Sports coaching – The mother of self-improvement

During the 1960s, the business world started to look at sports coaching and adapt the techniques for individual training and team development. Since then, these crossover techniques have been developed and enhanced into numerous strategies that are used by business leaders and subordinates, employers and employees, and whole companies or individual entrepreneurs, virtually anyone and any company in the midst of change, whether it's internally or externally triggered.

Authors, Anthony Grant and Jane Green, put it nicely:

“No serious sportsman or woman would expect to get very far in their chosen sport without a coach... To succeed, athletes need someone who can guide them towards their personal best.” 1 It's Your Life - What Are You Going to Do with It? - Pearson Education (2004)

In sports, athletes develop physically (training), mentally (habits), and technically (skills) and to play sports well, you need to have at least:

  • A good level of fitness
  • A good mental attitude, including drive and determination, and
  • A good level of skill and/or mastery over yourself, your equipment, and the environment.

A sports coach partners with their athletes to improve in all three of these. But in addition to developing or growing, a sports coach help their athletes to:

  • Set performance goals
  • Cope with pressure and stress
  • Develop and maintain vision
  • Deal with negative beliefs that might hinder performance
  • Maintain motivation
  • Analyze performance, and
  • Remain focused

So good coaches are as much trainers of the mind as they are of the body. They don't play the sport for you, but they can help you set goals, assess your performance objectively, take action to improve your performance, and keep you motivated and on track.

Hiring a coach or a personal trainer helps you get results in sports and fitness because he or she helps you to develop the knowledge, skill, confidence and motivation you need.

Additionally, sports, like self-improvement, cross all boundaries, including age, gender, race, religion, social standing, and even education. Literally everyone can take part. The rules and goals are always well-defined and even measuring success (winning) is straightforward. Moreover, each person can set their own standard. If you run a marathon, you can aim to win or just to complete the course. Success depends on the goals you set for yourself. Sports offer a lot of opportunity to strive, to succeed and to win, whatever that means to you.

It is perhaps this very individualized nature of sports coaching that appeals to the wider audience of personal, professional, or business development. In our increasingly complex world, we need to work hard to find our own way and to determine what success means to us, in each and/or every area of our lives. That is why there is no single answer or simple formula to success. It is by its nature, individual.

But a coach is someone who is on your side, working alongside of you to determine your goals and create a plan to achieve them.

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What coaching is NOT?

One way of describing coaching is explaining what it isn't. Even though there are common elements, coaching is not psychotherapy, psychiatry, nor psychology.2 National Health Service UK

Psychology is the study of how people think, act, react and interact and is concerned with all aspects of behavior(s) and the thoughts, feelings and motivations underlying such behavior(s). Usually, psychologists aren't medically qualified and very few psychology graduates will ever work directly with patients.

Psychiatry is the study of mental disorders and their diagnosis, management and prevention. Psychiatrists are medical doctors who have qualified in psychiatry.

Psychotherapy is conducted with individuals, groups, couples and families to help overcome stress, emotional and relationship problems or troublesome habits. A psychotherapist may be a psychiatrist, psychologist or other mental health professional, who has had further specialist training in psychotherapy. Increasingly, there are a number of psychotherapists who do not have backgrounds in either psychology or psychiatry, but have rather undertaken a deeper training in this area.

The main differences between coaching and therapy are:

  • Coaches support clients who are functional even if they're dissatisfied with certain aspects of their lives and although clients seek coaches for a variety of reasons, it's not necessarily because they have a “problem,” though they may think they do. Rather, most just need to improve their “performance.”
  • Therefore, the emphasis in coaching is less on unravelling and understanding problems and difficulties and more on finding solutions. It is very future or PROGRESS-oriented.
  • Coaching never deals with clinical issues such as depression, high levels of anxiety, or any other form of mental distress or illness regardless of its severity. IF YOU ARE STRUGGLING WITH MENTAL ILLNESS, PLEASE SEE A TRAINED, LICENSED PROFESSIONAL.
  • On the other hand, the client is considered a patient in therapy or counseling. The model is one of examining what's wrong and prescribing ways to fix it.
  • Coaching works on the opposite principle. Coaching is based on a wellness model; you are already a whole person and have all the resources you need to succeed. You don't need any “fixing.” You just need guidance, or training, to get to the next level.

An important question to ask yourself before you start coaching is “What EXACTLY am I looking for?

