Dr. Julie Emmerman shares some fascinating insights into how your social-emotional development can impact the bonds you build—and the success you might achieve—with your athletes.
Emma-Kate Lidbury (EK) 00:04
Dr. Julie Emmerman, thank you for joining us. Welcome!
Julie Emmerman 00:07
Thank you! I’m excited to be here.
So you are a sport psychologist with more than two decades of experience in private practice, and not just that, you’re also an elite athlete . . . you’ve raced professionally on the bike, right? Can you tell us a little bit about your background?
Julie Emmerman 00:21
Sure, I sort of accidentally fell into a mountain biking career earlier in my life and loved it. Still, to this day, I say that I learned just as much from my mountain bike experience racing on the North American circuit and the World Cups for those five or six years as I did probably in all of graduate school. That was quite a lot of learning. Then I “retired” from the mountain bike scene for a little bit. I finished my dissertation and started working. I missed being around ambitious, goal-oriented people, and so I was building my practice, but I also got back into road racing at the time. Being able to apply more of my own sport psychology techniques to my road racing career really helped me a lot, even though I was doing it at a much later age than most, it significantly helped me.
And you work with not just athletes, obviously most of us are very familiar with sport psychologists working with athletes, but you also work with coaches too, correct?
Julie Emmerman 01:24
I do consult with coaches. Usually they call me and they’re asking for help around a certain athlete. Occasionally, a coach, or director sportif will call and just say, “Hey, I need someone outside of my bubble to listen and give me some objectivity here.”
How important is it in the field you’re working in, how important is that coach-athlete relationship, that dynamic?
Establish a Good Foundation for the Coach-Athlete Relationship
Julie Emmerman 01:49
Well, without sounding intimidating to coaches, it’s a position of enormous responsibility and enormous influence. It’s a privilege. I’m really happy to be here to talk about it and anything I can do to help coaches be good coaches. I just think it’s very important because, if you think about kids in sports, especially, it’s such an impactful role. So, being a good coach is important.
How do you help coaches really get the most from a coach-athlete relationship? What does that look like—I know you talked about helping them set boundaries or talking about expectations and meeting needs, and those sorts of things, which are obviously very important in setting the foundation of a good coach-athlete relationship.
Julie Emmerman 02:30
I actually start with asking a coach some of the reasons why they are endeavoring to be a coach or to have a coaching business: What are their whys? From that answer, usually, I can help somebody establish:
- What are their values?
- What are the values they want to instill in other people?
- What are they looking to pass on?
Because the tactical or the physiology knowledge is important, obviously, it’s critical. But, behind all that, you really need to be aware of why you’re doing what you’re doing.
Julie Emmerman 03:02
After we establish values then we also tend to come up with a mission statement. What do you want to do? What do you want the culture and the mission of your business as a coach to be? I’m not in the business of business development, but in the interest of helping people have a lighthouse through the ocean that they’re starting to swim toward, I want to help people develop action plans that are geared toward a certain point.
Julie Emmerman 03:26
If you think about it, actually, a colleague of mine, Jerry Lynch, came up with this nice acronym, RIVER, that I like a lot.
If you break down RIVER:
R is relevant
I is for important
V is valued
E is empowered
R is respected
If you take all those things, and, if you think about it, when you’re treated that way, how do you feel? When you’re not treated that way, how do you feel? People will perform very much based on how they feel. So, if you’re passing that onto people day in and day out, and it’s consistent, and you’re showing people regardless of their injury, status, their level of ability, that they are those things and you’re showing them by your listening skills and your validation skills, that relationship has a lot of the important criteria for a transformational or therapeutic type of relationship. But at the same time, if your athlete starts talking about things that are clearly beyond your scope, it’s critical for any coach to realize this is beyond them, I’m not equipped to handle this. I’m not even in a position in relation to this athlete where it’s ideal to be helpful. You’re trying to do too many things at once.
