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How to develop behavioural agility in your coaching to get the best out of yourself and your players

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John McEnroe, left, and Ivan Lendl, right, are two coaches who understand the significance of behavioural agility, and will be putting it to the test at Wimbledon as they attempt to bring the best out of Milos Raonic and Andy Murray respectively 

In part four of our series on emotional intelligence, we look at recognising when to dial up and dial down your emotions because this can be key to getting the best out of your performers.

  • Behavioural agility is the ability to control and adapt your behaviour and the behaviour exhibited by others.
  • Employing different facets of emotional intelligence is a necessary part of this process.
  • Exercise your behavioural agility like you would muscles in the gym. The more time you spend doing it, the stronger you will get.

Coach the person, not the sport. This succinct piece of advice always ranks highly when ConnectedCoaches members are asked to list their ‘top tips’.

It is a fundamental part of coaching, which, adding a bit more flesh to the bones, involves treating each performer as an individual, in the knowledge that every person has their own development needs, personality, goals, strengths and weaknesses.

It stands to reason, then, that coaches will have to continually alter their coaching styles in order to meet the diverse needs of their performers.

The rewards are great, as the better you know their behaviours and idiosyncrasies, the better you are going to be at coaching them.

Recognising and understanding the vagaries of emotions and behaviour is the first step to becoming adroit in behavioural agility – the ability to control and adapt your behaviour and the behaviour exhibited by others.

Executing emotional intelligence (EI) is intrinsic to this process.

In this fourth blog in the series, ConnectedCoaches member Catherine Baker gives examples of some of the facets of EI coaches should be tapping in to so they can develop their behavioural agility, and how exactly this can help progress both your coaching and the level of performance of those you coach.

The beauty of this coaching concept is that it works the other way round too, as the more you hone your behavioural agility skills, the better you will become at controlling your emotions, and the emotions of those you coach.

In the words of the annoying double glazing salesman, ‘You buy one, you get one free!’

Emotion perception

Working our emotions is like working our bodies at the gym, says Catherine. The more we exercise them, the stronger and more competent we get at using EI in our coaching.

And toning up our EI will help us get the best out of people and situations.

Some examples are provided below that show the importance of empathy, emotion perception, emotion expression, impulse control and happiness in achieving this goal. These are some of the key facets of EI.

Others include self-esteem, emotion regulation, impulsiveness, stress management, assertiveness and social awareness, which are explained in greater detail in the previous blog on the value of self-awareness as a tool for improvement.

One of the foremost practitioners of behavioural agility was legendary American football coach Bill Walsh, who led the San Francisco 49ers to phenomenal success in the 1980s.

He was perfectly in tune with the emotions of his players so knew exactly when a change of behaviour was needed to shake them out of their training ground malaise.

In his book The Score Takes Care of Itself, Walsh writes:

‘Personally, when I sensed from time to time that our team or staff was getting comfortable, I wasn’t afraid to exercise whatever acting skills I could summon.



‘During a practice that was lacking high energy and laser-like focus I would, suddenly, just let my emotions boil over, throw out my clipboard, chew out an assistant coach (they knew what I was up to) and exhibit the emotions and language I’d seen Pete Newell display so effectively: “I can’t take this anymore! We’ve got to pick it up or I’m going to make some changes here, because this has got to stop!” The players didn’t even know what ‘this’ was. It didn’t matter.’

Walsh had high levels of emotion perception and spotted the need to ‘ramp up’ his behaviour to suit the situation.

While emotion perception is very much in the moment, behavioural agility is something that can be planned. So use of this particular facet of EI (emotion perception) enabled Walsh to come up with a method that would impact on the lethargy of his players and ultimately improve their performance.

In this instance, he was ‘dialling up’ his levels of emotion expression, in order to, as he saw it, get the best out of his players. In other situations, such as a big game scenario, he will have seen the need to ‘dial down’ his levels of emotion expression, exhibiting a calmer and more serene persona to his players. 

