Top athletes and singers have coaches. Should you?
That was the subheader of a fascinating 2011 article in the New Yorker penned by an enlightened surgeon. Atul Gawande noticed how his surgical skills had plateaued in a predictable, professionally accepted way. While he was coming to terms with this presumably inevitable fact of life, he also experienced how impactful even a single lesson with a tennis pro was in improving his game. Then he connected the dots:
“Not long afterward, I watched Rafael Nadal play a tournament match on the Tennis Channel. The camera flashed to his coach, and the obvious struck me as interesting: even Rafael Nadal has a coach. Nearly every élite tennis player in the world does. Professional athletes use coaches to make sure they are as good as they can be.
“But doctors don’t. I’d paid to have a kid just out of college look at my serve. So why did I find it inconceivable to pay someone to come into my operating room and coach me on my surgical technique?”
Long story short, Dr. Gawande did find a coach and improved as a result. As his initial misgivings gave way to curiosity, he explored the wide range of professionals who also availed themselves of the benefits of coaching. Everyone from frontline classroom teachers to legendary violinist Itzhak Perlman raved about the personal progress breakthroughs they owed to their “external” eyes and ears. And why would any of this be surprising? Effective coaching works.
After nearly three decades teaching test prep, I consider myself much more of a coach than a teacher. The distinction may be semantic, but many of my students who come to master the core reading, writing, and math subject matter of tests like the SAT & ACT find that the next level of progress requires attention to more technical components of performance. At that point, time otherwise devoted to clarifying sentence structure or how to solve systems of equations turns to scrutiny of time management, focus, consistency, and even conditioning going into test day.
Another way in which I and my colleagues in test prep act as coaching is in finding opportunities to deliver both pep talks and exhortations to do better. Traditional sports coaches demand and often elicit an enviable level of commitment, so I find myself doing the same. Ultimately, all of us who endeavor to elevate peak performance when it counts work from the same playbook. The key drivers of improvement and excellent are always the same–deliberate practice and effective coaching–as Dr. Gawande also observed:
“Élite performers, researchers say, must engage in “deliberate practice”—sustained, mindful efforts to develop the full range of abilities that success requires. You have to work at what you’re not good at. In theory, people can do this themselves. But most people do not know where to start or how to proceed. Expertise, as the formula goes, requires going from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence to conscious competence and finally to unconscious competence. The coach provides the outside eyes and ears, and makes you aware of where you’re falling short. This is tricky. Human beings resist exposure and critique; our brains are well defended. So coaches use a variety of approaches—showing what other, respected colleagues do, for instance, or reviewing videos of the subject’s performance. The most common, however, is just conversation.”
Who needs a coach? Anyone who wants to do better can do better, as long as they can find a qualified coach and are willing to be coachable. As our surgeon who was willing to become a student again observed, “Coaching done well may be the most effective intervention designed for human performance.” The winners of every single Super Bowl and Academy Award had coaches. If what you are working on is both challenging and meaningful, why wouldn’t you?