Right, and that’s where you’d said, you have used the phrase: “Know when to stay in your lane.” There are so many things that you could potentially be to an athlete, so you’ve got to know when to stay in your lane. But at what point do you, well, maybe when you’re working with coaches, at what point do you know, can you help them reach out for help and say, “This is beyond the scope of my expertise. This is beyond the scope of my experience.” What are some of the common jumping off points?
Identify Opportunities for Your Athletes to Grow
Julie Emmerman 05:13
So, if all those other things are in place that I was mentioning earlier, if those are in place, and there’s a good working relationship with that athlete, it makes it much easier for a coach to say, “You know, I’ve noticed over time that you tend to over-fuel or I’m thinking you might be over- or under-fueling. Or I noticed over time that your performances are really, your race performances are not matching up to what you’re capable of doing in training. Would you be willing to explore this with me a little bit? Can we talk about it?” Then maybe the athlete opens up more, or even without that conversation, depending on that relationship, maybe the coach is comfortable saying, “You know, I really feel like there’s more going on here. I know other people who are qualified to help you do this. Would you be interested in talking with somebody who can help you maybe understand or unlock why you’re underperforming?”
In order to get to that place, right, the coach has to have, as you said, the coach has to have a good relationship with that athlete, and be willing to have some potentially difficult or maybe challenging, tough conversations, which is a long way away from just a coach that writes training in TrainingPeaks.
This is where this broad scope of coaching is coming into play. It’s not just a science, it’s obviously, like you said, it’s an art and it’s the craft of coaching. How do you help coaches who maybe aren’t that naturally inclined to want to have a difficult conversation with an athlete? You might be a coach who’s like, I love writing three-hour bike workouts, but I don’t want to sit and talk to you about your emotions, which is, which is not uncommon, by the way.
Julie Emmerman 06:46
That’s a great question. . . . I understand there’s a lot of interest right now in sport psychology, it’s a pretty hot topic. I really don’t believe that every coach needs to become a sport psychologist or a para-professional in this way. I think if you’re a healthy human being and you know yourself well, then it will become much more natural for you to understand, “Oh, I’m feeling maybe vulnerable here. I’m feeling a little out of my lane or out of my ability to really address this. The best thing for me to do is refer.” I find myself doing the same thing in my own work.
Julie Emmerman 07:24
For example, sometimes people see sport psychology as an easier way to get into therapy, because it’s less intimidating. Someone might call asking for help with sport performance, but really, it’s not about sport performance, it’s that they have an underlying anxiety disorder. So if I don’t feel equipped to handle that, or for whatever the reasons are, if I feel like it’s in the best interest of the client that I refer them out, then I need to do that. It takes a willingness to trust your other professionals, and to know yourself well enough to know, “I need to do the right thing on behalf of this client, so that’s what I need to do.”
Identify Opportunities for Personal Growth
Julie Emmerman 08:05
For a coach it is the same thing. It does take knowing yourself, and it does take a willingness to be vulnerable to see where your skills start and stop and be willing to understand . . . just where you’re equipped, and where you’re not. But that said, I think it’s most important that anyone working with other people, coaches in this situation, just strive to be really healthy, good people themselves. The more you know yourself, the better off the people around you are going to be. Along those lines, there are a lot of different inventories and different workshops that a person can do to learn more about yourself and see how you’re impacting the people around you.
Julie Emmerman 08:46
One of these tools is by a company called Equilibria. One of the assessments that they offer is the Personality Diversity Indicator (PDI). It’s a really nice tool, because it’s designed in a way that’s very non-judgmental. Coaches tend to like it because they’re not worried about any pathology. It really is just designed to highlight for you: Do you tend to fall into one of four categories? Those categories are: Do you tend to be more of a director among people you work with? Are your strengths going to be more around engaging and supporting the people around you? Are you more of the relator, where you’re connecting dots? Or are you an analyzer? You just are more comfortable probably around the data and writing up the plans. You can choose from that point: Do I want to lean into these areas of relative weakness? Do I notice or can I see ways that that’s impacting the group around me? Does it help understand why I feel disconnected from the athletes that I’m working with?
