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Connected Coaching: Part One

Part 1: Seeing

A few years ago I noticed that the women rugby players I coached supported each other by saying “I see you.” This phrase was often delivered to one teammate at a time in a loud but calm voice as in, “I see you Sandra”. This comment, typically used when the competitive action was intense, was quite powerful to those singled out. “I see you” translated to “I see who you are; I know your heart and I have faith in you.” In my experience, this is one of the most powerful things one player can say to one another, and as a coach, “I see you” is one of the most galvanizing sentiments I can offer to a player. But for the sentiment to be received as authentic, I must perceive within myself and demonstrate to others the connection between my own experiences (both success and failure) and the experience my player is having in the moment. (Clinchy).

It can be difficult to be this kind of “connected coach.” It is easier to tell a player where she went wrong and to impart information to her rather than share my knowledge and experiences with her. Connected coaching means working to discern what a player is doing right and using this as a basis for a meaningful and productive alliance. This approach does not mean that I avoid instruction about errors or that I never raise my voice; it rather requires a certain mutuality in which I assume the perspectives of players and simultaneously recognize that they are trying to understand and enter into my perspective (Clinchy).

In the groundbreaking work, Women’s Ways of Knowing, pioneers in gender and pedagogy, Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberg and Tarule proposed that women have a predilection for connected knowing, meaning they would rather think with someone than against someone. Connected knowing stands in contrast to “separate knowing.” Separate knowing values analysis, detachment and objectivity. The primary mode of discourse for separate knowing is argument; students are taught to look for the weakness in a known position and to construct an argument promoting the “right” position. However, Belenky and her colleagues found that in a connected classroom women are less focused on being “right” if being right threatens the social dynamic. Indeed, women often find arguing in class distracting or threatening. It is not that women will not argue or must be placated, but rather that women prefer not to separate the knower from the known. Those who coach women athletes should understand that competition on the individual level; pitting players against one another, may feel in conflict with the core of women’s psyche.

There is evidence that there are physiological explanations for the female connected perspective. Specifically, research supports that when under stress, humans produce “fight or flight” hormones like adrenaline. Women however, also produce oxytocin, which buffers the “flight or fight” response and has a pronounced calming effect (Brizendine). The result is that women respond to stress by forming connections and looking for support from their community, a response that researchers term a “tend and befriend” response.

When the players I coach say, “I see you,” the response from the player on the field is likely to be “I got you”, (not I got this, but I got you).
In such an exchange, players demonstrate empathy and camaraderie. When these connections are allowed to flourish, the results can be astounding. Good players become great and good teams win championships. Learning is a social construct and coaches have the power to construct environments that connect or separate. Sport programs organized around connection would be formidable and change the way we think about teaching, learning and sport performance. I see that.

Belenky, Mary F., Blythe McVicker Clinchy, Nancy R. Goldberg, and Jill M. Tarule. (1986). Women’s Ways of Knowing. New York, NY: Basic Books

Brizendine, Louann. (2007) The Female Brain. New York: Broadway Books

Clinchy, Blythe, (1985). “Connected and Separate Knowing.” Paper presented at the Eight Biennial Meeting of the International Society for the Study of Behavioral Development, Tours, France

About the Author:
Kerrissa Heffernan Ed.D is the Co-Director of Engaged Sport Strategies,
Director of the Royce Fellowship at Brown University and Assistant Rugby Coach at Brown. Contact her at