  • You'll go to a doctor or physiotherapist if you have a sprained ankle.
  • You'll go to a therapist if you suffer from mental illness.
  • You'll go to a sports coach if you want to jump higher or run faster.
  • You'll go to a life or career coach if you want to improve your personal or professional life.
  • You'll go to a business coach if you want to take your company to the next level.

Finding the right coach for your specific needs can be challenging, but if your goal is important enough, then it'll be worth the effort. (see Why Coaching fails).

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What coaching IS

“Our chief want in life is somebody who will make us do what we can.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

What do you think of when you hear the word, coach? Does it conjure up images of gymnasiums full of sweaty teenagers and somebody in track pants blowing a whistle? Do you think of a coach as a person who teaches you specific athletic skills and specialized training such as how to jump farther, kick further, or throw faster? If so, it might be strange to think of a coach as someone who is more of a partner than an expert, who gets you to find your own answers instead of providing them for you.

Career coaching is

  • Similar to therapy in that the goal is to help the client become more functional in the focus area. But...
  • The FOCUS is different
    • More on the PRESENT and PROGRESSING than in the past AND
    • More on growth and changing behaviors than on emotions and emotional patterns.
  • The RELATIONSHIP is different
    • It's far more equal (i.e. Its a PARTNERSHIP “WITH CLIENTS in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.”
    • It's far more client-controlled (e.g. direction, power, responsibility, and effort).
    • It's far more cliented-centered (i.e. The client leads the discussion and sets the agenda).
  • Thetypical CLIENTS are very different.
    • Therapists try to help people with problems
    • coaches help already healthy people improve their lives by setting and/or achieving goals through a variety of methods that often involve tools and exercises.

Most people know that it takes time, resources, even brain power to figuring out what we want from our careers or businesses. But the reality is that few of us devote the resources needed for such a task. A coach will lead you through these “mental gymnastics” and will help you work on a plan to realize it. And like a sports coach, a good coach will pace you so that you can succeed. Before seeking help from a coach, think about what areas of you’d like to change. Professional coaches specialize in a variety of areas, from well-being and self-confidence to spirituality, parenting, organizational skills, relationships, career development, and business strategy.

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Conversations and questions

So how does all this happen? Coaching uses a different methodology for enhancing personal development compared to other professions.


One of the key components is powerful conversations between the client and the coach. We have conversations all the time and some are more “powerful” than others but most of these are based on cementing social ties, passing the time, and conveying or clarifying communication. Coaching conversations are unique because both the coach and client focus their energies in a very directed way and communicate for a very specific purpose. This is why effective meetings require both planning and follow-through to get the best results. For example, clients are expected to submit a coaching plan before the meeting, to outline the key focus points for the session (i.e. an agenda). And they also submit a follow-up after the session to ensure that they've correctly recorded (understood) and internalized the fruits of the conversation, including any action items they've committed to. In short, the conversation unfolds in a very structured, progress-oriented manner to help clients move towards their goals.


Another difference is that coaching conversations involve the coach asking questions of the client. Why do coaches ask questions instead of dispensing wisdom or issuing commands? A question is a searchlight that shines into even the darkest places of our minds and forces us to think about what is being asked, to think for ourselves and provide our own answers, discover our own beliefs and perhaps even uncover logical errors. In coaching, it has the added benefit of forcing the client to think about where they're headed and not where they’ve been. Questions foster awareness of the current reality and self-awareness of the part we're playing.

When people are told something, they don't have to think and it raises little 1) awareness, 2) motivation or 3) creativity. Powerful questions raise all three.

So when if you work with a coach, expect a lot of conversations and questions. Powerful conversations with your coach will reveal how you view things, how you're inspired, and what issues may be blocking your progress. Powerful questioning will help you and your coach develop the right exercises and action plans to help you achieve your goals and you'll begin to see and think through things in a clearer and more balanced way.

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Common elements in good coaching

At the start of the 21st century, the self-improvement industry, inclusive of books, seminars, audio and video products, and personal coaching annually earned 2.48 billion dollars. By 2012, it had soared to 12 billion with more than 45,000 self-help titles in print alone.

What distinguishes good from bad coaching?

Unlike regulated industries that have an independent advisory board to evaluate and approve its practitioners, every coaching company is privately-owned, and each accreditation organization independently develops standards of their training programs.

In trying to establish a set of common elements in good coaching, a number of limitations must be considered.

  • Coaching as a whole is based on a number of different, perhaps even conflicting underlying philosophies.
  • Differences exist between coaches from even the same school and nearly every coach has developed their own personal coaching philosophy.
  • Given the requirements of clients who are interested in anything from business to dating, it is difficult to establish a universal standard that is true for every form of coaching.

