An interesting thing happened to Emma Raducanu, the teen tennis star who came from being ranked 150th in the World to winning the U.S. Open in 2021, in the first tournament she competed in since that win: she lost in straight sets. Raducanu had steamrolled through the entire US Open seemingly out of nowhere to win the tournament by beating Layla Fernandez, another young woman also having a remarkable run from being almost unknown to the finals.
What happened? For starters, she fired her coach. This was the same coach that had helped her to get to the podium in New York. The reason? She believed she needed a coach to help her stay at the top, not just get there.
While it’s too early to tell what the implications of Raducanu’s decision was it seems to mirror what happened to another promising young tennis star, Eugenie Bouchard, who did something similar after tasting some early success and has since fallen far down the world rankings never to recapture that early success (yet). An effective coach can make a substantial difference in the performance of a person or an organization but only if there is a clear-eyed view to what a coach does and does not do.
The decision to fire or hire a coach can have lasting effects on performance and yet these effects are often misunderstood. Here we break down what you can expect from a good coach and what to look for when things don’t go well.
Coaches bring together three kinds of knowledge together in working with their clients: process knowledge (how to get things done), technical knowledge (specific knowledge about skills, tools, and their application), and content knowledge (knowledge about the topic that we’re trying to address).
Combined with praxis (creating learning through action loops) a coach weaves this all together with their client.
Practically, knowledge involves having a coach with experience and an ongoing commitment to learning. It’s why we call it practice, it’s about ongoing work to keep up on the latest knowledge and sharpening skills. A strong coach should be doing this with their work and supporting you in doing this with yours.
Coaching can involve a variety of factors that can facilitate performance. The first of these is strategy. It is here that we often see the tangible effects of coaching with athletes, other individuals, and organizations. Here, the coach is involved in developing a strategy or in its execution. If you change the coach, you may very well change the strategy. Good strategy is alignment of purpose, vision, resources, and execution and a coaching change might shift how any or all of these are realized in practice.
Strategy is about design – it’s a conscious intentional plan made into reality. Good coaching is about ensuring that there is a plan, the plan is executed, that it is adaptive and developmental, and that there are sufficient evaluation mechanisms to help you learn and grow. You cannot have a strong strategy without an evaluation plan to know whether you’re moving closer or farther from your goal.
Related to strategy is focus. Coaches often help their clients focus on specific things and away from others. This is done often by learning about what is holding attention in the first place. What is an organization focused on — both fears and hopes? This is very much about training for a mindset, not just a skill set. There is a big difference in avoiding what you fear compared with moving toward what you want.
An organization with a defensive mindset might be more likely to focus on how to protect market advantages or the avoidance of risks.
An organization with a opportunity mindset may still acknowledge risks and fears, but may focus its energy on getting to where it wants to go in spite of the challenges.
Mindsets for Change
Assess your coach on their ability to build the kind of relationship that allows them to learn how best you learn, how you see the world, and to create a profile of your mindsets. No coach should assume you have any particular mindset or that you use it consistently in the situations that matter. Great coaches pay attention to what you do and why you do it.
Motivation & Systems
Another coaching issue is motivation. This is the soft-skill process of keeping someone energized and brings together all of the other components within a system or structure. Motivation is about cultivating a ‘spark’ or ‘fire’ in someone to encourage them to take action. Systems are in place to help create habits so you don’t have to rely on motivation. Motivation requires a lot of energy and the benefits are many, but good systems are even better because they make behaviour change easier to do because they scaffold and anchor behaviours on to habits.
For example, people don’t usually have to feel motivated to brush their teeth or drink water when they are thirsty.
Coaches put in good systems and create a means to motivate their clients when those systems aren’t in place or when they are not enough.
Combining the right kind of inspiration with systems that sustain that energy over time so you don’t have to rely on it all the time is key. Avoid coaches who focus only on motivating without creating systems to reduce the reliance on high-energy things like motivation to carry you forward.
We lastly want to say that a coach is a partner in your success. A great coach succeeds when you succeed. They are to be partners in your success, not just a consultant. As such, relationships are very important as much as anything else in this list. Find the fit and recognize that it might take some time to find that fit and to put the practices into place.
For Emma Raducanu, this initial setback might be a bump in the road to finding the right coach and the right fit. It could also be the start of a fall backward like we saw with Genie Bouchard. Time and good care will tell.
Coaching is part of what we do and we take it seriously. If you’re looking for someone to help see things differently to better do things differently, we can be your partner. If that’s what you need as a leader or an organization, let’s talk.