As a child, I wanted to play hockey like Bobby Hall, Stan Mikita, Tony Esposito, and other Chicago Blackhawks. And when I say I wanted to “play hockey”
I mean, of course, that I wanted to hit other guys with my fists and then club them with a hard slab of wood.
It’s a guy thing.
But alas, my dream went unrealized. In fact, I never even strapped on ice skates until as an adult, I “hired” a coach to teach me, someone who grew up in a hockey-playing family. My coach wasn’t a hockey player, though, but a figure skater. My coach wasn’t a man. Nor was she a woman. She was a twelve years old girl. Her name was Cami Kukkonen, the child of my friends, Bonnie and Phil, and
she was one of the most engaging coaches I’ve had in my life.
It’s been about 20 years since Cami taught me to skate on Stone Quarry Lake in Jacobsville, MI. And I might have forgotten all about those lessons had it not been for the layout of my new gym. The exercise room overlooks an ice rink where I watched a child working one-on-one with her skating coach.
The coach I watched down below seemed quite gifted at creating grimaces on the face of her pupil. My twelve year old coach, on the other hand, had a knack for producing something quite different.
What do the best coaches do? Let me tell you three things I believe differentiate the best coaches from average ones. The best coaches–
1. Say “Eyes on Me”
Cami didn’t explain to me the mechanics or physics of skating. She didn’t set up a goal for me to accomplish, like putting cones on the ice for me to skate to and back. She never once reminded me that given the lakes’ unfathomable depth, should my carcass plunge through the ice that I my body wouldn’t surface until the Spring thaw. All of those things would have distracted me from what I needed to focus on.
What did she do instead? She grabbed my hands and pulled me forward. Instead of telling me what to do, she showed me. Instead of allowing me to draw my attention on my own fear and clumsiness, she made me focus on her, what she was doing. I couldn’t look past her to see where we were going even if I’d wanted to. And she was skating backwards! That gave me confidence. I mean if she could help me stand up on skates while pulling me, and at the same time skate backyards, well then DANG! I knew that I was in good hands. Her “Eyes on me” approach helped me to take my eyes off myself, a self-conscious habit that we all practice when we’re scared.
When you’re coaching someone, show, don’t tell. Model the behaviors you want to teach, and shield your pupil from the potential distraction of providing interesting-yet-irrelevant information.
2. Say, “That’s Enough for Now”
Cami understood that she couldn’t teach me, a new learner, everything she knew about skating in one afternoon. So she didn’t ask me to. Cami didn’t wait until I was flat on my back, complaining, or broken into two pieces before she let me sit for a minute. In fact, she would call for a break BEFORE I started to fail. Her saying, “Let’s take a break” felt like a reward for my hard work rather than a punishment for my failure.
Many coaches burn out new learners by asking for too much too fast. And when they do call for a break, it’s accompanied with a heavy sigh that seems to say, “Since you’re clearly not getting what I’m trying to teach you, I guess we’ll stop for now.”
When you’re coaching someone, think baby steps. Break big tasks into multiple sub-tasks. That allows the learner to build fluency, competence, and confidence along the way to mastery.
3. Say, “Great job!”
Looking at the ice rink below the floor of the exercise room, I saw the face of a child hearing criticism, not praise or encouragement. Yes, we need to hear corrective feedback from time to time. But nothing snatches away a desire to learn like ongoing criticism that isn’t balanced with even more praise.
Cami smiled the whole time she skated with me. On top of that, she provided encouragement like, “See? You’re doing it!” and “That’s great!” And let me be honest here. She wasn’t offering me praise for skating backyards, stopping on a dime, or skating on one foot. Because all I was doing was…NOT FALLING DOWN. Cami understood that based on where I was starting as a learner–no competence nor confidence–I needed more praise than new instruction.
Know what? Even when the competence level is high, people still perform better under praise. When ground control guides astronauts on a space shuttle mission, the coaches on the ground sound like Cami. They say things like “Way to go!” and “You’re almost there!” and “You got it!” Mind you, these are scientists talking to other scientists, all highly educated, compensated, and trained. And yet, still, how does ground control coach? With praise and encouragement.
Cami didn’t hold an MBA from an Ivy League school, manage a top consulting house, or have Certified Coaching credentials on her office wall (she didn’t even have an office). By the way, having some or even all of these nice-to-haves in no way means you know the first thing about effective coaching. What Cami did have was a desire to see me improve and to help me experience some fun along the way. Know what that means? There’s no reason why you can’t coach at least as well as a 12 year old!