Many years ago I attended a coach training led by a Positive Coaching Alliance (PCA) trainer. Up to that point, I had some pretty great coaching mentors, but that training was a real light bulb moment. Here were all the philosophies, ideals and techniques I had learned from my successful coaching mentors laid out simply and systematically.
From that day forward, PCA has had a huge impact on my coaching, but I’ve also used their tools and philosophies in my everyday life outside of coaching. One PCA concept in particular that resonated with me is that of an “emotional tank”. If you haven’t heard of it before, it’s the idea that to perform our best, we need a full emotional tank and it’s something we need to actively work to manage. Things like mistakes, sarcasm, and even corrections from a coach can be real tank drainers while things like positive, truthful, and specific feedback can be huge tank fillers.
Immensely useful on the pitch, the emotional tank concept has also been super impactful for me in my everyday life. It’s helped me realize that many of the things that I’m good at, things I enjoy even, can be huge tank drainers. For example, in our pre-pandemic lives, going to parties with my wife is something we really enjoy, but while parties fill my wife’s emotional tank, they leave me emotionally drained.
Tank drainers aren’t inherently bad, which is good because they are an unavoidable part of sport and life. It’s important to recognize and understand tank drainers because we don’t perform well, on the pitch or in life, when our emotional tank is empty. Enter tank fillers. Tank fillers come in all shapes and sizes, from a small well-timed “atta girl” to pulling off a flawless Maradona to beat a defender to the delight and kudos of teammates.
That’s great for players, but what about for coaches? I realized several years ago that the basic act of coaching was an enormous tank filler for me. Plenty of times, I’ve felt tired and a bit burned out from work, ready to crash in front of Netflix and veg out. The last thing I feel like doing at that moment is heading out to the pitch for a few hours of coaching. The funny thing about tank fillers though, they aren’t always rational. No matter how tired or burned out I’m feeling, no matter how late into the evening training runs, when training is over, I’m practically bouncing up and down. So what gives? For me and many other coaches I know, the act of coaching a training is a massive emotional tank filler. Even on the nights that I don’t feel like heading out to the pitch, I leave training with a full emotional tank, ready to live my best life the next day.
So when the pandemic hit, and sports at all levels were suspended, I found my emotional tank on perpetual empty. I had structured my commitments in life around a specific emotional tank level, and attempting to fulfill those commitments on an empty emotional tank was not only hard but really damaging to my mental health. Specifically, I saw spikes in my own anxiety and depression as well as less resilience to the minor speed bumps and challenges that are everyday life. The simple act of texting back friends became impossible (and to be honest, that ability is just now coming back). It was eye opening to learn how dependent my emotional tank level, and therefore my ability to perform unrelated tasks in life, had become on coaching.
Around the time that we learned more about COVID-19 and began figuring out how to safely return to sports, I began to hear anecdotes of just how negatively the lack of sports and the connection it brings were impacting the players I coached. I think it was hard for non-athletes to understand with people dying from COVID-19, why on earth would you risk a return to sport, especially in such a compromised form (masks, no contact, no contests, etc). The physical health and safety of players, coaches, families, and the greater community should clearly be everyone’s top priority. It was easy to empathize with how much the lack of sport was impacting the mental health and success off the pitch of players, because I could see first hand how much it was impacting me.
Connecting with players, creating an environment where they can learn life lessons through sports, and especially watching players improve, are huge emotional tank fillers for me. So many of the experiences of sports translate directly into important lifelong skills: teamwork, resilience, the relationship between hard work and development, having a growth mindset, how to hold teammates accountable, the list goes on and on. Watching players have that “a ha” moment and knowing they’ll carry the lessons and experiences from sports throughout their lives is enormously gratifying. It’s like watching them learn to ride a bike: one minute they can’t, and the next minute they can, forever. There’s no doubt it’s a lot tougher to coach a successful training with pandemic-inspired restrictions, but so many of the most gratifying parts of participating in sports are still possible despite the safety protocols of the past year.
Returning to the pitch this past fall, even in an extremely limited form, was magical for the mental health of our players and coaches alike. At the end of training, our teams share “favorite moments”, where players enumerate the best part of that training session. Typically, favorite moments are about a cool drill we just ran, about a teammate that made a skills breakthrough or even about something funny that happened out on the pitch. Now more often than not, player favorite moments are “I just love being here with y'all” and “our trainings are the best part of my week”. Whew, is somebody cutting onions in here?
Sometimes you don’t realize how important something is to you until it’s gone. I’m super grateful for all the research and effort our local leagues and high schools have put into planning a safe return to sports, limited as they may be, because participating in sports is a huge part of the mental health of players and coaches alike and impactful way beyond what happens out on the pitch.
This article originally appeared in Women’s Soccer Coaching’s monthly magazine, reprinted here with their kind permission. For more great content about coaching female soccer players, visit them at womenssoccercoaching.com.
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