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Inside story: The value of self-awareness as a tool for improvement

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self awareness

  • Self-awareness is a conscious perception of your character, feelings, emotions, behaviour and motivations.
  • It can help you understand how people perceive you.
  • In a coaching context, being self-aware is the first step towards understanding emotional intelligence (EI) in yourself and other people.
  • Breaking EI down into different sections and subsections (different pieces of the jigsaw) allows you, through self-awareness, to see which areas need work if you are to become the complete coach.
  • Change nothing in your approach to coaching, and nothing will change.

Every coach should strive to be habitually self-aware. I’m not going to pull any punches here; failing to do so will harm your development.

That is a bold statement. But practising self-awareness really can be the difference between being a good coach and a great coach.

If you want to reach your true potential, you have to get with the programme. You’ve heard the saying, ‘What you don’t know can’t hurt you.’ Well, when it comes to the concept of self-awareness, ignorance isn’t bliss.

In this article, we will define and analyse self-awareness in detail, discover its intrinsic link to emotional intelligence (EI), and provide you with a framework to assist you in your journey of self-discovery, self-development and, ultimately, self-fulfilment.

So, if you are a sceptic or a layman where the topic of EI is concerned, it’s time to open your eyes – and hopefully see the light.

Jigsaw puzzle

ConnectedCoaches member Catherine Baker is our resident expert on EI.

The founder of behavioural profiling, training and performance company Sport and Beyond, she is here to guide coaches through the potential minefield (or should that be mind field?) of what, to the casual observer, may be construed as a complicated subject – but what is, in actual fact, fairly straightforward.

People use a variety of different constructs when it comes to EI. In our previous ConnectedCoaches article on the subject, Emotional intelligence is integral to becoming a great coach, Catherine defined it in a sporting context as: ‘The coach’s ability to understand and control their emotions and those emotions of the people they are coaching and to manage their relationships accordingly.’

Self-awareness, meanwhile, is a conscious perception of your character (the strengths and weaknesses), feelings, emotions and motivations. It can also give you an understanding of how people perceive you, and is the first step to improving your effectiveness as a coach.

So what is the relationship between self-awareness and EI? Can you have one without the other?

Catherine explains: ‘When we are talking about self-awareness in this context, it’s almost an initial or preparatory step on the way to understanding EI in yourself and other people.


‘So it is sitting down and thinking, “okay, whereabouts do I sit on the EI scale?”

'Once you’ve done that, it gives you an understanding of where you are and what you need to work on. But it also, really importantly, gives you an understanding of all the different facets of EI so that when you are dealing with other people you can start to think, “Maybe they don’t have much emotional expression or empathy, or maybe their social awareness isn’t very good.”’

Without self-awareness, then, you cannot dissect and analyse these different aspects of EI, either in yourself or other people.

Think of each facet like a jigsaw piece. On their own, they might not make much sense, but when you begin to piece them together, and viewed alongside some coaching scenarios, you will be surprised by how quickly the picture begins to take shape, and how the joint concepts of self-awareness and EI begin to make sense.

Self-help guide

The construct that Catherine uses breaks EI down into four main areas, each of which can be divided into further subscales.

As a quick self-assessment task, try gauging your own levels as you work your way down the list:

1      Well-being:

  • Happiness: Are you an upbeat person and always in good spirits?
  • Optimism: Are you the sort of person whose glass is always half full?
  • Self-esteem: Do you see yourself as successful and self-confident?

2      Self-control:

  • Emotion regulation: How good are you at controlling your own emotions?
  • Impulsiveness: Do you think things through first before acting?
  • Stress management: How good are you at remaining calm in difficult situations?

3      Emotionality:

  • Empathy: Are you able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and see things from their perspective?
  • Emotion perception: How good are you at perceiving emotions in yourself and in others?
  • Emotional expression: Are you the sort of person who can express how they are feeling to others, or are you maybe a bit more aloof and buttoned up?
  • Relationships: How good are you at starting, building and maintaining relationships?

4      Sociability:

  • Emotion management: How good are you at influencing someone else’s feelings? If someone is feeling miserable, do you have an urge to make them feel better?
  • Assertiveness: How willing are you to stand up for yourself, or do you back off in certain situations?
  • Social awareness: Are you good at picking up on social cues? Can you walk into an environment and work out what the atmosphere is like in the room?

You might think you know yourself pretty well, but, as Catherine says, it is useful to have it broken down.

Now you are aware of these finer points of EI, it allows you to question yourself in more detail so you can see in which areas, and under which circumstances, you may need to ‘dial up’ or ‘dial down’ your levels.

Maybe you have a tendency to become argumentative when you are tired but have, in the past, never drawn a correlation between Friday night training sessions at the end of a busy week at work and your regular altercations with players.

Perhaps you had placed the blame on the players for being stroppy and thought it was just coincidence it always happened on a Friday. If self-awareness is an alien concept to you, it may never have even crossed your mind that there was a problem.

‘Let’s pick up on some of the facets that would be relevant to that example,’ begins Catherine. ‘You are tired, that is having an impact on your current well-being and your happiness. Possibly you’re not very good at regulating that emotion (emotion regulation and stress management), your emotional expression level is quite high so you express the fact that you are tired, and that comes out in you being more argumentative or a bit more tetchy about things.

‘So it’s about drawing on your awareness of those different facets to become conscious of what you are actually like in practice.’

Take it to the max

Critics of EI argue that it’s a lot of hot air and, ‘What’s the point?’ That single example is sufficient to burst their bubble.

‘It’s about making sure that you are much more effective in everything you do,’ adds Catherine, providing the exclamation mark to the reason why self-awareness is so effective.

