The Intangibles in Sport, How to Support Them as a Performance Coach

Updated: Jul 16

We all learn in many different ways, and each athlete responds to different influences, skills, approaches, and motivations.

The purpose of this article is to share with you some of my findings as a performance coach attempting to support and influence the intangible skills of athletes. With over 3 decades of coaching experience and thousands of hours in training as a former high school and collegiate athlete, I find that one thing remains true: athletes are individually unique, and successful coaches begin their relationship with that in mind.

The purpose of this article is to share with you some of my findings as a performance coach attempting to support and influence the intangible skills of athletes. With over 3 decades of coaching experience and thousands of hours in training as a former high school and collegiate athlete, I find that one thing remains true: athletes are individually unique, and successful coaches begin their relationship with that in mind.

Once the athlete’s learning style is established, it is time to evaluate the athlete’s overall skill and performance. This helps me separate the athlete’s skills into tangible and intangible groups. There are standard methods used to hone in physical skills, i.e., tangible skills. Coaches routinely develop these primary hard skill sets: Speed and Agility, Hand-Eye coordination, Strength & Conditioning, Process, and Games/Sport with specific drills and exercise. I would also add the Rule of Sport and Fixed Exercise as secondary tangle skills worth mentioning. Now let’s move on to the meat and potatoes, the intangible skills, which are harder to guide and influence. For these critical skills, which in some cases get overlooked, it is important to create a system to address how to best support each intangible attribute the athlete possesses. I like to build lists to help me keep track of these intangible skills. Here is my list of primary soft skill sets: Drive, Feel, Heart, Mindset, Competitive Instinct. In addition to the primary skills mentioned above, I find that most successful coaches address Perspective and Tolerance as secondary intangible skills that must be evaluated. Now that the lists of soft and hard skills have been identified let me share with you some of my revelations.


Let’s begin with “Drive,” defined as an innate ability giving one a biologically determined urge to attain a goal. Where does this urge come from? What does it physically look like? How do you teach or reproduce it in all athletes? I am going to go out on a limb and say that if we, coaches and athletes, had the answers to these questions the world would be filled with invincible athletes. The truth is “Drive” and the urge that comes from it may only exist in some of us. Those fortunate enough to have the biological pre-wiring to tap into this ability/skill may have a considerable advantage in sport. I am sure that many have attempted to bottle “Drive” in some way, shape, or form. I am also sure that it has found its way out of the bottle.

Drive” is a soft skill that comes from within and may not be affected by exogenous forces at all. I have found in my time coaching athletes that “Drive” is something you tease out of an athlete and not try to put into them. It takes observation and communication to assist the athlete in finding this attribute inside themselves. Once the athlete taps into this endogenous skill, he or she can then increase the amount of “Drive” they allow themselves to utilize.


Manifestations of “Drive” in training appear in an athlete’s practice start and stop times, in their input and output quality, and is often referred to as “effort.” “Drive,” in many ways, defines an athlete in the minds of his or her coaches, peers, competitors, and spectators. The desire to push oneself beyond the limits of one’s sport such as diving for the loose ball, rounding the base to extend an inning, running down an offender from behind to stop a game winning touchdown are all characteristics of “Drive”. “Drive” also could be seen as enduring immense pain or agony to finish a race even when injured. This attribute has many faces but one thing is certain about “Drive”: you do not put it in, you take it out of the athlete. This is merely my opinion on the matter and if you believe differently, I would love for you to share your opinion on “Drive” with me.

Next comes “Feel.” Like “Drive,” it is also an innate ability. “Feel” as an attribute deals more with sensations, be it physical or emotional, and the ability to process these sensations in the midst of performing high level tasks in sport. “Feel” has been used to refer to a basketball player’s shooting style, a pitcher’s throwing motion, a running backs sensory perception when coming through a line. Many athletes when asked how they performed a particularly amazing play, shot, goal, stroke, or finish will say they just “felt” it and did it. “Feel” has led some players to over-trust this ability to the point of paralysis. On the flip side, other athletes have utilized the skill to near perfect application and are able to reap the benefits in their performance in sport. “Feel” cannot be taught. However, putting the right supports around a player with a high “Feel” attribute can be a blessing to both player and coach. It takes a village to assist a “Feel” athlete and a strong support team for when the feeling goes or comes.

