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The Art of Coaching: Why Do You Hire a Coach?

I was surprised to find in The New Yorker an article on coaching.  Written by surgeon Atul Gawande in the October 3, 2011, issue, “Personal Best:  Top Athletes and Singers Have Coaches.  Should You?” is by far the most succinct treatise on the definition of and benefits of coaching I have ever read.

As a surgeon, after years of improved performance compared with national statistics, he found his performance was plateauing.  At forty-five he thought perhaps this is what happens when you reach a certain stage of a late-peaking career.  And then he fortuitously came upon a tennis coach, who helped him improve his serve immediately, which led to further consideration of the art of coaching and his hiring an experienced, retired surgeon to coach him during surgery.

I suggest you read the entire article, though here are the insights I found well-worth remembering for both practitioners and users of coaching services:

  • “Coaches are not teachers, but they teach.  They’re not your boss…but they can be bossy.  They don’t even have to be good at [what they’re coaching.]  Mainly, they observe, they judge and they guide.”
  • “Nearly every elite tennis player in the world uses a coach.  Professional athletes use coaches to make sure they are as good as they can be.   Vocalists employ voice coaches throughout their careers.”
  • Coaches suggest to you what you want to do yourself.
  • Coaches teach you to trust your ability to be effective.
  • “Not all coaches are effective.  But good coaches know how to break down performance into its critical individual components.”
  • “Good coaches speak with credibility, make a personal connection, and focus little on themselves.  They are one hundred percent present in the conversation.”
  • The artful ones convey discomfiting information directly but respectfully.
  • Modern society, with its increasing complexity, depends on ordinary people doing extraordinary things, and when guidance is absent, most people will not succeed at these tasks. Coaching is becoming more important.

After employing a coach and surveying the coaching landscape, Dr. Gawande sums up his experience with these few sentences:  “Coaching done well may be the most effective intervention designed for human performance….The existence of a coach requires an acknowledgement that even expert practitioners have significant room for improvement.”  He then goes on to ask whether we, as a society, are ready to confront this last fact when we are in a coach’s care.

On my web site you’ll find a brief video of Google’s Eric Schmidt where he is quoted as saying ‘everyone needs a coach.’  Dr. Gawande’s article supports that premise and provides examples across numerous professions where coaches can and have made a difference.