Part 5: Skill building when coaching the Novice versus the Expert
As mentioned in Part 4, behavior change and skill building for the athlete and the executive come with different types of risks. The skills for the athlete are more tangible and physical; the path to getting there can be somewhat linear. Certainly, there are emotions to overcome as well as a need for commitment to practice in the behavioral sense, yet I experience the tangible outcomes and the linear set of goals make the path to success different for the athlete than for the executive.
Skill building for the executive seems more intuitive, emotional and behavioral in the intellectual sense. Working toward behavior change such as the triggering of muscles and muscle memory is a very different behavior change than are soft skills such as management style, writing skills, or communication and public speaking skills.
Skills executives request coaching for commonly come in the form of developing and enhancing soft skills and the list is long: communication, problem solving, decision-making, teamwork, and adaptability are further examples. Basically, whatever the specialty of coaching one focuses on, they all lead to helping others establish and enhance their skills and application of those skills.
The athlete builds skills that allows them to physically perform within a very specific framework with a specific set of tools (e.g. the skis they have on and the conditions of the mountain on that day) whereas the executive builds varied soft skills that are applied in many different situations every day.
Coaching a beginner skier is not that different than coaching an expert. The expert skier still encounters fear of being hurt and even fear of looking silly, just like the beginner skier. At the same time, the beginner thinks more about survival whereas the expert thinks about efficiency and finesse. When working on learning new skills it can be intimidating because falling is often the best way to learn, creating more fear for the beginner and vulnerability for the expert.
The different expectations for the new and the seasoned executive are similar to those of the skier’s. The novice executive is still developing and polishing skills and the expectation may be that they will experience fear and end up flailing. Similar to the novice skier, finding challenging and new terrain is easy for the new executive and they, too, must think hard about how they execute their newly found skills. Just like the expert skier, expectations for the seasoned executive are that they smoothly navigate any terrain.
When it comes to the stages of learning, there is much similarity between the skier and the executive because those stages apply in all types of learning. I often use the metaphor of driving the stick shift when talking about the stages of learning and skill development:
Stage 1: Unconsciously unskilled: One does not know what they don’t know about driving a stick shift until they try to do it. There is no real measure whether they have the skills.
Stage 2: Consciously unskilled: They get in the car and, most often, pop the clutch and are unable to drive the car. They now know what they don’t know. They experience failure and can now measure their abilities. This creates frustration and perhaps a loss of confidence.
Stage 3: Consciously skilled: The stage where they can drive a stick shift with focused intention, yet fear and hesitation abound especially when starting from a position of stopped and heading uphill. This stage elicits motivation from successful attempts as well as continued frustration from failures.
Stage 4: Unconsciously skilled: They can get in the car and drive free of thinking about what they are doing. They have mastered the skill and it happens as second nature. They can talk and drive and drink their coffee regardless of the terrain.
All good coaches focus on success rather than struggles. Coaches focus on small successes and build from them, taking them to the next level of skill development. The beginning states of learning feel like baby steps and even falling backwards but once one gets past the stage of consciously unskilled and experience successes, they thrive and reach great heights.
Skill building is ultimately about awareness. My most successful runs have been when I am completely in the moment and present with every single move and feel of my body from one edge of the ski to the other. I prepared and trained for the moment.
My most successful presentations, therapeutic sessions and leadership moments in the business world have been when I am completely in the moment with the other person or people in front of me and I am aware of their every word, movement and expression guiding me into my next move.
Just like the athlete, as an executive or therapist, I prepared by practicing, having my resources at hand and reviewing previous steps. Awareness and presence for any type of coach is a key factor for success and it leads to stronger communication because of being in the moment.
In Part 6, the focus is on communication with an athlete versus communication with an executive.