Taking coaching back to its sporting roots

Executive coaching and leadership development owes a lot to the world of elite sport. John Whitmore, one of the recognised pioneers of coaching in business began his career as a professional racing driver and developed his models as a result of this history. Dave Brailsford, principal of Team Sky and former head of elite cycling for Team GB is an oft-quoted pioneer of improvement techniques that can readily be translated into the business environment. Adrian Moorhouse, the gold-medal-winning olympic swimmer now specialises in business performance. In fact the roll call of elite sportspeople on the leadership and organisational development circuit is lengthy to the point of saturation!

So it was interesting to discover that high on the agenda of a recent football League Managers Association (LMA) meeting was executive coaching and it’s place in improving team performance. Have we come full circle?

Elite sport is well-served in providing it’s athletes with comprehensive coaching for all aspects of their lives, but it’s all too easy for a coaching ethos to metamorphose into something more akin to line management or mentoring. As managers we too readily give people the ‘benefit of our experience’, but this limits the support we can provide to what we have achieved, in our context, with our own unique set of experience and expertise.

Whitmore describes in ‘Coaching for Performance’ a conversation with Mike Sprecklen, coach to rowers Andy Holmes and Steve Redgrave, who said “I was stuck, I had taught them all I knew technically”.

So where does the executive coaching approach help? As Mike Sprecklen continued “but this opens up the possibility of going further, for they can feel things that I can’t even see”. As Whitmore describes, he had discovered a new way forward, working from THEIR experience and perceptions rather than from his own.

It seems to me the the LMA have recognised that truly independent executive coaches can help maintain a focus that is difficult to achieve amongst the short-term pressures of sporting success. In the world of business, the challenges are similar – no matter how sound our coaching ethic within an organisation, short-term pressures often lead us down a road of tutoring and mentoring that will inevitably limit performance.

If the world of sport, that gave us the models and approaches in the first place understand this need, it should certainly give businesses serious food for thought.

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