Empathy and Action in Sports Education


The word empathy is used a lot in educational circles.  It would seem like a no-brainer.  If we are keen to help someone become better, it’s sensible to look at it from the their perspective.

Empathy can be defined as “the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within the other being’s frame of reference”.  I can’t find words which refer to the application of empathy once we’ve acknowledged where the other person is coming from.  Maybe it’s because of the range of potential contexts.  Maybe for us it’s just good engagement?

In a wider context, Jeremy Rifkin offers a detailed explanation of empathy and its importance.  If you have 10 minutes it’s an interesting watch. If not we’ll just define empathy as seeing things from another persons perspective and acting accordingly.

Who are they?  What has their journey been?  How are they today?

I suspect most people would feel these are important things to take on board when engaging with learners, and that they should influence our delivery content and delivery approach.  That said, many of us ignore them when we’re in the thick of planning, delivery and evaluation of our programmes.  It might be because we have spent time planning the programme. Maybe it’s difficult to roll with the “I’ve had a bad day” punch. Many of us carry on regardless.  How should we respond if we do ask the small question (“How are you?”), with a potentially complex answer (“Well……where to start….”)?

Some time ago in A whole new mind Daniel Pink, identified that we are in a conceptual age.  If we are to succeed he suggested we need “to empathize, to understand the subtleties of human interaction, to find joy in one’s self and elicit it in others”.

Despite this age being upon us, there appears to be a decline in people’s empathy.  In the US, President Obama coined the phrase empathy deficit to identify the gap between need for people to show empathy and people actually being empathetic.

Those of us involved in sports education need to both be empathic in our learner engagements, and foster the development of empathy in those around us.  After all it would be good to feel any engagement is a true mutually beneficial relationship.  If we’ve had a bad day, maybe there are things those learning with us can do to enhance today’s experience.

Developing Empathy

Growing Leaders offers some really useful practical tips on how to understand the world our learners are in, and how to help them be more empathetic in it.  Its focused on young people but the potential implications scan be applied to adult learners.

In his work with sports coach UK, clinical psychologist Steve Rollnick confirms there is plenty of evidence about listening with empathy impacting on the development of people.

So let’s bridge the gap shown in the empathy deficit.  Let’s build in time to listen to our learners, and then act accordingly with compassion.  For those of us that really do want to help the world be a better place it should be an easy thing to do.

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