Julie Emmerman 09:45
For example, if I’m an analyzer, and I’m not very comfortable working with people more in a direct face-to-face context, or when things get sticky and you know more emotional-based, are there things I want to learn about myself that can help ease my discomfort, so that I am more easily relatable and can be more of a connector? I want to point out, are there things I can learn about myself versus focusing on just the other person, because it really is that place of . . . you need to know yourself in order to be able to connect with others.
Yes, as you said, not everybody has to . . . a lot of this is about learning, growing, self-awareness and emotional intelligence. Not everybody has to learn to become the most emotionally aware in order to be the best coach. But there are obviously lots of benefits to developing that emotional intelligence. Tell us a little bit about how you’ve seen that play out with coaches and with athletes.
Julie Emmerman 10:42
Well, I’ve been a part of workshops where I’ve been asked this question as a member of the audience. I’ve also done this with other people that I work with. If you ask coaches to list five characteristics of their most favorite coach and they write it down, then you reach out to the audience and you’re asking people to listen to the five things, 15% of the answers have to do with actual tactical training and specific sport-related things. The other 85%, or even higher, is all about how that person impacted that other person’s life. Their availability, the way that they felt believed in, and that they were important, that there was consistency, that there were good boundaries, that they felt respected. All of those things, it’s an extremely powerful position to be a coach, and anyone who doesn’t want that responsibility probably shouldn’t be a coach. But many feel like it’s their calling, which is a great thing. Hopefully learning tools help people just advance their tools that much more.
When coaches do have these blind spots, and it is an area in which they need to grow and work and develop, how do you help facilitate that?
Be Aware of Your Own Blind Spots
Julie Emmerman 11:53
Blind spots occur when you have that kind of baseline. Then you might notice something like you are really leaning into one athlete more so than the others. You’re really starting to pay attention to an athlete, maybe based on their results more so than the others. Or you find yourself wanting to interact with somebody more so than the others, or you just feel more invested. Maybe you notice your own bias is coming out, that’s another blind spot. Maybe you start to really not take certain athletes seriously based on their behavior, because it pushes a button in you. It’s really not, it doesn’t have anything to do with that person’s potential. So things like that, if you know yourself well, you’ll be able to start to notice. Or, if you are in a group setting with other coaches, they can kind of ask you questions and point out to you in a gentle way. Then from there, that’s a really nice launching pad for your own growth as a coach: o understand, maybe that’s why this athlete started to take up more of my brain space. Blind spots don’t necessarily need to be something so scary if we understand and accept that we all have them.
Julie Emmerman 13:03
We also find ourselves in a safe environment with colleagues where we can learn about and discuss those things. When those things are not addressed, that’s what I have been privy to, unfortunately, plenty of situations where a coach has blind spots, and they don’t realize that they’re acting out. Or maybe they do, and there’s different personality issues going on where they think they can get away with it, I mean, that can lead to some serious transgressions and potential SafeSport issues. That would be those examples of blind spots that go unaddressed and are quite serious.
Julie Emmerman 13:40
On the other end of the spectrum, I also have the pleasure of working with plenty of coaches who understand that they have blind spots, and they just want to increase their awareness. They’ll call and ask: “Here’s what I’m experiencing, and I’m not really sure how to deal with this. Do you have any tips for me?” That’s obviously a more pleasurable situation or a pleasant situation to work with. That’s more of a conscientious coach, who will say, for example, leading into Kona: “I have these athletes and you know, some are really anxious, and they’re showing it this way, what can I do in these last 48 hours to really just help preserve a sense of calm, so I can address those things?”
You help, and that’s a way in which you’re helping them to grow and develop and assess, “Oh, this is an issue but I can stay in my lane and do my job as a coach, and also incorporate some sport psychology and anxiety management,” without having to outsource.
Julie Emmerman 14:36
Sometimes the answer might be that that coach needs to do less. By doing less, you empower the athlete to really take stock of him or herself and own what they’re doing there and why they’re there and kind of come into their own before an event.