Too little, or too much?

It is often said that coaches should be highly empathetic. And while, in many scenarios, that is true, there can be times when it is necessary to ‘turn the dial’ on your empathy levels, as Catherine explains in this example of grass-roots coaching.

‘Let’s say you are running a netball session and someone turns up visibly upset,’ she begins. ‘How empathetic should you be in that situation? If you have naturally very high levels of empathy, you might spend too much time dealing with them and really trying to get into their shoes to understand what the problem is.

‘On the other hand, if you have low levels of empathy, you might not even look to check that they are okay, and that might ultimately mean you are going to lose that participant.

‘It’s about looking to dial up or dial down. You want to deal with the situation, check that the individual is okay, and if there is anything you can do about it immediately, but you don’t want to be spending so much time worrying about that individual that it detracts from the session.’

In her job as founder of behavioural profiling, training and performance company Sport and Beyond, Catherine relates a story of a nurse whose empathy levels measured quite low after taking the Thomas International Trait Emotional Intelligence Questionnaire (TEIQue) – designed to inform you of how well you understand and manage your emotions.

‘She was worried that, as a nurse, it wasn’t higher. When we dissected it, it turned out she worked in palliative care (care for the terminally ill and their families) so, actually, having low empathy levels suited her job. It wasn’t going to be helpful to put herself in the shoes of patients who were dying, because she had to remain objective and to care for them in as effective a way as possible.’

What about turning the dial on your levels of emotion perception? Let’s say you’re running a coaching session, and at a particular moment you are talking about tactics. As this stage, whatever level you are coaching at, your full focus should be on delivering those tactics.

‘If instead you are worried about how certain people are feeling at that time, it may not be entirely appropriate,’ says Catherine. ‘So, again, it’s about knowing when to engage your emotion perception and turn it up or down.

‘On the other hand, once you have finished going through the tactics, and are looking to see how the group have responded to the information, that will be when you might want to “dial up” on your levels of emotion perception.’

Temper, temper!

A quick cryptic question. What is the personality trait that John McEnroe and Andy Murray have in common, which, when on public display, also sets them apart?

At Wimbledon, McEnroe will renew his rivalry with Ivan Lendl, as ‘SuperBrat’ has joined Milos Raonic’s coaching team, while Lendl returns for a second stint as Murray’s head coach.

Two fascinating combinations, for so many reasons, and a wonderful spectrum of emotions will be on show if Team Murray and Team Raonic square up at SW19, as they did in the final at Queen’s Club – the somewhat charisma-starved Canadian versus the sometimes sullen Scotsman, the loud-mouthed legend versus the reticent robot. Well, they do say opposites attract.

Which brings me to my point, and an answer to the question.

McEnroe has admitted that, in the past, his outbursts weren’t quite as spontaneous as they might have been. ‘You cannot be serious,’ I hear you say!

‘McEnroe realised they often had the effect of raising his game and so losing his temper could be quite an effective strategy for him,’ says Catherine.


‘In contrast, Lendl worked hard, so we are told, during his first tenure as Murray’s coach to get him to tone down his emotional outbursts, and almost the neediness that sometimes he showed in respect to his coaching team in the players’ box.’

Lendl and McEnroe, then, are clearly well versed in the art, and importance, of behavioural agility. McEnroe knew when to ‘dial down’ his levels of impulse control and ‘dial up’ his levels of emotion expression, and let rip.

Lendl knows that it can be better for Murray at times to ‘dial up’ his levels of impulse control and ‘dial down’ his levels of emotion expression, and contain his desire to shout and scream at his box.

Note, however, that we are talking about an individual sport here – McEnroe’s approach could have a significantly detrimental impact on his teammates were he playing a team sport.

Roger Federer, of course, takes an entirely different approach, rarely showing any change of emotion while on court. This has served him pretty well over the years!

