Coaching the whole system to deliver success

A few years back at the end of a session coaching young athletes the long jump I was approached by a parent looking less than impressed. Uh oh I thought, what’s happened here. The parent proceeded to point out that I had it all wrong. Long jump means running down the runway and jumping into a pit of sand before getting the distance measured. Having the whole group of the kids taking two steps and jumping into the pit from the side wasn’t what he was paying for.

Never mind that these were under 11 kids with a wide range of skills. Never mind that by jumping one at a time down the runway they might get 3 or 4 attempts (and didn’t have the skill to control their take off at speed) whereas jumping in from the side together they could get 20 jumps, spot their take point and practice using left and right legs to improve their skills (ask Jess Ennis about the value of being able to use either foot for take off) .

Why would the parent in question know why I was doing what I was doing if I hadn’t explained it to them? After all, their perception was entirely correct given their experience of doing long jump at school and watching it in competition. This was a bit of a wake up call for me to think more systemically about the impact of my coaching and who needed to be included in the process.

Some of the biggest stakeholders in an athlete’s development are the parents, and for older athletes, their partner. Helping them understand why you are doing what you are doing as a coach and how the parent/partner can best support the athlete’s development is time well spent. 

We are coaching more than just the athlete, we are coaching an entire system to deliver success.

Athlete, coach and the third entity

We often expect the coach to share some wisdom which transforms the athlete’s performance or the athlete, pumped up by coaches words, to produce a superhuman effort in competition.

It rarely happens like that and nor should it.

The real magic happens in a different place as I was reminded of yet again this week. It happens in a third place, the relationship between athlete and coach. When this is working at a high level then the athlete and coach can learn and co-create together. Crucially, as the coach, I learnt just as much about coaching as the athlete did about their running during the training session in question. This was partnership at its best.

It is such an important point for coaches and coachees in any field to acknowledge when they are contracting at the start of their relationship. It’s a joint endeavour for which both are responsible.

Coaching moments

Many of us find ourselves in a position to coach without it being our profession or indeed without having had much training in how to coach.

Whether you are a manager being expected to coach your direct reports or a parent coaching the soccer team the prospect of coaching can feel a bit overwhelming. What do I say? When do I say it? How will I know if I am doing it right?

A good place to start is by looking for coaching moments. These are opportunities to ask a question which enables the recipient to deepen their understanding of the situation and hence create the possibility for learning and growth. You don't need to be an expert, just observant and willing to ask a powerful question.

Lets look at an example, Feeling stuck. The recipient is stuck, they can’t make progress on the business project/fitness plan. Rather than telling them what to do the coach can ask a powerful question such as: “What is the first step?”

Think about that question for a moment in relation to something that you are stuck with. It enables the recipient to generate perspective and commit to something manageable which frequently unblocks the whole situation.

Thinking Fast and Slow

There are two 'Up' escalators on a recent journey. One is moving and full with people and the other is empty and stationary. As people arrive at the bottom of the escalators they gravitate to the right hand moving escalator, even though that is further away.

These people’s minds have made a shortcut. Empty, stationary escalator = not in use. But what if we slow down and think a bit more critically.

We are in Zürich airport and this is the main route to departures. How likely is it that the escalator is broken? Not very. And if it was, what would we expect to see? Engineers working to repair it or at the very least an ‘out of order’ notice.

A glance to the left and the bottom of the 'Down' escalator shows a little red light to signal don’t get on. Both 'Up' escalators have a little green light.

I step on to the stationary/empty up escalator. Life is breathed into it and it quickly and quietly accelerates. It turns out that the shortcut thinking was wrong.

It’s a classic case of System 1 and System 2 thinking as set out by Daniel Kahneman in his seminal work ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’.

I tell this story because I’ve just finished reading Michael Lewis’ excellent book ‘The Undoing Project’ about Kahneman’s collaboration with Amos Tversky and System 1 and 2 is at the front of my mind right now (if I hadn’t read it recently I would have fallen into the same trap as everybody else!). It’s a cracking good read and I can recommend both books to kick start the year.