On great coaches and their importance

While we take it as a given that elite athletes and performers (e.g., musicians) must have coaching, when it comes to everyone else we don’t quite see the benefit. Sure, occasionally you hear about a struggling CEO hiring a coach, or about legendary figures such as Bill Campbell, but that’s about it. These cases either apply only to really top executives, those who are struggling, or both. My admittedly unscientific survey of a few friends indicates that the closest thing most people have for a coach is their gym’s personal trainer. I guess most folks either don’t think they need one, think the improvement is not worth the investment, or just think they are “good enough.” Until a year and half ago, I was in that camp as well.

Over the last 18 months, I’ve had the privilege of working with three amazing individuals, who coached me on fitness and recovery, executive leadership and awareness, and climbing with life-changing results. In no small part as a result of their coaching and influence, I:

  • Radically enhanced my self-awareness, leading to meaningful step up in my leadership and communication style. The feedback I received at the end of that process was both reaffirming and surprisingly positive.
  • Explored and refined my vision, mission, purpose and values in life, leading to a change in my priorities and objectives for the next two years, including building up the courage to take a year off to climb.
  • Built a framework to understand motivations, feelings, and use that in building and developing relationships.
  • Recovered from my accident in record time and went back to climbing, while all the time achieving a level of fitness that I didn’t think possible. More importantly, developed the confidence that I could perform at the level required to pursue my climbing ambitions.
  • Expanded my definition of what could be possible as a climber. Found a reservoir of motivation deep inside me that I didn’t know existed, and built a framework around the different elements that drive success in alpinism (fitness, technical skills, mental and emotional skills, gear).

While these three folks have very different styles and areas of expertise, they have some key traits in common that define their success.

Characteristics of a great coach

  1. Clearly-defined approach and program: Sounds obvious. It is not. A great coach can and will explain their approach and program to you at the outset. Obviously, your specific needs will vary, but I’d avoid anyone who hides behind individual differences as an excuse not to outline their approach and philosophy. In my experience, this definition has varied from a two-page statement of work to a candid discussion over Skype. The obvious implication here is that they should take their approach and program and tailor it to your needs.
  2. Goal-aligned but not desire-aligned: A great coach will work with you towards your goals and not towards your desire of the day. We all have days when we don’t want to exercise hard, or we don’t want to go up a hill, or we want to avoid confronting those feelings that are keeping us back at work. A great coach will not humor your desire but rather push you to address the issue at hand. The best ones will do this so well that you will find yourself using their techniques even when they are not there. Note: Expect some frustrating and occasionally hilarious situations here when your apathy and BS excuses get called out.
  3. Thorough pattern recognition: Simple. They can take what you think is a really special and unique situation and map it to right historical analogues to identify the right way forward. Critically, they can discern what matters and what doesn’t, so that the analogies actually work.
  4. Full of integrity and honesty: Unlike your friends, or teammates, they will always tell it to you as it is. When you performed below potential, when you need to improve, and when you did things well.
  5. Deeply attuned to motivations, fears, and emotions: While they are not therapists, they will occasionally act like one. They will help you understand why it is you do what you and why you want the goals you want; more often than not, that may lead to different goals. Similarly, they can easily identify when plateaus and difficulties that you think are skills-based (e.g., can’t “listen better,” “can’t make that move”) are actually rooted in fear or other feelings.
  6. Excellent mapper of your performance envelope: In action, this best resembles pure magic. I mean, how is it that this person that I just met a few weeks/months ago has a much better understanding of what I’m capable of doing than I do? How?! Yet they do. And they will use that knowledge to help you get to places you didn’t think possible. Over time, you’ll trust them with your life, as you know that they will push you only because they know you can get there.
  7. Accountable and require accountability: It’s funny, but all of my coaches are eerily obsessed with this. Starting with the easy stuff: They have super clear policies from the get-go (e.g., fees, scheduling, cancellation periods). They always show up on time and end on time. Not early, not late, but on time. They communicate promptly and clearly. They lay out objectives for the session. They assign homework, and they expect you to get it done.
  8. Master at motivation and support: I can still hear one of my coaches’ admonition to “find a way” when struggling with a set or a particularly long endurance sequence. It has become one of my movation mantras. How do you find a way? That’s where the motivation and support come in play. Grounded in reality, a great coach will relate what you need to do with your goals, emotions, and the larger picture to give you the extra 5, 10, or 50% needed. They will support you in success and in failure, telling you that there is no such thing because there is not.