The coach-athlete relationship, it’s obviously such an important one for a number of reasons. Factored into that is this built-in, I think for many athletes, there’s this built-in wanting to please a coach or seeking validation from a coach, and that can become, depending on the athlete, their background, their personality, their history, that can become quite significant in the coach-athlete relationship. Is that something that you see, that you think a lot of coaches are aware of? Or what impact can that have if a coach isn’t aware of that athlete wanting to people-please? Or that athlete wanting validation?
Julie Emmerman 15:30
It’s a good question. And part of the coach’s job is to validate so it’s kind of a mixed bag there. I think that it’s really critical for coaches in their training to have an understanding of just human social and emotional development over the lifespan. Then when an athlete comes to you, and you’re getting to know them, you can have a better understanding of where that person is socially and emotionally in their life, regardless of their chronological age. That can provide a framework from which you can hopefully have a better understanding of why they’re interacting with you the way that they are, and how to best then meet them where they are.
Be Athlete-Centered as a Coach
Julie Emmerman 16:10
All of this is under the framework of being an athlete-centered coach, not coach-centered. If you’re athlete-centered in your work then you’re really striving to understand what are the needs of this athlete? How can I best meet them? How can I understand how this person is relating to me? What do I represent in their life?
Julie Emmerman 16:28
Having a strong foothold on that will give you more power to know how to handle your role responsibly. Yes, an athlete always wants to please their coach, it doesn’t matter what age you are, we always want to meet or exceed their expectations, I am no different. Oftentimes, people grimace when I say that the coach-athlete relationship does resemble a parent-child relationship, but it really does. As an athlete matures, hopefully, the relationship becomes more like adult-to-adult, that would be the hope. Depending on the longevity of that relationship, and then it can feel more collegial. But I do think it’s harmful if athletes or when athletes think that their coach is their friend. It can feel friendly, it should feel friendly, it should feel super supportive, and all those great things, but it’s different. It’s not a friendship. Your coach isn’t somebody you’re necessarily going to go on vacation with.
Julie Emmerman 17:20
I really think it’s important to normalize, we’re all human beings, and we universally experience loss, we universally experience tons of emotions, and that it just unifies all of us. The more you do know yourself and the more you’re comfortable with yourself, the less an edge you will feel when someone is bringing those emotions to you. Having said that, I think it is important to note that a lot of people, especially in endurance sports, tend to get into their sports because something was going on maybe earlier in their life, and sport was a wonderful outlet. Most people seem to have worked their way into positive coaching environments that they probably felt recognized and valued and important and respected. They were learning along the way and that helps them advance further and further into the sport. Now maybe they’re young adults, or you know, in their 20s and 30s, whatever it may be, and you may have an athlete whose physical abilities, their trajectory has gone like this [Emmerman points upward], but their social-emotional development has lagged behind because they’ve gotten a lot of attention. It’s been positively reinforcing for them just to focus on their sport. That’s where I come in, where, if somebody is underperforming, because there’s things that they haven’t really unlocked yet, or they haven’t understood yet about themselves, or they haven’t worked through from their past. A sport psychologist can be very helpful in that deeper work where you’re just helping somebody heal and then their emotional wellbeing is more on par with their physical abilities.
That trajectory—their physical performance, their achievements, like you say, might be up here [EK points up]—but their emotional development might be here [EK points down]. You’re trying to reduce that delta, so that they can go and achieve peak performance, they can go and achieve their potential and the coach and the athlete can work together toward success.
Julie Emmerman 19:12
There’s tons of athletes out there who you would never know some of the struggles that they deal with because people are very good at putting on a veneer, and you would just never know. We’re all vulnerable in certain ways and life’s complicated.
A lot of endurance athletes, it’s well-documented, that a lot of endurance athletes get into a sport because they’re, or they might be, running away from something—or, of course, running toward something. So you’re there to help unlock some of that.
Julie Emmerman 19:42
Yes, and in most cases, they’re running toward something. Even if it started off, I guess, as running away from, I turn it into running toward doing that. It’s just a better way of being.
Yes, excellent. Thank you, Julie. Thanks for your time today.
Julie Emmerman 19:57
Thank you very much.