Nevertheless, there are some common beliefs most coaches will hold that will show up in many of their coaching philosophies.

Concrete, workable strategies

Coaches believe in helping you to find concrete, workable strategies to help save you time and money, and stop reinventing the wheel.

Someone to inspire, motivate and keep you accountable

Coaches believe that having someone to inspire, motivate and keep you accountable helps you save far more time and money that you spend on their services.

You, the client, have all the resources you need to succeed

Coaches believe that you are a whole person and have all the resources you need to succeed. Finding solid strategies to access these resources will make a huge difference to you in achieving success in all aspects of your life.

Be flexible until you find a solution

Coaches believe that if what you're doing isn't working, it's important to try something else. There is always a solution! A coach will help you be flexible enough to find it.

Model successful performance

Coaches believe that if someone somewhere has done something, than anyone anywhere can learn it. A coach will help you model successful performance in order to reach excellence.

Be in charge of your own results

Coaches believe that you are in charge of your life (businesses included) and therefore your results. If you want your circumstances to change, you need to make changes in the only thing under your control: yourself. Your coach will help you learn to better control your circumstances rather than be controled by them, so that you can be in charge of your own results.
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General Principles of Coaching

As mentioned earlier, coaching takes the form of powerful conversations between you and your coach (see Components). But what will your coach talk to you about? How does coaching really work? What approach does it take?

Here are some guiding principles of coaching

1. Clarify what you want
    The first step will be to clarify exactly what it is you want.

    This is really important. People often start by describing what's feasible before talking about what they want or outlining goals (no matter how unrealistic). This is a mistake because it limits you from the get-go. Instead of thinking of inspiring and creative goals that truly motivate you, you're likely to stop short with negative, limited goals (Survive vs. Thrive).

    Most coaches will therefore start by calibrating your values using some sort of coaching pre-assessment(s). They'll probably also measure/assess your long-term goals and dreams. And they'll help you to consistently check and reevaluate them along the way as well as encouraging you to keep dreaming big.

    The end goals you come up with during this process are the inspiration. Unfortunately, they're often not under our control because there are so many overlapping systems and fields of influence that come into play. For instance, it might depend on people we work with, the economy, or even the weather. This is why coaches keep the client focused on S.M.A.R.T. performance goals. These are stepping stones,milestones, that lead the client in the general direction of the end goal, but in a smaller, more achievable and therefore more manageable way.

    Even within each coaching session, there is attention paid to goals. The coaching plan you complete before talking to your coach will ask you what you'd like the session to focus on. This allows you to be purposeful in your coaching right from the start.

    FOCUS: Dream big!

2. Assess where you are right now
    Coaching is about helping you get from where you are to where you want to be. Now that you know where you want to be, your coach will help you objectively assess where you are right now.

    An objective point of view is critical in mastering our own inner opponent (research Inner Game). In order to reach our goals, we need to be able to fact check our reality in an unbiased, detached manner. To help you, your coach will ask you questions that call for answers that are specific and descriptive, instead of general and vague.

    During this stage you'll not only look at your external circumstances, but also your own inner processes and habits that may slow or prevent progress. For instance, you might have a bad habit of perfectionism that paralyzes you (procrastination) until you're forced to work in overdrive to make your deadline. You'll need to analyze your inner game when developing any strategy so it's crucial that you're open, objective and fact-based in your assessment of reality.

    FOCUS: Where are you now?

3. Review your resources and options
    Next, you and your coach will start to review all the resources, options and courses of action at your disposal that could help you to accomplish your goals. Your coach will probably follow the rules of brainstorming here, where it's important to leave aside critical judgments (such as "I can't afford that") and just generate as many ideas as possible.

    During this stage you'll want to identify your resources. According to Grant and Greene, “Resources could be personal experience, mentors, influential people in your life, teacher, books, paintings, music.” Resources are where we draw our strength and inspiration. They center us and help us accomplish our goals.

    After you figure out your resources and list possible courses of action, you'll want to cast a critical eye on your options to factor in costs and benefits of each possible course of action. But this won't come until after you let your creative juices flow and really let yourself think of any possibility.

    FOCUS: Brainstorm resources

4. Create an action plan
    The next step is that your coach will help you design a plan that will take you from where you are right now to where you want to be in the future. You'll determine the steps you need to pursue. This is converting a conversation into a decision.

