Coaching – an event or an environment?

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I love coaching – I love watching it, teaching it, observing it… and being coached.  I love that you sometimes witness great coaching when you least expect it and hate it when someone misses a prime opportunity to make a difference.

My youngest son practises Karate.   As he has progressed through his grades, his opportunity to compete has increased.  I am having to get used to standing on the side lines as a spectator watching him take up his fighting stance opposite a child who, to an overprotective mother, looks twice his size.   Karate competitions are not for the faint hearted; they really do punch and kick each other, but, in the midst of all this aggression, there is great coaching to be witnessed.   At a recent event, I witnessed some of the best coaching I had seen in a long time.

all they had to do was guide them to find the answer and fast. 

You would expect to hear some final words of encouragement from coaches as the competitors step up to fight. However, during this particular fight between two primary school boys, the judges, who were also the Sensei’s responsible for teaching the boys week in week out, stepped in to calm the competitors when they became a little too aggressive after one boy took a direct hit.  As the boys stood back, both Sensei’s immediately reverted to coach mode.  Each turned to a competitor, got down to their level and began talking to them – coaching them.  At that moment, they needed the boys to silence their inner voice, relax and let their training kick in again – if you will excuse the pun.

So what made this coaching so good?  Firstly, this coaching was completely in the moment focusing on the ‘here and now’ rather than on the distant past or future.  There certainly wasn’t a script, there wasn’t a checklist or a list of criteria that I could check off, and there certainly wasn’t any time for a demonstration.   Compare that to a typical T&C scheme where we talk of coaching as an event typically lasting at least 30 minutes and often pre-arranged.  In the same way as with our two little fighters, we expect to see a change of behaviour following the intervention, but one difference here was that the coaching was a simply short, swift reminder of what the boys needed to focus on.  Secondly, the Sensei’s were clearly helping the individual to improve their own performance: in other words, helping the boys to learn what to do in this situation rather than teaching them.  The boys knew what they needed to do, they had practised their techniques at every training session.  The training session was where they were taught how to position their bodies correctly, how to exhale as they hit out to help prevent them being winded, how to read the signs to anticipate what their opponent was going to do and importantly, how to outsmart them.   These coaches knew that the boys had the answer to their own problems as they stood there, all they had to do was guide them to find the answer and fast.

In training and competence circles we talk about ‘driving through the correct behaviours’.  Much of what we do is about trying to steer employees to behave in the ways that we want them to.  We want them to produce better quality work, improve their performance, serve our customers better, act like leaders, and the list goes on.  Essentially, we want them to mould their behaviour to fit with our objectives.  We know that to do this we need to communicate what we want and then model the behaviour we want to see but how do we replicate this in our T&C schemes?   What impact do we have on colleague behaviour with our requirement to observe and assess a coaching event?

As with the superb coaching I witnessed, there are a lot of parallels we should be seeking to draw into our coaching sessions from the sporting world, such as:

  • Adding value  – Compelling a supervisor to ‘create’ a coaching event just so it can be observed, is not consistent with the coaching behaviours we want to encourage.  We want coaches to enhance a colleague’s performance and boost their job satisfaction.  To truly add value, we know that coaching must be relevant and in the moment.  This is a mismatch with the pre-prepared coaching event done on a periodic basis.  For coaching to be most effective, it must be timely and relevant.
  • Focus on the individual – What makes one person tick will be very different to another.   It is part of the coach’s skill to get under the individual’s skin and tailor any coaching interventions to what works for them.  Scripts take away from the coach’s ability to be natural and adapt the session as necessary.   I am not talking here of the full-on word by word script, but having a set order in which the assessment criteria must be observed can be very restrictive.
  • Watch your language – we all know the importance of positive language in our communication but it is especially important when coaching. The words, tone and emphasis must match the individual’s needs.  Some people need warm words to of caring encouragement while others require clear and concise technical discussion, where for some, just a strong arm suffices. Nowhere do we ever see an approach that upsets or hurts people’s feelings.  Using negative language to focus on the behaviour we want to change can sometimes feel like a long list of things that the colleague is doing wrong and the last thing we want to do in a coaching session is to demotivate or worse, alienate.  Think about how you can distract the individual away from the negative behaviour without having to focus on it.  Telling someone to talk slower when they are nervous doesn’t help, but suggesting they scrunch their toes repeatedly, takes their focus away from their negative behaviour and so they relax.

Coaching is not about a ‘one size fits all’ approach.   It is not something that can be taught on a two-day course and rolled out only when it needs to be observed.  What I saw that day was completely natural and something can only become that natural, when it is done all the time.  You should perform it daily, seek every opportunity to practise, learn from the other coaches around you and look outside your day to day world for inspiration.   Put simply, to me coaching is not an event – it is an environment.  It is an environment that needs to be nurtured.   This is the behaviour we need to drive through on coaching in our T&C Scheme.   Just as good coaching is something that develops over time, a good coach takes time to produce results.   Each intervention will change the behaviour, slightly, but it will need to be revisited and adjusted along the journey if individual is to achieve their goal.  So, surely, when we observe a supervisor’s ability to coach, shouldn’t we be following a series of sessions all linked to one goal?   Only then can we truly assess if the coach was successful in helping the individual to learn how to achieve their goal – and so be a competent coach.

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About Author

As an experienced and professional Consultant and Training Professional, I have had the privilege of working across a wide range of companies and business areas predominately in the Financial Services sector. Wherever I am and whatever job role I am undertaking on behalf of a client, you will always find me influencing and driving others to produce results.

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