Coaching in Emotional Control

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Rare is the coach who at some point in a season hasn’t been on the verge of losing his or her cool. Those who succumb to their emotions are the subject of social media sites, fan chats, newspaper and magazine articles and nightly sportscasts. One recent sideline episode that garnered national attention was University of Florida head football coach Jim McElwain yelling profanities in the face of one of his players.

The bounds of acceptance of such outbursts have been tested over the years, be it by baseball’s Billy Martin, football’s Woody Hayes, or basketball’s Bob Knight. And yet so frequent is the tirade over a call or berating of an athlete that generations of sports fans and participants have almost come to expect coaches to demonstrate such behavior during a season, if not every game. When I ask my college coaching class students if they ever had a coach who “lost it,” inevitably every hand goes up.

Sport and coaching are rife with emotions. Coaches are passionate about what they do, and highly competitive by nature, as they should be. So the aim is not to suppress coaches’ emotions or they will come across as phony and lose both the trust of their athletes and their edge. The goal instead is to coach with genuine emotion–an authentic display of the feelings experienced at the time–but in a controlled way that will best help the athletes learn and perform.

Indeed, coaches should embrace the heightened emotions that naturally come with competing. For example, championship NFL coach Pete Carroll is renowned for coaching with emotion, but he focuses on using that emotion in a positive way. He has found that his teams achieve more when he models responsible behavior and creates a culture of positive emotion. Instead of yelling at an athlete when they make a mistake, coach Carroll suggests asking yourself ‘What can I tell that athlete that will help him or her do the right thing next?’

Although yelling and screaming in an athlete’s face when they do something inappropriate or perform a skill incorrectly may be an authentic display of coach emotions, it does nothing to help the athlete learn or go back out and achieve peak performance. Nor does it model poise and emotional control for the rest of the team and coaching staff.

Two important general rules of thumb for coaches to remember when emotions run high:

> Do not embarrass yourself or another.
> Never make it personal.

When coaches berate an athlete in front of their teammates or focus on who they are as a person instead of their immediate behavior, it significantly diminishes the chances of that athlete hearing or accepting the message or being able to return at a high level of performance.

Coaches can improve their ability to coach with poise and improve athlete development and performance by following the 4 R’s approach to emotional control.

• Reveal. When an athlete does something that gets you frustrated, show your genuine emotion in an appropriate way. This could be a stern glare or a shift in body language (arms crossed).

• Reason. Next, tell the athlete why you are disappointed. Athletes aren’t mind-readers, never assume they know why you are frustrated. For example, if you noticed that an athlete was gloating over an opponent after a play, tell them that you saw that and remind them that type of behavior is not consistent with our core values as a team.

• Reprimand. Issue a consequence for the athlete behavior if needed or deemed appropriate. This might include removing the athlete from the game or practice, or making a note about the incident and issuing a consequence after the event if it is severe enough or if you have a team policy that identifies repercussions for that type of behavior (e.g., athlete code of conduct).

• Refocus. Unless it is at the end of a competition or practice, the athlete may be expected to return to play. Your role as a coach now shifts to helping the athlete refocus for re-entry into the game or practice, when you determine it is appropriate. After the reprimand, re-assure the athlete that you believe in them and their ability to move on from the poor decision and make a positive contribution to the team.


By reflecting on typical situations that are personally frustrating, coaches can prepare themselves to respond with poise. Make a list of high emotion inducing events that can occur in practices and competition (athletes late to practice, athletes not listening, poor attitude or effort, taunting opponents, questionable officiating). Next, for each situation prepare a contingency plan for how you will respond with poise.

A time-tested strategy that coaches can include in their contingency plan is ‘count and breathe’. It seems simple, but perhaps the most powerful emotional control strategy is to simply count to three and focus on deep breathing. When you find yourself ‘losing it’, take a deep breath by inhaling through your nose while focusing on raising your belly, then your chest, while counting to three. Hold the breath for one second, then forcefully exhale through your mouth. This strategy will quickly lower your stress level and put you in a better frame of mind for deciding how to respond to a frustrating situation.

Legendary championship coaches such as Tom Osborne (football), Tony DiCicco (soccer) and Dan Gable (wrestling) all taught emotional control strategies such as this to their athletes. For example, Dan Gable used to require that his athletes count to 10 before they went to shake an opponent’s hand following a match. If it works for athletes, why not for coaches too?

The best coaches coach with passion and genuine emotion. However, these coaches also learn how to govern their emotions and model emotional control for their athletes. Coaches succeed, and gain the trust and respect of their athletes, when they coach with poise and teach with positive emotion.


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Diaz, H. (2015, September 13). Florida coach Jim McElwain in sideline rant to player after penalty: ‘F***ing be a man!’. SB Nation. Retrieved from

DiCicco, T., & Hacker, C., with Salzberg, C. (2002). Catch them being good: Everything you need to know to successfully coach girls. New York: Viking.

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Ravizza, K., & Osborne, T. (1991). Nebraska’s 3 R’s: One-play-at-a-time preperformance routine for collegiate football. The Sport Psychologist, 5, 256-265. (n.d.). Another Pete Carroll video Q&A [#AskCoach No. 4 – Yelling at players]. Retrieved from

Sports coach UK. (2015). Emotional coaching [Sports coach UK research summary 7]. Retrieved from

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