From the Hockey Rink to the Conference Room: Do Professional Coaches Need Relevant Field Experience?
I know most of America is focused on football and baseball this time of year, but hockey season just started! As we try to predict who will win the Stanley Cup, the National Hockey League's (NHL) top prize, knowing who is behind the bench may offer a valuable clue. Since 2004, 12 of the 13 NHL Stanley Cup Champion head coaches were former professional ice hockey players.
I recently attended the Association for Talent Development (ATD) Government Workforce conference in Washington, DC. It was a great conference, and I recommend it to federal employees and those in federal government contracting. One of the conference panels was on effective coaching and how an organization can support it. Much of the session emphasized developing "soft skills," with little mention of technical knowledge and experience in the field being coached. Part of this may be due to a focus on existing federal employees as internal coaches, assuming they already possess the relevant experience. But what about external coaches (i.e., those outside the organization)? Is experience in the client's field beneficial for an external professional coach?
In this case, I am referring to coaching as a process for fostering change and growth to address professional challenges. I understand that professional coaching is not the same the public and private sectors, and coaching in sports is undoubtedly different. It stands to reason, however, that knowledge of the discipline being coached, gained from field experience, broadly helps provide context and relatability, regardless of the sector or field. For instance, shared experience can help establish a common lexicon between the coach and client, resulting in more productive sessions.
The International Coaching Federation (ICF) describes eight Core Competencies organized into four domains: Foundation, Co-creating the Relationship, Communicating Effectively, and Cultivating Learning and Growth. The table below provides the ICF coaching behaviors that could benefit from experience in the field.
While effective coaching may not require experience in the client's field, the above table shows some common themes where that experience could be beneficial. Understanding the client's environment and context may be enhanced by having worked in a similar environment. Appreciating the nuances of client challenges can inform strategies for overcoming them. Field experience can help the coach understand what may or may not work and better define measures of success. For instance, a plan for the client to "be more vocal in meetings" may depend on people's roles in those meetings. A coach who has attended similar meetings in that field can empathize and help the client develop a strategy that accounts for roles and expectations.
Of course, it can be argued that field-specific experience may hinder a coach's objectivity. Also, regardless of the field, the nature of work is evolving, so experience from years prior may be obsolete and counterproductive. Therefore, I suggest coaches with field experience maintain self-awareness and, if they are drawing from that experience, ensure their knowledge is current. Coaches should focus on their client's experience foremost, striving to remain objective and leveraging their subjective knowledge only when it is an asset.
Let's debate this! You may want to start by researching the one exception to the Stanley Cup-winning coaches in the last 20 years with professional hockey experience.
I recently had the privilege of joining Coach Matt Doherty on his webcast where we talked about a variety of workplace training topics. My first conversation with him was probably one of the most memorable moments of my career to date, as it revolved around two of the things I care most about in the world: leadership and UNC basketball. For those of you who weren't blessed from birth to be a Tar Heel, he played on the 1982 National Championship team alongside Michael Jordan. He's coached at a variety of schools (including my alma mater, Davidson College), but he's best known for his three-year tenure as the head coach of the UNC men's basketball team.
After the webcast, Coach sent me a copy of his book Rebound: From Pain to Passion as a token of thanks. I read it cover to cover the next day. In it, he discusses his rise as a coach to one of the most prestigious jobs in the game, the loss of that job, and how he was able to emotionally and professionally recover in the aftermath. He describes the feelings of loss, pain, and betrayal associated with falling off a high pedestal in an extremely public forum. I do not know many people who could recover from something that ego-shattering with grace.
Inherent to leadership is learning to be comfortable with people watching and evaluating you. You're on a stage all the time, even on work-from-home Fridays and during happy hour. Even for those of us who like the limelight, it takes a toll. One thing we never talk about is how, as leaders, to manage emotional pain while we're on that stage. It's one thing for a team member to go through a hardship; leaders rally around them, give them the space and support they need, and are patient while life is uncertain. But when it's you? Do you tell your team what's going on, and risk freaking them out? Do you try to model strength in the face of adversity and act like nothing is wrong? Will they think you're making excuses? Will they be scared? Can you handle your whole world knowing that you're not OK?
Basketball teams play a lot of games, which is great for people like me who like to watch them. If you're the coach, that means you have the potential to take a lot of "Ls." In the government contracting space, we do too. I lose a lot more than I win, and that's hard. When you add personal loss on top of that, the cracks start to show. Throw in a pandemic, political tension, and everything else, and honestly, there are some bad days. How do I deal with it? I tend to share in the hopes that the crew will know when it's them, they're in a safe place to ask for help. I also think they have a right to know if I'm not at 100%, and they should understand that this job is hard because one day, it might be theirs. But it's also just as important for them to see me trying to take care of myself, giving myself some grace, and getting better. Is this the right way to handle it? I don't know. But I do know that the world isn't getting any kinder, and this should be a topic we talk about a lot more.
Thanks to Coach Doherty for having the courage to write about his experience, and for sharing the lessons he learned from it. You can order Rebound: From Pain to Passion here: https://amzn.to/3Tl8vFV and watch to the Rebound Live Webcast here: https://coachmattdoherty.com/webcast/
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