Along with “Feel” there is “Heart”. This attribute is often referenced in sport about athletes. You cannot see, taste, touch, or smell “Heart” in sport, but we hear the term used a lot when an athlete shows great resolve or courage. “Heart” is a more sensate skill, tied to the inward emotional state of an athlete. “She had the heart of a lion,” “he showed more heart than 10 men on the field,” “it takes guts to take all that punishment and keep going.” Phrases like these have been used to reference an athlete that shows great character under extreme pressure. Where does it come from? Do we all have it? What drills can we do to increase our “Heart?” The answers are nearly the same as above: from within, maybe not, I have not found one specific drill to address this skill.


Sure, I have done my fair share of man in the middle drills, and other 1V1, and 1V2 drills to test certain attributes. These drills more often tell me who does not have the attribute rather than assist me in developing the skill in all my athletes. “Heart” comes from somewhere way down deep inside a person. It is for sure biological in nature, and could be genetic as well. But when does it come out or turn on? Only time will tell when this skill will emerge. The thing I have found that works best for me is to TEST, TEST, TEST, and TEST again an athlete’s ability to endure the rigors of sport.

I am not saying put athletes in dangerous situations and see if they have “Heart”. However, what is important is that a coach allow their athlete to find out how the player stands up to the pressures of a sport. They must find out to what degree this intangible skill exists in the athlete. Remember, the goal is progressing the athlete toward become good/great at a particular sport, or at the very least, better than they were prior to the coach’s influence. Coaches, we now need to watch our players progress, manage their outcomes, support their efforts, and develop this attribute in the athlete.

Mindset” be it (Fixed) or (Growth) oriented is an established attitude held by someone. “Mindset” like the other skills mentioned above is an intangible skill that comes from inside the athlete. Unlike the others though it can directly be influenced by outside forces. The ability to hold firm or stay fixed in once’s belief in themselves, or to allow oneself to grow can be supported with outside stimuli. A coach, teammate, counselor, or others can motivate an athlete to a higher output or give a better effort. Likewise, these same individuals can assist the athlete in hold firm to his or her beliefs about their performance or role, allowing the athlete to maintain efficiency or empower others around her or him to a greater performance.

Mindset” can overcome setbacks, can help an athlete harness the power to laser focus to a goal, and can will the athlete to a win. It can also be fixed in a way that blocks performance and hinders development of an athlete to his or her highest potential. “Mindset” is one of the most powerful soft skills an athlete possesses because it taps into what motivates an athlete to perform, or not. There is a time when being firm as a coach is the right call to help support an athlete’s “Mindset”. In other cases, it may be a comforting arm over the shoulders or a kind word to serves as a reminder that he or she is human and not machine. “Mindset” can be tricky, so be sure not to take it for granted, as it could have disastrous repercussions.

The last of the primary soft skills is “Competitive Instinct”. It is rooted in behavior patterning, and is also an innate skill. It may appear early in development or grow as the athlete matures and become more aware of its importance in sport and life.Competitive Instinct” is a double-edged sword, it can be a gift or a curse for some athletes. “Competitive Instinct” tells some athletes to take over a game at critical times and put the team on their proverbial shoulders and carry them across the finish line. In other cases, “Competitive Instinct” makes an athlete’s appetite for the spotlight and all that comes with it so great that they may make critical mistakes at pivotal times.

The key to supporting this intangible skill is knowing when to encourage the athlete to turn the frequency of this skill up or down in critical moments. “Competitive Instinct” is a skill that needs the right amount of ebb and flow to keep the athlete from running hot or becoming too self-absorbed. A coach must keep a keen eye open for this skill and maintain a very clear and open line of communication with the athlete. This may require excellent listening and communication skills on the part of the coach.


As I mentioned earlier, “Perspective” and “Tolerance” received honorable mentions in my listing. Each are soft skills and are intangible. “Perspective” deals with an athletes view of sport, their role in that sport, and their perceptions of others roles as well. “Tolerance” is an emotional sense that is similar to endurance but takes the form of emotional fortitude rather than conditioning. Think of it as a question. “How long, emotionally, can you stay in a sauna or cold plunge before you need to hop out?” There are health benefits from both but too much of either can be harmful.

These two attributes require an open-minded coach and support team. Being able to see things from another’s perspective is a wonderful skill. You will be greatly rewarded for having this skill in your quiver as a coach. Along with empathy you will need to be able to communicate a clear direction for athletes that seem to have a perspective that runs counter to your own. To support “Tolerance” you will need to identify when an athlete has reached her or his maximum output for a said practice, season, or cycle and be able to convince the athlete to take necessary breaks so as not to over train or injure themselves.

Please understand this article is not to imply my way is the perfect or only way to develop these skill sets but to convey that all athletes are unique, may not respond to the same stimuli, and need the support of caring knowledgeable coaches to help develop the intangible gifts these athletes posse