The Importance of Coaches

Have you ever wondered why sports stars and musicians have coaches, but they seem to be less common in professional settings? Atul Gawande ponders the same thing in his brilliant piece in The New Yorker, “Personal Best.” His perspective is that of a doctor operating on patients, but I think Gawande’s hypothesis can be expanded to numerous professions:

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?

I like the extension of coaching to sports and Gawande contacting Itzhak Perlman:

Coaching in pro sports proceeds from a starkly different premise: it considers the teaching model naïve about our human capacity for self-perfection. It holds that, no matter how well prepared people are in their formative years, few can achieve and maintain their best performance on their own. One of these views, it seemed to me, had to be wrong. So I called Itzhak Perlman to find out what he thought.

I asked him why concert violinists didn’t have coaches, the way top athletes did. He said that he didn’t know, but that it had always seemed a mistake to him. He had enjoyed the services of a coach all along.

And how did Gawande’s coach help Gawande? Tremendously:

I never noticed, for example, that at one point the patient had blood-pressure problems, which the anesthesiologist was monitoring. Nor did I realize that, for about half an hour, the operating light drifted out of the wound; I was operating with light from reflected surfaces. Osteen pointed out that the instruments I’d chosen for holding the incision open had got tangled up, wasting time. That one twenty-minute discussion gave me more to consider and work on than I’d had in the past five years.

Of course, the piece would be incomplete without this disclaimer:

Coaching has become a fad in recent years. There are leadership coaches, executive coaches, life coaches, and college-application coaches. Search the Internet, and you’ll find that there’s even Twitter coaching.

A key takeaway here:

For society, too, there are uncomfortable difficulties: we may not be ready to accept—or pay for—a cadre of people who identify the flaws in the professionals upon whom we rely, and yet hold in confidence what they see. Coaching done well may be the most effective intervention designed for human performance. Yet the allegiance of coaches is to the people they work with; their success depends on it. And the existence of a coach requires an acknowledgment that even expert practitioners have significant room for improvement. Are we ready to confront this fact when we’re in their care?

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to find myself a tennis and life coach, not necessarily in that order.

One thought on “The Importance of Coaches

  1. I’m in favor of coaches (for all walks of life). In another context, they are called teachers. In other contexts they are called trainers, mentors, managers, or bosses.

    In this case, today, in this article you posted, the coach is a writer providing valuable thoughts.

    But how far should we carry this? Should coaches have coaches? It seems like a logical extension of the idea of coaching… And, if you agree that coaches should have coaches (trainers, educators, mentors, etc.) then shouldn’t the coach’s coach’s have coaches too?

    Perhaps the reference to tennis is not applicable to other walks of life. Tennis players at the top of the rankings often have lots of money and can afford to have coaches (or can’t afford not to have them).

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