. A coach may indicate their understanding and share an adage from their training. Your coach may then seek out a solution to this problem for you.

Applying Empathy to Coaching

A coach may show empathy toward your situation with engaging comments and question that encourage discussion. They might make empathetic comments like “that must be so frustrating for you” or “tell me why this worries you.” A coach can show their support while maintaining objectivity and keeping the focus of the conversation on you.

Cognitive Empathy & Emotional Empathy

Empathy can be further broken down into emotional empathy and cognitive empathy. Emotional empathy is that desire to respond in accordance to someone's emotions. This form of emotionally empathetic response is what causes you to feel sad and have similar thoughts when a friend or love one is experiencing pain. This reaction is automatic to people with high levels of emotional intelligence and understanding.

Cognitive empathy is a conscious decision to show empathy (and sometimes sympathy) to someone who is in pain. It's cognitive empathy that compels you to put yourself in someone else's shoes and garner a better understanding of their experience. Showing empathy, particularly cognitive empathy, is a strong sign of moral character and emotional intelligence. It's that difference between feeling negative feelings and sending a sympathy card, and being present to provide care.

Coaching to Correct Bad Habits

Breaking bad habits is a focal point for people trying to create a healthier, holistic lifestyle. It takes a coach with a high level of compassion, empathy and understanding to help someone leave harmful habits behind. To break a bad habit, one must be ready and willing to make some changes to overcome negative thought loops. Setting reasonable goals and understanding the cause behind the habit can help someone as they take on this difficult task.

Depending on the nature of the negative habit in question, the individual faced with this challenge could experience many emotional and physical challenges. A coach with the ability to empathize toward the feelings of the other person provides a strong support system. Their ability to understand what the other person is going through allows them to help their contender push through the tough spots.

A coach who feels sympathy toward their contender may be able to provide the required amount of hand-holding through tough spots. It’s common to slip up during the habit correction process. An appropriate amount of sympathy can help someone process their emotions in a healthy manner and continue forward.

While empathy is always appropriate, sympathy in habit breaking scenarios can backfire. Too much sympathy can offset a coach’s objectivity. This may cause them to make excuses or allowances for that person that are detrimental to the habit breaking process. In emotional situations, a contender may also perceive sympathy as unwanted pity. A good coach knows how to tell what a person who is trying to overcome bad habits needs, even if it isn’t what they want at that moment.

Coaching to Teach Good Habits

Learning healthy habits and building routines is the foundation of a holistic lifestyle. A good coach will be able to talk to a person about their goals, determine the necessary steps to achieve each specific goal, and help the person make the steps a habit.

Coaches can use their empathic ability to prepare for challenges. They can also assess a contender’s history and current life situation to determine the best path forward. Understanding the feelings of an individual and working with them to make outcome-based decisions can streamline a sometimes complicated process and improve a contender's experience.

Importance of Mentoring and Coaching

When building good habits, many people will experience negative thoughts and emotions and moments of perceived failure. A coach who knows when to show sympathy can help validate contenders’ feelings and allow them to get back on track. A good coach knows when to encourage a moment of pause, and when to push their contender forward through the pain, walking that fine line between sympathy and empathy. They will help their contender identify barriers, while providing a listening ear and voice of reason.

Does Your Coach Have These Skills?

There are a few ways to assess your coach’s ability to balance sympathy and empathy. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Does your coach understand your goals and priorities?
  • Does your coach understand when to push you?
  • Does your coach understand when you need a break?
  • Are you comfortable with your coach?
  • Are you are making progress toward your goal? If you are not, is your coach helping you determine why?

If you answered no to any of these questions, it might be time to talk to your coach about your needs as a contender. While a coach has a wide array of responsibilities, it’s your job to communicate your expectations clearly. If your coach isn’t aware of a problem, they won’t be able to resolve it with you. By working as a team, you and your coach can make your goals attainable.

Finding the Right Coach

Being successful means finding a coach who understands your goals. A person who is willing and able to understand why people feel the way they feel in regards to their training. Someone who will nurture a healthy coach-contender relationship and turn emotions into actions.

The right coach knows the power of empathy and understands when it’s appropriate to be sympathetic and empathetic.

Gloveworx coaches have diverse backgrounds, varying levels of experience, and one shared goal: helping you Become Unstoppable. When you visit for the first time, your coach will sit down with you to discuss your goals and your thoughts on the journey ahead. They'll work with you to get a better understanding of what's holding you back or giving you a difficult time.

Each individual who walks into the studio can count on a coach and a tribe who can empathize and motivate them toward their goals. Contact Gloveworx today to find the right coach for you.

To learn more about our elite team of coaches, click here.