Empathy: put yourself in their cleats (via Onrise)

Editor’s Note (Nov. 13, 2023): This article was submitted by Onrise, which US Club Soccer has partnered with for ongoing educational resources related to mental health.

There are three parts to empathy. The first is recognizing a circumstance or emotion. The second is engaging with what the person is feeling (putting yourself in their shoes). The third is the action it makes you take. Let’s break down empathy: 

  1. Recognizing a circumstance or emotion. Babies start doing this at a very young age. Babies read faces all day. They soak up others’ emotions and they make meaning from different faces. As humans grow older, this becomes a skill we develop. We recognize that something is happening or a friend is going through something. As a child, we may recognize a circumstance that is filled with anger, but as time progresses, we develop the ability to see a situation as more complex than that. The simple recognition of anger in context with the circumstance turns into: “oh, that may actually be disappointment.” 
  2. Engage with how the other person is feeling. When we can see emotions in a more complex manner and perhaps as multi-faceted, we begin to see what contributes to that feeling. Listening deeply to others’ stories, tone of voice, and words allow us to start to understand what they are going through.
  3. Take action. When you feel deep empathy toward others, often times it evokes a reaction. It is important to ask the person who is going through the circumstances if they want support. Sometimes the best action can be no action at all. Being a non-judgmental outlet may be the best action for that person at the time. If they do ask for help, make sure you are protecting yourself, as well.  

How to practice putting yourself in their cleats: 

Athletes: Empathy pops up all the time in sports. It starts with supporting your teammates. Don’t assume you know everything about your teammates. That one teammate who is always late for practice and never has to do the warm-up fully; maybe they just took the bus to practice, or maybe they have another job. Ask questions to try and understand more about what a teammate may be going through. Actively listen to their concerns, offer encouragement, or ask your parents or guardians for resources to help a teammate. When you have empathy for your teammates, you can build respect for opponents. Respecting your opponents feeds directly into sportsmanship. When we show sportsmanship towards opponents, we are practicing empathy. How would you like to be treated if your team was just scored on in the last 20 seconds of the game? Again, put yourself in the opposition’s cleats. The number one thing is being aware of your surroundings. If you are recognizing the people around you, whether that is the fans, coaches, or your teammates, you’re on the right track to becoming an empathetic teammate.  

Referees: One of the best things you can do as an official before a match is understand the context of the game. Is this the championship game of a tournament? Are these rival teams? By showing an understanding of the circumstances of the game, you are able to empathize with the athletes and the intensity brought to the match. Additionally, if this is a big match, make sure to keep an open line of communication throughout with the captains and coaches. They have a lot of influence over their teammates. Allow players to express their viewpoints and concerns. The ability to seek clarification in decisions in a respectful manner is crucial to practicing empathy. When there is a two-way line of communication between the players and the referees, the players feel heard and gain a sense of fairness throughout the game.  

Coaches: Empathy promotes unity. By seeing players as individuals with unique stories, they will feel heard. Allen Fincher, Executive Director of Business at Lonestar Soccer Club, expressed the importance of empathy: “I firmly believe that understanding and getting to know each and every player is paramount to their holistic development. Every individual who steps onto the field at our club carries a world of possibilities beyond their role as a youth soccer player. It is crucial for us to take the time to truly know them, to empathize with their emotions, and to appreciate them as unique human beings, not just as soccer players. By investing in their individual journeys, we empower them to excel not only on the field but also in various facets of life, fostering their personal growth and success.” One strategy to cultivate empathy within your team can be setting aside time before practice to ask about every player’s day. When you know what the individuals on your team are carrying with them that day, you are able to walk a fine line of pushing for excellence without pushing too hard. 


Kevin Orpurt (pictured), Chief Clinical Officer and LCSW for Onrise: “As a therapist, I know my patients will not trust me until they have felt heard. Empathy is the vehicle through which they know I can hear them. Before jumping into feedback, make sure your players feel heard by you. “ 

Parents: You are the ultimate guide for your child to learn empathy from. After a big game, be a positive role model. React to circumstances as you would want your child to react. By demonstrating empathy in your own behavior through your interactions with others, you are teaching your children to do the same. You can do this by including coaches in team dinners while you’re away on a tournament, thanking referees despite the outcome of the match, and treating the other team’s parents with kindness. You can show empathy by acknowledging your child’s feelings, avoiding excess pressure, and celebrating effort and progress.  

Empathy promotes unity. Before reacting, ask yourself: “What is it like to be in their cleats?”  


Onrise is a compassionate player care and mental health company. We are a place where retired athletes and clinicians unite to revolutionize athlete mental health care. At Onrise, we believe that everyone needs efficient strategies to cope with mental challenges both on and off the field. From game day to a big test day, our mission is to ensure that athletes have access to high-quality athlete to athlete support, therapy, and psychiatric care, regardless of their circumstances. Check out our website for more information.


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