Professional coaches – why I want one

I loved the article “Personal Best: Top athletes and singers have coaches. Should you?” written by Dr. Atul Gawande, a surgeon who specializes is endocrine surgery. To summarize the article, Dr. Gawande writes about his experiences of having a former colleague observe and critique his work and how these experiences have enhanced his performance. Dr. Gawande also discusses his interviews with professionals who have personal coaches and his experience with the Kansas Coaching Project, an organization that teaches coaching for schoolteachers and encourages schoolteachers to use coaches to improve the quality of their teaching.

Here are a few quotes that resonated with me:

I’ve just stopped getting better.” — Dr. Gawande admits that before asking for help he had peaked in his performance as a surgeon, which is important to be aware of and acknowledge. It is also something that I have feared for myself as I pursue a career in higher education. I want to continuously grow as a teacher, which Dr. Gawande also points out is difficult to do on your own. I’ve considered sitting in on lectures by instructors that I respect. However, I believe that watching others teach has its limits on what I can learn about improving my own performance. Continuing education classes and workshops might help, though they are not going to immediately change my performance in the classroom.

I’d paid to have a kid just out of college look at my serve. So why did I find it inconceivable to pay someone to come into my operating room and coach me on my surgical technique?” – Yes! Well, not about the paying part but as a youth soccer coach with limited experience and a GTA with limited experience, I have started to wonder why instructors don’t have “coaches” that observe them and help them improve their skills. I’d love for someone to come give me advice so that I can do my job better. Of course, when I am being observed I feel uncomfortable about the experience but I have always felt better and more in control afterward. I have also enjoyed and valued being the observer. While observing, I typically feel cheerful and curious. I know I am not there to scorn or criticize, I am simply there to observe and brainstorm ways to help my colleague improve. At this point in the article, I was wondering why aren’t professional coaches more common place.

Coaches are not teachers, but they teach. …They don’t even have to be good at the sport. …Coaches are like editors.” – This speaks to me for two reasons. First of all, I enjoy being a coach, which I do agree is different from being a teacher. I think coaches provide guidance and a more critical eye. Second, I have been struggling to convince myself that I will be a great teacher (or coach), because I know that I am not the best chemist (or athlete). Dr. Gawande reminds me that most famous sports coaches to date were never the top performers in their sport. However, they are effective coaches because they are able to recognize areas that can be improved and provide guidance on how to improve them.

You have to work at what you’re not good at. In theory, people can do this themselves. But most people do not know where to start or how to proceed. Expertise, as the formula, goes, requires going from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence to conscious competence and finally to unconscious competence. – I just love this quote. How can you really begin to improve when you can’t effectively evaluate your own weaknesses?

Lastly: “Coaching done well may be the most effective intervention designed for human performance.” And just before that, “For society… we may not be ready to accept—or pay for—a cadre of people who identify the flaws in the professionals upon whom we rely, and yet hold in confidence what they see.” – Dr. Gawande is suggesting that the performance/abilities of humans as a whole will get better with good coaching, to which I agree. He also has good reason to believe (i.e., from personal experience) that the layperson will be hesitant to trust professionals who are being observed. However, I think that given the right explanation for the observation and with more exposure to observers, laypeople will be more receptive to observers in professional settings. For instance, I think it is understandable to have little confidence in a medical resident due to their limited experience. Yet, I’d feel better knowing that my experienced medical doctor is dedicated to their professional development and is seeking the guidance of an equally or more experienced colleague.

In closing, I think we should all strive to be better and we should always be open to being observed and accept guidance on our performance.

11 Replies to “Professional coaches – why I want one”

  1. I agree with you when you say “Coaches are effective coaches because they are able to recognize areas that can be improved and provide guidance on how to improve them”. In addition to that I think that they also being able to communicate effectively while providing that guidance is determinant. Like in all fields, having the required background to lead is always important but good outcome always result from management skills and I think that is what successful coaches or leaders share. They recognize and accept their mistakes and encourage collaboration and them help grow.

    • Hey Oumoule,
      I agree completely with your comment! Thank you for point out that the ability for a person to reflect on their abilities, collaborate with others, and communicate effectively separates great coaches from the not so good coaches.

