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From the Olympics to the C-Suite: coaching for high performance

July 7, 2015
Zoe MacLeod

Whether you’re coaching a basketball team or a team of executives, it’s all about developing and inspiring others and helping them achieve a goal. That’s according to a pair of directors at Royal Roads University who teamed up to give a presentation at the International Association of Business Communicators World Conference in San Francisco last week.

In their session, Coaching for high performance using Olympic principles, director of the School of Communication and Culture Jennifer Walinga and Zoe MacLeod, director of Centre for Coaching and Workplace Innovation, explored the management-sport metaphor as it relates to organizational communication and leadership.

“The gold medal standard is just as effective a measure and goal for organizations as it is for an Olympic rowing team,” says Walinga, a two time Olympian (88, 92) and member of Canadian Commonwealth, World and Olympic gold medal teams. “The same strategic goal setting, race plan development and team communication principles are at work in organizations as they are on a race course.”

“Similar to sport coaching, executive coaching focuses on identifying strengths and tapping into possibility and potential,” says MacLeod, a certified executive coach. “We create a confidential container for leaders in organizations to talk through ideas, define their own success and create milestones to achieve it.”

Here are six best practices that can be applied to athletic coaching as well as executive coaching.

1. Coaching the Whole Person – We are multi-dimensional, physiological, cognitive, emotional beings. All aspects of the human system must be considered when coaching for optimal performance. Whether in the athletic arena or the corporate, a coach must understand all aspects of their client in an integrated fashion and create the conditions for the client to feel safe and be vulnerable. Challenges and stressors impact an individual physically, emotionally and cognitively. Each of these systems interacts with the other creating dynamic complexities. If an individual perceives an event as stressful and negative, this perception will narrow their attentional focus, enhance their threat vigilance, and limit their physical capacity and creative potential. A coach must combine their understanding of the human system with empathy, understanding and responsiveness to individual differences in order to co-craft a performance pathway with their client.

2. Lao Tzu Philosophy –"When the best leader's work is done the people say, 'We did it ourselves.'" A coach focuses on listening and inaction, resisting the natural desire to judge, give advice and problem-solve and thus allowing the client space to self-express and create their own future. The coach creates the environment for greater understanding, awareness and clarity that enables their client to fully ‘launch’ on their own, without looking to the past. “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step”.

3. Narrative Approach – Everyone has a story. Professional coaches help you reveal and shift yours to uncover patterns and potential. A coach is curious, has empathy and understanding and helps to ‘peel the onion’ assisting the athlete/leader to capture best practices, transformative moments, deep and illuminating insights in a story because narrative is critical to carrying forward the learning or translating the learning into different contexts. Story is also an impactful teaching tool to illustrate a key point.

4. Barriers and Breakthroughs – A coach helps their athlete/leader to confront their fears, challenges, obstacles or barriers with courage and purpose. More importantly, a coach then helps their client to use these barriers as pathways to their core values and goals. In helping the athlete/leader to generate more complete and creative solutions to barriers, the coach helps their client discover power and potential not yet realized and leads them to optimal performance. Asking thoughtful and evocative questions will help identify current developmental levels and goals, preferences, motivations and values, habits and structures that might be holding your client back. This is how the client reveals opportunities for growth and direction and discovers and rediscovers, and learns to leverage, key strengths often resulting in renewed optimism.

5. Gold Medal Standard – Once a coach has helped their athlete/leader to identify their barriers, the ‘gold medal’ or chief performance indicator will become clearly defined. A coach will help define actions that will enable the client to demonstrate, practice and deepen new learning. This is where goals and actions, performance and progress, accountability and evaluation step in. The coach can then lead their client to design a ‘raceplan’ that, if fully executed, will result in optimal performance and achieving that ‘gold medal’ outcome.

6. Leader as Vision – The client now takes the lead. She has done the work required to move forward with the confidence, the direction, the mindset, the motivation to reach their vision. The possibility is the container. She is the leader of her own “peak experiences,” or moments of great happiness and high performance. She now begins to actualize moments of full potential and celebrates her success. She is launched.
Coaching your clients, employees, and organizational teams to achieve optimal performance begins with applying these same principles to one’s own leadership goals, and demands a clear vision for yourself as a coach and leader. Likewise, just as achieving a gold medal standard requires clarity of focus, diligence, commitment and practice for those you coach, so does coaching. However, often a typical gap in organizational coaching and leadership is ‘practice’. The duo left their audience with the challenge: how and when will you practice your craft?