If the example of the tired coach rings a bell, armed with that understanding, perhaps it will convince you of the need to work on your manner the next time a difficult conversation arises, or at least be more aware of other people’s feelings.

Those who are guilty of not analysing their emotions don’t ever get to know where they sit on the EI scale, preventing them from ever reaching their maximum potential.

‘That is a key point,’ says Catherine. ‘It can be difficult to analyse and understand your emotions, for two reasons. One, you don’t want to, and that’s fine, a lot of people just aren’t into that side of things. And two, even if you want to, you don’t know how to go about it.

‘In a way, it doesn’t matter what construct you use – we use this one because we think it’s really helpful – but if you have a way of breaking down your different areas of EI into bite-sized sections and think it through, it is incredibly helpful.

‘The other big advantage of having an understanding of how it breaks down is that you can then start to read other people in a similar way.’

Person before player

Your motivations for becoming a coach – and the motivations of the players you coach – are another important aspect of self-awareness.

Catherine suggests people ask themselves these questions: Why am I coaching? What do I want to achieve? And what do I need to do to get there?

‘The answers to those questions give you a great anchor from which to move forward,’ she says, ‘while having an understanding of the people you are coaching, their motivations and why they are there can absolutely help in terms of making sure you are acting towards them in an appropriate way.’

With this in mind, let’s look at one more common scenario to help rubber-stamp your understanding.

A women’s team playing at a recreational level have a coach who played at a high performance level. The coach spent most of her playing career in an environment where the focus was on improving and winning, with the single goal to get into the national team.

‘The recreational players are there for very different reasons,’ explains Catherine. ‘These women are there for the classic reasons that all the insight shows women play sport for: social factors; getting out of the house; enhancing self-esteem, fitness etc.

'But when they play matches, the way in which this particular coach feeds back to the players is proving to be incredibly demotivating. She hasn’t understood what her players needand the best way to get her message across to them.

‘She hasn’t shown empathy because she hasn’t put herself in their shoes to try to understand what their motivations are. She loses her temper quite a lot so her emotion regulation and emotion expression are nowhere near as good as they need to be for the sort of people she is dealing with.

‘She can get quite stressed, this coach, so she has issues with impulse control and stress management. Her social awareness is also lacking.

‘She might have looked at other coaches and thought, “They are really good at this. Why aren’t I?” By exploring and dissecting herself, it will allow her to almost put a label on her players’ behaviour, and that is going to help her improve accordingly.’

Getting to know the person before the player is a coaching tip that will be familiar to every reader of this blog. You should appreciate now, more than ever, why this is such brilliant advice.

Write it down

So what tools are available to help coaches increase their self-awareness?

The good news is you do not need to be a rocket scientist or practising psychologist.

Catherine suggests coaches pick out two or three areas they particularly want to work on and keep a diary of their experiences.

‘It might be that you pick up on relationships, assertiveness and empathy, for example. Have an understanding of what they mean, where you sit on the scale, and write down in the diary times when you think those particular facets have been relevant – when you acted in a way that made you feel as if you reached those objectives or, conversely, times when, if you had acted in a different way, it could have led to a much better outcome.’

This type of reflective practice is both simple and effective. Regarding the example of ‘relationships’: understand first of all that, if you struggle to build and maintain good relationships, it will result in people not wanting to turn up to your sessions. Maybe you can talk to other coaches for behaviour tips, carry out some research or ask for some honest feedback from your group of players. But the key principle is recognising it as an area for improvement.

Regarding ‘assertiveness’: understand that there is a fine line between assertiveness and aggression. By thinking about what you could have done differently to have made the situation better, you are already on the road to improvement.

And when it comes to boosting your empathy levels, Catherine says one of the easiest ways to do this is to simply ask more questions.

These simple tools can make a huge difference.

The philosopher and the philosophy

Your technical and tactical knowledge may be unrivalled but it does not automatically mean you will be a good coach.

If you are going to fulfil your capabilities, you need to be good learner.

A good learner is someone who aspires to learn the hard way, by putting in some effort, rather than someone who thinks they know it already.

You may have competed at a high standard, and certain skills may have come naturally to you during your playing career. If you have never had to work hard at heading a football or throwing a javelin, you might find it difficult to appreciate the emotions going through players’ minds when they are struggling to perfect those same skills.

Self-awareness, then, offers a solution for every type of coach in every situation. Ignore it – and the built-in principles of EI – and a coach may never fix their flaws, with their dream of reaching for the skies doomed to failure.

As a direct consequence of mastering your inner self, you can expect to see an improvement in performance, an increase in levels of enjoyment and team harmony and, hopefully, the more successful you become in the practice of self-awareness, the more successful your team will become on the field of play.

Or to put it another way, change nothing, and nothing will change.

Next Steps

If you liked this article you might also be interested in:

We’ve also developed four EI videos

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.

What are your thoughts on self-awareness? Please leave a comment below.

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Comments (6)

Very good article, I love ideas about how to improve our outlook and how we coach. It is important to analyse what we do, so we can find different ways to coach different people.
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Thank you for a very good read. I like the way you broke down the EI into four areas and then broke those areas down again. I will try and analyse myself before I start trying to analyse anyone else.
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Excellent Jane, good to hear and keep it up!
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Excellent piece and very useful for my Sports Coaching Masters Research Project, which is around coaching philosophy. Very helpful. Thanks

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Thanks for the feedback Wendy. You might like to key in the word 'philosophy' in the 'Search site' box top right as it will throw up some helpful blogs/discussions on 'coaching philosophy'.

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Excellent article. Thanks for sharing Blake.
Although I am a fairly 'new' coach, I have already seen the benefit of being self-aware of where improvement needs to be made with my coaching especially when this is applied to coaching a diverse group of individuals who all have differing goals. EI is such an interesting subject are well worth learning more about.

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