  2. I wholeheartedly agree…. Having someone help you understand your strengths, weaknesses, and how to further improve is so critical in growing and developing. We can introspect all we want, but that outside opinion from an observer can really tell us how we come across in our teaching and things they notice about how we can improve based on their own knowledge and experience.

    Quite frankly though, I think the simplest way to get this kind of feedback is to ask for it somehow. A lot of schools, including VT, have some resources in place to get this kind of feedback. Here, we have GrATE, which offers tons of resources to grad students who want to learn to be better teachers, including offering to have someone sit in on your class and give you feedback. As another example, when I taught at my undergrad this past summer, I recognized that it was my first experience teaching and that I would benefit from having someone to help guide me. Based on that, I explicitly asked for a co-teaching experience with an old professor of mine, which worked out so well for both of us, actually. I got the guidance I craved from him, but he actually learned from me too in watching how I approach teaching different concepts and hearing my own thoughts on the material. So, there are ways to get the feedback you’re looking for if you ask for it!

    There’s other kind of opportunities too, like workshops and mentorship programs. The National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity ( has a couple of different programs that you can sign up for. At the very least, I highly recommend you sign up for their newsletters; they send out regular emails to have you reflect on your teaching and research goals and self-adjust throughout the semester (with an emphasis also placed on taking care of yourself and not burning out).

    • Hey Michelle, Thank you so much for the resources! I agree that it does come down to the individual seeking help and advice from others. In the end, the person who wants and seeks advice is going to get the most out of it.

  3. Thanks for sharing your post Kristen. Reading Dr. Gawande’s article and your post definitely makes me want to have a coach also! Having somebody observe you in a critical capacity while you’re actively teaching (or any other activity) would be extremely helpful. He speaks to this in the context of after his experiential learning has plateaued, but I like how you point out the benefits for this to inexperienced teachers also. I’ve heard there is an organization at VT that offers something along these lines to instructors (their acronym escapes me while I’m writing this).

    • Hey Carter, I think you are referring to GrATE, which Michelle talks about in a later comment. Yes, that is a great (haha) opportunity to get useful feedback on teaching. Thanks for your comment.

  4. Thank you for sharing. I agree that more coaching would be overall beneficial. I think one aspect which I have noticed regarding why we don’t receive much instruction as grad students is because we are being trained to survive in a world where there is not much instruction available. At first I thought that maybe my advisor did not guide me too much because his experience was similar in that he got “thrown into the fire” and had to learn everything himself. It may be true, but the skills you pick up from surviving are crucial to defining who you are.

    • Hey Antonio, I agree that sometimes learning needs to be individual. However, your comment reminds me of “practice makes perfect” where really the saying should be “practice makes habit” (might not be good but hopefully it’s good). I think it then comes down to good mentoring. A good mentor can be hands off but still provide the necessary feedback that helps you succeed and in this case continue to improve as a research or teacher. Thanks for your comment!

  5. Thanks for your comments and insights on Dr. Gawande’s writing on coaching. I really like that you emphasized the role of a coach being different than that of a teacher, and it reminds me of some reading I have done on supervision in my field of student affairs. I feel like coaching is ideally what good supervision or even advising should entail.

    Just as an experienced athlete can still benefit from being coached, competent professionals can still benefit from good supervision. However, I think we either coaching or supervision so much for granted that we never think of how we can effectively do it ourselves. In our roles we often advise and supervise students, but how can we effectively coach them?

    • Hey Jake, you bring up a great point. My thinking that by observing students and giving them feedback you are coaching them. I think this is easier to do in a research setting though instead of in a classroom because you need that personal connection and time to observe. Thanks for your comment.

  6. I think being observed would not only help professionals continue growing and improve their skills but also add a bit of a check for accountability. I’m guessing a lot of people wouldn’t love this idea because it can be difficult to hear criticism about your work even when it’s constructive.
    I know that’s something I struggled with in my first job after college where my supervisor provided feedback in one-on-one meetings on a weekly basis. This was clearly a good source of support and allowed me to correct any mistakes early since meetings were so frequent, but even very minor constructive criticism made me feel a little defensive.

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