Personal perspectives

How to use coaching to improve at anything

Three minutes
Nick Spinks Tuesday, September 27th, 2016

For much of his career, Roger Federer did not have a coach.

Think about that.

Arguably, the greatest tennis player in history racked up most of his Grand Slams without assistance, relying purely on his own genius.

But here’s the thing:

Roger Federer is an outlier.

This is not typical of anyone who aspires to reach the top of their profession or sport. People like this need someone there to guide them, to nurture them, or to develop them.

It’s hard to imagine the Western Bulldogs of 2016 would be in the position they’re in without Luke Beveridge, just as it is difficult to imagine the team the Bulldogs vanquished, Hawthorn, having their success without Alastair Clarkson at the helm.

Indeed, it is not just sport where coaching takes people to the next level. In the New Yorker, Atul Gawande has written about the proliferation of coaching in professional circles, particularly teaching and medicine.

As most high quality teachers or doctors will tell you, no matter how experienced you are, you never stop learning and improving.

As a young tennis player, Kit was there to show me how to hit a forehand.

A family friend, Nick, taught me how to rip a leggie after I saw Shane Warne doing it on TV.

My college hockey coach, Llama, showed me a minor technical improvement that resulted in my first ICC goal.

Now, in a professional context, I have been fortunate to be the beneficiary of coaching. First as a teacher, through the Teach for Australia program. I am in no doubt whatsoever that this coaching improved my teaching immeasurably.

On one occasion, I remember one of my mentors, Mike, watching a class.

“I just smashed that,” I thought to myself.

I was ready to head off, give myself a pat on the back and order a piece of cake.

Not so fast.

When Mike and I debriefed the lesson, it became obvious to me that with a few minor amendments to the lesson, I could have achieved the lesson objective in a more engaging way. That, would have resulted in a better lesson. The pat on the back I was ready to give myself turned into a kick in the butt that I didn’t think of the improvement myself, before the lesson.

Now, as I aspire to school leadership, I have been the beneficiary of leadership coaching through my participation in the Teach to Lead program.

One of the quirks of the professional world, in any profession – be it medicine, teaching, law, the list goes on – is that once someone goes up the ranks, they get more responsibility. Often this includes managing people.

However, it does not follow that showing competence in your professional duties means you’re properly equipped to manage a team of people or a workplace culture.

My professional experience has shown that, sadly, the opposite is often the case. In many cases, the abilities that made someone good at their job means they’re unsuited to naturally assume leadership.

That’s why Kalpana, my leadership coach, has been invaluable in my professional journey.

We have a relationship of mutual respect and, crucially, she understands my personal idiosyncrasies can be strengths, but also weaknesses. Understanding those weaknesses has made me far more equipped to be effective in my leadership journey.

If anyone aspires to be as good as they can be, they should have their own Mike, or their own Kalpana. Certainly, I am fortunate that the Teach to Lead program has given me this opportunity to develop my leadership skills, and to pick out the technical areas that need some work.

I’ll leave the last word to Gawande:

“Coaching done well may be the most effective intervention designed for human performance.”

I couldn’t agree more.

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