    In this plan, you'll figure out:
    • What you are going to do?
    • When you are going to do it?
    • What resources do I need to do it?
    • What obstacles are in the way?
    • What support do you need?
    • How does (action) contribute towards meeting your goal?
    • What is my motivation level?
    • What is my commitment?
    • How will I know that I have done it? (Test)

    After your coaching session, you'll often fill out some form of follow-up in which you'll put in writing what you and your coach have decided; to solidify your commitment and keep you on track. Your coach can/should assist you in creating action items, to enable you to report on your progress in between coaching sessions.

    FOCUS: Coaching action plan

5. Motivation and commitment
    Throughout the process, your coach will work to keep your motivation and commitment high.

    While motivation always originates from within and your coach will help you tap into it, they won't/shouldn't do it with some sort of cheesy one-liner like "You can do it!" Motivation comes from the Latin word motivare which means stimulus for an action (n.) or to drive, move, or impel (v.). It implies inner power vs. outward response. So if I'm pushed, but don't move, that push is NOT motivation. Without action, any push builds pressure which causes stress and until that pressure’s released (movement), nothing happens (procrastination). So when you find something motivating, you're moved but it doesn't actually move you. Additionally, your coach will make sure to keep you in touch with your core values so that you have ongoing reasons (commitment) to stay “in the flow” towards your goals. Lastly, your coach will also help to uncover and dispel anything blocking your way, such as fears or limiting beliefs.

    FOCUS: Inspiration, motivation, and commitment

6. Calibrate and keep on track
    As well as keeping you moving, your coach will make sure you stay on track. It's easy to commit to an action plan but following through is difficult. By using a series of coaching tools, your coach can keep you on track.

    For instance, you might be asked to journal about your experience, in order to uncover long-standing internal patterns you might have that aren't working with you. By writing about them, you increase self-awareness and the ability to recalibrate. You'll probably also report on your progress towards any goals or action items you've committed to. Your coach will also keep calibrating by giving you self-assessments to measure such things as your values or gaps (e.g. between the desired and actual situation) that need addressing.

    FOCUS: Staying on track (journaling)

7. Celebrate successes along the way
    Throughout the client-coach partnership, the coach will help you celebrate your victories along the way. We're all guilty of concentrating too much on what we want to change or what isn't working in our personal or professional lives or our businesses. While it's important to focus on growing and continuously improving, it's equally important to recognize and reward what you're doing right. This gives you confidence and builds your momentum (motivation).

    FOCUS: Celebrate even the little victories!

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There are often differences between individual coaches and their sessions because of personality (both the client's and the coach's), philosophy, approach, focus, and perhaps even the physical separation from clients (remote sessions).

Nevertheless, most coaching sessions have the following elements:

1. Preparation for coaching (prior to the meeting)
  • Meeting of coach and client’s manager and/or HR to define goals and process for the coaching engagement (if the payer is the client’s company),
  • Initial meeting of coach and client where the coach explains his or her approach to coaching and to confidentiality,
  • Developing consensus and a tentative plan between the manager (or other key stakeholders), client, client-selected partner, and coach on the goals and logistics of the coaching engagement,
  • Distribution of assessments, surveys, questionnaires, etc. and/or scheduling of 360 degree assessment interviews.

2. Assessing the client
  • Objective assessments and inventories (e.g. PCI, COPE, etc.),
  • Confidential 360 degree feedback assessment, questionnaires,
  • Interviews by coach of client’s supervisor, peers and direct reports or other stakeholders,
  • Exploration (via initial consultation) by client and coach of:
    • Career history
    • Work preferences
    • Role challenges and opportunities
    • Sources of conflict and stress
    • Professional goals

3. Development (planning)

After condensing the assessment to 3 to 5 key themes (focus areas), the client and coach collaboratively develop:
  • Plans for leveraging strengths and addressing areas for improvement
  • Performance goals
  • Learning goals
  • Managerial-style goals (how the client will manage the process)
  • Professional-development goals (long-term career or company strategy)

4. Implementing the plan

After sharing and discussion of the development plan:
  • Client implements strategies and tactics specified in the development plan
  • Client and coach discuss progress on an ongoing basis

5. Evaluating progress

Client and coach evaluate the success by utilizing:
  • 360 degree feedback
  • Meeting with manager
  • Follow-up discussions with peers and subordinates

6. Follow-up
  • Client and coach can set a firm assessment review after 3 to 6 months to evaluate progress
  • Additional input can be gathered from others if necessary
  • Development plan can be modified as new challenges and opportunities emerge

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