03/07/2015

By Dr Mark Cole, Head of Learning & Development at Camden & Islington NHS Foundation Trust

Federer. There is little doubt that he is seen as one of the great tennis players, perhaps the greatest thus far…and impressive across all sports.

Despite his pre-eminence over time, his peerless ability, and his extraordinary track record of top flight success, Federer still, of course, has a coach. With coaching such a widespread practice in our workplaces these days – and rightly so, in my opinion – what does Roger Federer have to tell us about this practice and its link to performance?

Even those at the very top of their game can use the services of someone coaching them

There are many people we know whose workplace performance we might rate or even admire. But, unlike Federer, they may have an area of their practice that could be focused on for improvement. For example, a technically strong manager, delivering comfortably against all expectations, might not show the sort of organisational awareness and sensitivity that would make them fully rounded. Such a person might seek out a coach who could work with them on just this area.

Our first coaching lesson is this: It isn’t about remediation or overseeing the novice; it is all about helping people to achieve their peak performance…and to urge them on to even greater achievement.

The coach isn’t necessarily better than the person they are coaching – but they bring a specialist technique or depth of understanding to the player

The insight a coach provides is vital. There is much talk these days about the need for people to be reflective about what they do, especially in the workplace. That’s an internal dialogue, one that I might have with myself in my head. A coach, however, offers the opportunity for a genuine external dialogue, based on what they’ve seen me doing and their opinions as to how I might do it better.

Our second coaching lesson is this: coaching is all about the carefully crafted conversation that offers insight to help us improve.

No matter how close you are to the very peak of your performance, a great coach will get a little more out of you by getting your talent and your psychology in synch.

Gaining the insight needed to improve is one of the key benefits that flow from coaching. So much that goes on in the workplace these days is a fine balance between technical skill (the occupational abilities you need to get stuff done on a daily basis) and mental attitude (how you feel about what you do). In between these two elements is the space where we can get better at what we do, regardless of how brilliantly we currently do it.

Our third coaching lesson is this: getting your mindset right is as important as acquiring competence in regard to technical skills – and a coach will help you manage the thinking self to create room for better performance.

A great coach helps you to reach your “flow”

It is often argued that in our workplaces these days there is the danger of burn out and of rust out: the former means we’ve too much to do in too little time and we feel under resourced in trying to do it; the latter derives from not having enough of interest to do when our talents are crying out for those challenges.

Roger Federer finds flow when he is able to deploy his noteworthy talent against an opponent who offers him a properly contested game. And a coach is the person who can develop our abilities and define appropriate challenge.

Our fourth coaching lesson is this: in work, we need to balance performance and pressure for best result, while also seeking out challenge that resonates with our skills…and a coach can guide us to optimal performance and a feeling of “flow” in the workplace.

Sometimes a coach needs to help you unlearn something before you can learn something new.

We’re not talking about the endless tweaks and minor revisions that all players regularly put into practice. We are talking instead about the conscious decision to undergo a structural overhaul, wherein a player transforms the very shape and pattern of his game via a tedious and labour-intensive process that carries with it all manner of psychic complications.

So, our fifth coaching lesson is this: sometimes we have to unlearn things in order to learn to do things better…and a coach can guide us through this process, which can feel threatening and counterintuitive.

Who’s your coach?

My final observation, in trying to pull all of this together, is that a coach can come in many disguises. Sometimes, they are expressly called a coach, and we are aware of what they offer in that role. At other times, it might be a really good manager who uses coaching techniques to engage and empower us as employees.

For me, though, one thing links them all: they are people who will work with you to help you gain insight to improve, so that you are as close to your peak performance as you can be.

Whether on the tennis court or factory floor, on the golf course or in the office, good quality coaching offers us all the opportunity to think critically about what we do – and how we might do it better.

Dr Mark Cole, Head of Learning & Development at Camden & Islington NHS Foundation Trust, is delivering a session on ‘Coaching in support of learning through practice’ at the World of Learning conference. The World of Learning takes place 29 and 30 September at Birmingham’s NEC. www.learnevents.com