Blog Post: What Does Masterful Coaching Look Like?

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A few weeks ago, I saw an incredible highlight from an NFL game.  For readers outside the United States, the NFL is the highest level of professional American football.  The highlight involved Patrick Mahomes, who plays quarterback for the Kansas City Chiefs.  Just as it looked like he was about to be sacked for a loss, Mahomes shuffled the football forward in the most unconventional way imaginable.  He threw the ball somewhere between side-armed and underhanded.  Miraculously, the ball landed right in the hands of a receiver who ran for a touchdown. 

All around the country, thousands of young quarterbacks are taught to NEVER throw the ball in the manner Mahomes did on the highlight.  Instead, they spend countless hours doing drills to strengthen their arms and shoulders.  They are taught to plant their feet.  They train their hips to rotate just right to help the ball travel far and straight.  They are severely discouraged from shuffling the ball underhanded milliseconds before being sacked.   

Mahomes knows how to plant his feet, rotate his hips, throw a tight spiral, and essentially be the poster boy for quarterback perfection.  But he also knows when doing it wrong is the most right thing possible. 

My point?  Sometimes a behavior that couldn’t be more wrong for one set of people is a sign of tremendous mastery for another, more experienced person. 

The International Coaching Federation (ICF) credentials coaches at three levels: associate, professional, and master.  The three levels represent distinctions between coaches in terms of experience, training, and ability.  The ICF has outlined clear guidance on what coaching looks like at the associate and professional levels, but the master level is less clear.  So, this begs the question: what does masterful coaching look like? 

Here’s one simple way I distinguish the three levels: 

  • Associate coaches are learning to coach according to the rules and best practices instead of just doing what they do and calling it coaching. 
  • Professional coaches have learned the rules of coaching and can practice coaching according to the best practices for each of the eight core coaching competencies. 
  • Master coaches know the rules and have learned when and how to follow the rules and when and how to bend or even break the rules in service to their client and the client’s agenda. 

When you observe a masterful coach, you don’t want to model your own coaching after the specific behaviors of the masterful coach.  Just like a 10-year-old quarterback shouldn’t think, “Oh, I should shuffle the ball underhanded like Mahomes,” an associate or professional coach should not mimic specific instances they observe from a masterful coach.  Instead, the thing to learn is the principal of breaking rules.   

Recently I told one of my clients he was a fool.  Out of context, that is a terrible thing for a coach to do with a client.  In context, it unlocked tremendous new awareness for the client.  He laughed and thanked me for the comment before proceeding to speak tremendous wisdom into his own life.   

A few months ago, I told another client I would pay him $100 to not do something.  I opened my wallet and put the $100 bill on the table between us and asked him if he was tempted.  He replied that while he would like to take my money, the action he was planning to take was worth far more than the money.  Should the average coach pull such a stunt on a regular basis?  Of course not.  My particular client in that specific context benefitted from the tangible demonstration of his commitment.  It was good coaching, even though it deviated from best practice.  In fact, the deviation is what it made it so effective.   

As you move toward masterful coaching, look for opportunities to bend and break the rules.  Make sure you’re doing so in service to your client and his agenda.  And if you’re not yet clear what the rules and best practices of coaching even are, invest time learning, practicing, and gaining experience doing coaching the “right” way before you attempt the equivalent of a weird side-armed shuffle pass. 

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