What Makes a Great Coach?

I’ve been coaching in one capacity or another since 1982 and recently have been thinking about what are the ingredients that go into making a great coach.  I came to the conclusion that many things do. What Makes a Great Coach

My first experience with coaching began in sports when I was just 20 years old with a small swimming club in Ottawa. It was comprised of about 60 swimmers between the ages of 6 to 18 ranging in skill level between novice and highly competitive level swimmers. Initially I was too young to have full coaching responsibility so I was assigned a mentor. Eventually I gained the confidence of the parents and was given the title of Head Coach. Before I moved on from that role as Head Coach for the swim club, our club almost won divisional provincial championships, missing the title by just a handful of points!

I took a 10 year break from coaching sports until 2007, when I decided to try my hand at it again as a coach for an adult slow-pitch softball team. My softball team that year won both their division and year end league playoffs. I have continued to coach other teams within the same league since. In 2010, my coaching career took a very different turn when I began coaching people interested in starting their own businesses. I had operated a number of businesses myself up to that point and it seemed like a natural next step considering my background in coaching. In 2013, I broadened the scope of my coaching to include anyone in the midst of any career transition.  In 2016, I began instructing people on how to help others experiencing a mental health problem and/or crisis. My coaching skills have come in handy for this role too like when I instruct participants on how to coach others through a panic attack.

It’s remained important to me to formalize my learning and credentials as a coach throughout my career. I am a certified sports coach with the Coaching Association of Canada; as a career coach, I’m certified with the BCCDA; and to support coaching on mental health matters, I’m a certified Mental Health First Aid Canada Instructor.

Here are some of the ingredients I think that great coaches have in common.

  • Great coaches understand that each person is unique and different in ability, attitude, personality, responsibility, sensitivity and how they handle criticism and adversity. They take the time to get to know each person’s individual differences and styles. They are skilled at assessing others and have a keen eye for identifying natural talents/strengths and potential weaknesses using a variety of tools like standardized rating scales and questionnaires. Once the coach has completed an initial assessment, they have a reference point to create a collaborative and realistic plan with the person they are coaching.
  • Great coaches tailor how they treat the other person. They know that while one person may respond well to one approach, the same approach may be ineffective for another. Some coaches are fans of “tough love” while others are more lenient, but what all great coaches have in common is respect for the individual(s) he/she is coaching. Disrespect and bitterness have no place in an effective coaching relationship, and only creates further conflict.
  • Great coaches can inspire others to believe in themselves. They inspire others to do more than they think they can by reinforcing anytime a step in the right direction has been accomplished. The coach accomplishes this by expressing encouragement and optimism and building self-esteem up rather than undermining it. Great coaches do not use embarrassment & humiliation as teaching tools. They understand that focusing on a failure or short-coming is an aggressive assault on that individual that doesn’t build mental toughness or enhance performance but can tear down the person and severely undermine his/her self-esteem and create future performance problems.
  • Great coaches are great life teachers. They don’t just teach the skills, technique and strategy within the narrow confines of the specific application. Instead they look for opportunities where more important life lessons can be taught such as mastering resiliency, learning and rebounding from failures and setbacks, trusting teammates/colleagues, being prepared to sacrifice individual needs for the benefit of the group, emotionally dealing with winning and losing, good sportsmanship, fair play, honesty, integrity, etc.
  • Great coaches are mentally healthy. They regularly practice self-care for themselves. They do not feel diminished when who they are coaching fails nor do they feel that much better about themselves when they succeed. Their own self-esteem is not determined mainly by the success of others. They understand that coaching is first and foremost about empowering others and therefore they do not let success and/or failure solely define themselves as a person. Coaches who get into trouble with their mental health do so because they are drained, emotionally vulnerable, and feel threatened by a loss or failure.
  • Great coaches are great communicators understanding that great communication involves back and forth dialogue. Effective communication involves carefully listening to what the other person is saying. To do that the coach must first be quiet inside his/her own head so that he/she can fully listen. Unless you carefully listen when the other person is talking, you won’t have a clue as to what is really being said or how best to help.
  • Great coaches are continuously looking for a better approach to reach whoever they are coaching. When the person being coached struggles to learn something, great coaches approach it as a “teaching opportunity” and are flexible in their approach by changing how they are presenting the material to that person. If one approach doesn’t work, then they try another until they figure out the best way to reach that particular person.
  • Great coaches “walk the talk”. They know that what you say and how you act needs to be in alignment. They model the behaviors and attitudes that they want their clients to adopt. In my case, I make self-care a daily priority, operate my own business, and regularly network, and update my own resume and LinkedIn profile to be ready for the next great opportunity.
  • Great coaches are ready to start on time. They prepare for each session in advance by drafting a preliminary timetable, select appropriate drills/activities as training tools, make expectations clear at the beginning of the coaching session and allow enough time to adequately discuss issues and concerns. For the session to proceed smoothly, both the coach and the client must have a sense that the meeting has a distinct purpose and they must agree on what that purpose is. Without structure, a coaching session can turn into a casual meeting or conversation with no real substance or direction.
  • A great coach follows up on coaching sessions in a timely manner. Before the conclusion of each coaching session, it’s a good idea to go ahead and schedule the next one, and to stick to that commitment when the time comes around.
  • A great coach asks for a commitment to goals that have been agreed upon. Accountability is essential. To foster success, the coach provides the resources, training and necessary support. Support and assistance is essential because coaching doesn’t just end when the session ends. When the results do not turn out as expected, a great coach proactively helps to define alternative actions. Perhaps there was a misunderstanding previously, or it could be that the original goal was a mismatch for the person. A great coach is prepared to initiate a backup plan(s).

Since my first experience as a swimming coach, I estimate I have now coached more than 500 athletes and clients towards achieving some kind of athletic/career/life goal. Coaching has provided me with many opportunities to work with and learn from very diverse people and groups. It’s a key skill to develop for anyone interested in working in a leadership role. Through coaching I have been able to give back to the organizations that have supported me in the past. Above all else, great coaches are people oriented. They love working with others and helping them to become the best they can be. I look forward to coaching another 500 in whatever capacity I can be helpful.

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