How to Have Empathy as a Coach While Also Conveying Your Values

There are two kinds of coaches with conviction.

The first coach believes so strongly in his principles that he is convinced his way is the way. Any other way is not only unsuccessful, it is downright beneath him. Because he exudes such fierce confidence in his beliefs, he is able to appeal to a group of like minded extremists that agree with him. To these people, he is almost God-like and commands a cult like following. These members hang on every word he says and emulate all of his actions.

The second coach has just as strong of convictions of her beliefs and principles, yet, she is skilled enough to package those beliefs into language and communication that is galvanizing, not polarizing. She is able to add her perspective to the individual in a method that focuses on collaboration, not dictation.

Where our first inclination is to immediately spit out the medicine that the first coach is feeding, with the second coach, we’ll taste, chew, digest it, and then, likely ask her for seconds because she possesses a high emotional quotient (EQ), understanding her room and savvy enough to communicate to all, while the first coach a very low EQ and does not possess this ability.

To illustrate this point, I want you to think of something that you strongly believe in when it comes to fitness. What is one belief that you hold as your guiding truth, your north star if you will? Perhaps your passion in the gym, or a form of fitness or diet that delivered you purpose, outstanding results, or perhaps both?

Now, what if I came in to coach your coaching and I immediately told you that your belief was incorrect and that you should change the entire way you teach and coach?

What if I did so by listing out ten sound bullet points, explained them politely and with conviction, and at the end, asked, “Now, do you see why I feel this way?”

You might nod politely, at best, but there would be no way in hell that any sort of logic or convincing would change your core principles. They’re written in stone for all of us and you’d internally be telling me to go fuck myself. It is fundamentally human that logic often has no influence over our emotional convictions. We believe what we believe and there usually is no changing our minds. People have literally died for this throughout history.

Knowing this, why would you try to shape, mold, and dictate your beliefs to a room full of others who might not share it? This is what the coach in the first group does, the persuasive, charismatic coach with a low EQ. They jam their conviction down your throat like Indiana Jones being forced to drink the blood in the Temple of Doom (please get this reference).

That’s not coaching. That’s overpowering, and it’s a fleeting method.

The better coach, the one with the high EQ does not water down her beliefs, nor does she try to jam them down your throat, she simply delivers it in a way that won’t necessarily compete with her athlete’s goals. They’ll compliment them.


We have a very large running and endurance community here in San Diego, and one common example that we encounter is the endurance athlete who has trepidation that strength training will slow them down on the course. We’ve been met with the coaching challenge with runners who, during a 5×5 squat day, often remark that they wish to go light because they don’t want to get slow and bulky.

Here, we have two choices of response.

First Coach: Conviction, No Empathy

“No, no. Don’t worry about that. Strength training is one of the smartest things you can do for running because it’s going to prevent injury, improve your economy, and maximize your output, so you definitely want to be going heavier otherwise you won’t get any of those benefits.”

Second Coach: Conviction, With Empathy

“Totally get it. If I was in your shoes I’d have the exact same concern. The last thing that you would want is for your course time to slow down because of what you do in here, so I’m with you. The good news is that there’s a few reasons that’s not likely going to be the case.”

When you get stronger, your running economy improves. You don’t bleed as much force laterally because your core and your glutes are stronger, so your forward line is maintained. Second, you generate more force off the ground each stride, so you will literally be faster because of it. And finally, with stronger glute muscles, your knees and low back take less of a pounding and you won’t lose training time to injury.

“It’s your call, but of the endurance athletes that we have in here, the ones who are most successful are definitely applying a focus on getting stronger and pushing the weight.”

You have one this person’s trust over for life, instantly.

Need you be asked the rhetorical, “Which one is more effective?” You would think the answer is obvious, but we have heard horror stories of endurance athletes going into our competitors and being teased for having endurance goals. A powerlifter should be able to strength train a runner. Empathetic conviction doesn’t ask you to sacrifice your core principles, just to have a high enough EQ to know how to best deliver them for peak effectiveness so that your athlete wins, and you succeed as a coach.

Your beliefs are not in competition with those you teach and coach. Your job is not to convince those you coach of your way. It is to tailor your knowledge in a way that ethically delivers results for the person who has come to see you.

-Dave Thomas


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