The concept of coaching has been around since the early 1800s, when it was used at Oxford University as a way of describing a tutor who “carried” a student through an exam (Wikipedia). Since then, it’s had a mixed reputation. It’s well established and respected in sport, where it’s acknowledged to give the edge in football, baseball, tennis, especially at the professional level. But often carries negative associations when it is mentioned in a workplace context. At best, it implies wasteful indulgence, along the lines of the original Oxford usage (“why can’t he or she figure that out for him/herself?”) and at worst it signals total incompetence (when HR are asked to coach an under-performer). So people tend to think coaching is for other people, not them.
People often confuse coaching and mentoring. They expect a coach to have a thorough understanding of the topic they are coaching on so that they can pass on handy tips. Timothy Gallwey, (Inner Game of Tennis, 1974) a semi-professional tennis player turned legendary coach, discovered that getting his students to concentrate on actions and not tasks (asking them to say ‘bounce’ when the ball bounced, for example) which allowed them to silence their unhelpful thoughts which led to them make amazing improvements in their performance. His methods were so impactful that he ended up coaching other sports that he was unfamiliar with, like skiing as well as performance coaching in large corporations in the US. He was surprised to find that the most successful coaches were often the ones who knew the least about the subject they were coaching.
Coaching, teaching, mentoring. They are very different tools for very different outcomes. Teaching is very appropriate where the learner doesn’t have enough knowledge to make an improvement on their own. Mentoring can be very helpful in giving information that might take a long time to be acquired naturally. Coaching facilitates insight which leads to improved performance, be that thinking or concentration or doing. Essentially, coaching is what you need when you have a sense of what you want (or in some cases, no longer want) but realise that something is getting in the way of achieving that.
At its simplest, coaching is a framework to help you make a plan to achieve a specific goal, be that getting a promotion, losing a stone or improving your serve. Sometimes, you can achieve that on your own. Coaching will help when you can’t. It’s for the times when you can’t figure out how to get something done. It works for a number of reasons:
I’ll leave you with a great definition of coaching, by John Whitmore, who is one of the key figures in modern coaching: “The coach is not a problem solver, a teacher, an advisor, an instructor, or even an expert; he or she is a sounding board, facilitator who...raises awareness and responsibility."
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25 years experience in helping teams build user centred products and services, now helping digital colleagues learn how to bounce back better than before from the challenges life throws at us from time-to-time.