Do You Need a Coach? (Yes)

I love this recent New Yorker article by surgeon Atul Gawande. It’s called “Personal Best: Top athletes and singers have coaches. Should you?”  He tells his own personal story about how, at the peak of a long career as a successful surgeon, he decided to invite Robert Osteen, one of his old medical school professors (long since retired from practice) to watch him perform surgery and offer suggestions, basically to be his surgery coach. The first time Osteen sat in on a surgery, Gawande thought it had gone exceptionally well. And because it was a procedure that Osteen wasn’t familiar with, he was pretty sure Osteen wouldn’t have much to say. But when they sat down to talk afterwards, Gawande saw that Osteen’s notepad was dense with observations, and he had a lot of small things Gawande could have been doing better.

If a top surgeon can benefit, then why not the rest of us? A lot of Gawande’s article is about improving teacher quality. Gawande reports that when a new teaching technique is introduced by a coach–a colleage who watched them try the new technique, and then offered suggestions afterwards–90 percent of teachers adopted the new technique. Without a coach, the adoption rate never passed 20 percent!

Many districts are beginning to offer coaches to their teachers. For the most part, only the very new teachers ask for it; the experienced teachers think they are already pretty good. (But note that even Gawande, who was pretty good, learned a lot from his coach.) And some teachers get really nervous about being watched; they worry that the coach is really working for the school administration, and that the coach report will go in their personnel file. (Coaching doesn’t work unless the coach works for the professional, not for the boss.)

Good coaches know how to break down performance into its critical individual components….Elite performers…must engage in “deliberate practice”–sustained, mindful efforts to develop the full range of abilities that success requires. 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. The coach provides the outside eyes and ears, and makes you aware of where you’re falling short. (p. 49)

The New Yorker, October 3, 2011.

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