No doubt during this year’s showpiece, McEnroe will be endeavouring to whip up Raonic – a ‘poker-faced, racket-wielding Terminator’ as I saw him described in the press this week – and encourage him to shed his vanilla image.

Sticking with impulse control, at amateur level, if you are the deliverer of sport or physical activity sessions, and your levels of impulse control are quite low, that might cause problems in certain situations. For example, you might not bite your tongue when really you should, react angrily over something fairly trivial, or even wade in with advice or help too early.

Reaching a happy medium

By now, you should be getting a vivid mental picture of a dial with settings from 1–10, maybe in the shape of a volume control knob that you can easily twist to adjust the sound level.

Only it’s not sound you are controlling, it’s the different facets of EI.

Like happiness.

In a final example, Catherine shows why contrasting levels of happiness between coach and performer can impact on the former’s ability to get the best out of that session.

‘Let’s say I turn up to deliver a session, and I am on top of the world that day,’ she says. ‘I have had the best day for all sorts of reasons. I am delivering a girls’ tennis lesson, and maybe they have come out of school at the end of the day and are quite tired. They are just not on top of the world.

‘So there is a distinction between where I sit on the happiness scale and where they sit. It might be I need to tone down my happiness levels because it’s such a mismatch.


‘Similarly, if those girls had finished their SATs at school that day, but I’d had a pretty rotten afternoon, that again is a mismatch, and I might think to myself, “I will have to work hard to match the mood of the girls.”’

Top tips

There are some useful tips that are relevant for dialling up and dialling down your EI, depending on which facets you feel the need to employ in your sessions.

The first step is to understand where you naturally sit on the EI scale. Taking the Thomas International test is not going to be at everyone’s fingertips, but you should get into the habit of observing, watching and reflecting, says Catherine.

‘Start thinking about what works and what doesn’t, and where you might need to build up that agility. This will only come with hard work and practice.’

Specific tips for impulse control are the two-second rule and the five-chip rule:

  • Two-second rule: When you are about to speak or intervene, count to two and then decide if it is the right thing to do.
  • Five-chip rule: You have five chips to play during a coaching session, which relate to the five times you are allowed to intervene. This makes you think really carefully about when you should or shouldn’t interrupt.

Asking questions is one of the best ways to dial up your empathy. If it is too high, maybe give yourself a time limit.

‘So, for the example, with regard to the netballer who was visibly upset, perhaps give yourself two minutes to deal with it. Have a cut-off point to allow you to go and deal with the rest of the group.’

Regarding emotion perception, Catherine recommends giving yourself 10 seconds out of every five minutes to reflect on how you are doing and how your performers are doing.

‘When I deliver three-hour workshops, every few minutes, I just try to pause, often while they are doing an exercise. It allows me to gauge the feeling in the room.’

The moral of the story, then, is that as much as physical agility is a prized attribute among performers, so behavioural agility should be a sought-after characteristic among coaches.

Returning to the gym metaphor, you have the opportunity to exercise your EI every time you see your performers. By reflecting on these principles and putting them into play, you should find that, the more workouts you have with each other, the more behaviourally agile you become.

Please leave a comment below and join the debate.

Next steps

If you liked this article, you might also be interested in the other blogs in this series:

This blog is also available as a podcast on a number of platforms including Itunes. Listen here.

Read more about Catherine and her work (including how to get in touch with her and her team) by visiting her coaching profile.


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Comments (2)

Great article and something we probably take for granted.
I recently heard Danny Kerry's (the GB hockey coach) mantra - 'Where am I? Where do I need to be? Where are they? Where do they need it be?' and I've certainly had this at the back of my mind, for training but also in game situations. Where the pressure increases and can easily affect your EI more.
Avg: 4.3 / 5 (1votes)

Some very good points made here on EI. I like the idea of the football coach charting his emotional state & fitting it to their player's needs. Or of a netball coach knowing how long to spend on a visibly upset player. There is no right answer it just requires consideration & thought.

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