Tuesday, October 27, 2020

‘Hands Up’: Becoming a Reflective Coach


What makes a good coach? When I look at my mentors, I often wonder how they can deliver effective coaching so effortlessly. Do they have an innate ability, or have they worked hard to get to where they are today?

I am on the instructor development programme at Tollymore National Outdoor Centre, where I am learning to become an instructor and coach in climbing, hillwalking, and kayaking. I am lucky to have the opportunity to learn from and work with many experienced instructors and coaches. Often, I catch my internal voice saying, “How do they do it? There is no way that I will ever be able to do that!” The more I think about the components required to put a good session together, the more overwhelmed I become by the complexity of the job. The observations I need to make, the thoughts I start to have, the feedback I need to give and the expectations I have of myself as well as the expectations others have of me can be too much to process and the session can quickly fall apart.

As I worked with more coaches and got to know them better, I began to realise what makes them good at their job is not an innate ability to teach but a drive to keep learning and improving. They are incredibly talented at what they do, yet they still embrace learning and are continually developing themselves within and outside of their sport. A good coach keeps on learning. No matter how many problems they have solved in the past somewhere along the line there will be a new challenge to overcome.

When we fail, our first instinct is to try and hide it because we feel stupid or incompetent and we try to divert the attention away from our mistake. It is like in school when you do not want to raise your hand in case you answer the question wrong.

As coaches and instructors, we want to be competent and we want our students to see us as competent.  If we make a mistake then we fear that our reputation will be damaged, and our competency questioned. Our ideal situation would be not to make any mistakes at all. I am guilty of holding myself to that standard. Even though I am only beginning my career as a coach I expect my coaching sessions to be of a similar quality to that of a coach with 30 years’ experience. I put pressure on myself to be nothing less than perfect. A standard that I would not hold anyone else to because it is an unrealistic expectation. We are only human and for us to learn and develop as coaches we must first make mistakes.

Over recent months I have learnt that the coaches I trust most are those who are willing to hold their hand up and say ‘that was my mistake’ and can then reflect, learn and change how they deal with it in the future. This is a place of vulnerability because we must accept that we are not perfect and be honest with our weaknesses.

I am on a steep learning curve with lots of things to change and tweak. I take 10 or 15 minutes after every coaching session to write down what I felt did not go well and what I thought went very well. I highlight the successes as much as the mistakes. I need to build my bank of positive experiences as a resource to draw on when the voice in my head starts telling me that I cannot coach. In doing so I can remind myself what I have achieved as well as the challenges I have overcome. The more I go through this process of reflection the more progress I can see. A few weeks ago, I was coaching a beginner’s session in sea kayaks and it was a particularly windy day. Because I was both nervous and excited, I jumped straight into coaching and did not consider where the best place for my students to develop their skills would be. It was not until after the session, I noticed that if we went to the other side of the harbour wall, we would have had more shelter. This would have created a better environment for learning. After every session, I find something to improve.

Being a reflective coach is better than being a perfect coach. We need to accept that we are not going to be perfect all the time, that we will make mistakes and when we do, we can deal with them in a constructive manner. I do not have all the answers on how to be a good coach, but I strongly believe that being able to reflect on your sessions is a critical skill to have and will allow you to become a better coach.

By Effie Ellis-O'Neill, Trainee Instructor, Tollymore National Outdoor Centre,

Sport Northern Ireland

@SportNINet #SportNILearning @TollymoreNOC


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