You can sum up these traits as a combination of skill, knowledge, awareness and respect. This last one is the most important. A great coach will respect you as a person in your full potential and dignity; s/he will take your objectives seriously and apply him or herself fully to helping you achieve them. In return, she will ask you to do the same. At first, it will sound as if they are asking you to show them the respect they show you and your objectives. Not the case. They want you to go further than that. They want you to show yourself and your goals the respect they show to them.

This list should also clarify that a coach is not a mentor, but can become one (as I’m lucky to say has been the case with the folks I’ve worked with). Unlike a mentor, we have business to do and things to get done with the coach.

The benefits of working with a great coach

Honestly, you will achieve a level of performance in the areas you are working on that you and others didn’t think possible. Just as Brad Gilbert helped Andre Agassi go from a washed-out celebrity outside the top 100 to best player in the world and oldest one to win a major in the early aughts, you will see similar level of improvement within your realm and your proportions. Period.

Yet that’s but a really small part of what you will have accomplished. To strain some Silicon Valley and economics cliches, a good coach won’t just give you tastier fish (i.e., better performance), but he will teach you how to fish, set up a vertically integrated operation, and launch an Uber-for-salmon unicorn. You will:

  • Dramatically expand your self-awareness and better understand your emotions, motivations, and fears. This will also make you more aware of others’ emotions, motivations, and fears.
  • Really get to know your performance envelope. Huge. Most of us have no idea of what we can actually accomplish. Our mind is wired to shut us down well before our actual limits. For example, think about that feeling when you are a few minutes into a run when your brain tells you — demands you — to stop. A coach can help you understand and see past that.
  • Understand the beauty of the naked truth. This is a corollary of the first two. You will get better at having an honest assessment of where you are and where you need to go without judgments, preconceptions, or blame.
  • Start building the tools to coach yourself. Over time, you will develop your own set of techniques and tools to continue your development, even in the absence of one-on-one coaching. This is not about dependency — rather it’s about growth and achieving your potential.
  • Have more fun. Absolutely. Clearer mind, a path forward, and supportive partner. Of course you’ll have more fun.

My only “regret,” is not having proactively seeked out coaching until I hit a major obstacle. In one case, I was struggling with parts of my newly-expanded job duties, and in other I was recovering from a major accident. In the third case, I actually did proactively seek coaching — to great results. In every single case, I think the investments I have made (or have been made on my behalf), paid themselves multiple times over.

Not everything is positive, though. Coaches are like roommates, a great one definitely beats living alone, but a mediocre or even a good one is definitely worse than living alone. Same principle applies here. If you can’t find a great coach, you may be better off not spending that much time and money with one of them. I’ve been coached by “good” coaches before, and it has had zero to negative benefit. Avoid at all cost (No pun intended). Use your network and mentors to find those people with a clear track record of success. I’m happy to share what has worked for me as well.

Secondly, coaching is like an expensive liberal arts education — hard to scale, and, well, expensive. Obviously, I think technology will address this over time, but just like going to Stanford is only a bit about the classroom experience, a coach is only a bit about the actual transfer of knowledge. For the time being, this does mean you will have to expend meaningful resources to get access to these coaches.

All that said, seriously give it a think before you run away after getting sticker shock. If you are a startup, I’d encourage you think of this as an integral part of your employee offering and expectations. I know of a single company that does this, and, trust me, man do they get their bang for their buck! If you are an individual, I’d also encourage you think about pursuing targeted coaching in those areas where you can really excel, and, if applicable, have a chat with your company to see if they can help you get there.

Final note: A big thanks to Diana, KP, and Rob first of all for their coaching, but also for their advice, mentorship and friendship.

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