Nurturing Growth: The Essence of Coaching Relationships

Picture of Richard Smith
Richard Smith

One of the eight-year-olds who I coach in flag football brought me an essay he wrote in school. The prompt was, “Who is worth more than gold to you?” He wrote about me.

For context, this young man and his family moved to the United States recently, and he was unfamiliar with the game but was eager to play. I told him at the beginning of the season that I would always try to explain rules and plays to him in ways he’d understand. But if anything wasn’t clear, he should let me know. And he did. Several times, he’d tell me he just didn’t get what we were trying to do, so I’d offer it up differently until we were on the same page. I understood my job was to help him participate in meaningful ways, learn the game and build his confidence.

In his essay, he wrote that my encouragement, explanations, and support were so valuable to him that I was worth more than a pot of gold. I got a little misty-eyed reading that paper. I knew this kind young man appreciated our interactions and enjoyed being part of the team. But this essay told me that my coaching was making an impact.

Sports as a Metaphor for Life and Business

In executive coaching, there is often a perception that I’m working with someone to change them. That’s not it at all. I see the relationships I try to create with clients mirrored in the relationships between the coaches and players honored as Naismith Award winners. This year, I was appointed to the Board of Directors of the Atlanta Tipoff Club under the direction of president Eric Oberman, and the Naismith Awards, a set of annual basketball awards named in honor of Dr. James Naismith, the inventor of basketball. I’ve been enthusiastic about this role because it enables me to do two things: increase recognition for players who are true leaders and spotlight coaches who positively enrich the lives of their team members by building their skills and confidence.

Call Out: At its core, the role of a coach is to see the best in each individual, guide them past barriers of self-doubt, and amplify their strengths so that they can achieve their goals.

Attending this year’s awards ceremony, I enjoyed hearing players speak about the coaches who guided and supported them. Most notably, Zach Edey, the senior center from Purdue who won the Naismith Player of the Year Award for the second year in a row. He noted that Coach Matt Painter believed in him and worked hard to help him develop when others did not. That belief in him gave him the confidence to succeed.

Whether we’re talking about basketball or business, effective coaching should foster a culture of trust and camaraderie, encouragement and confidence-building, and continuous learning and improvement. These qualities are essential for staying ahead of the competition and a rapidly evolving marketplace.

At its core, the role of a coach is to see the best in each individual, guide them past barriers of self-doubt, and amplify their strengths so that they can achieve their goals.

Coaching in Action

For any coach to succeed, the individuals they advise must become self-aware. People need to understand their impact on those around them, whether working as part of a team or as an individual contributor. To help them do this, I use data-driven assessments that show how their behavior may impact others at work. These can be positive or negative interactions. Many of the assessments I give are behaviorally based, allowing me to gain insights into what a person is doing, or not doing, that could impede or help them. How we talk about those assessments is unique to everyone, ensuring the feedback is relevant and actionable.

One of my executive coaching clients benefited greatly from the insights we mined together from 360-degree feedback and behavioral assessments. When we first began working together, this person did not enjoy many aspects of business beyond the responsibilities of their job. They had difficulty controlling their emotions in moments of conflict and when people expressed differing points of view. They were considered hard to deal with and approach, with limited executive presence. They often made rash decisions, exhibiting high levels of emotion with little thought of how their behavior might impact others. They jumped to problem-solving rather than actively listening to teammates and colleagues and taking in multiple perspectives.

A great leader needs to understand the strengths of their colleagues and teammates to know how they can win.

As their coach, I needed to support this person while also delivering candid feedback. I told them that the care they put into their work was admirable, but they needed to find a productive way to express their emotions. Their reactive behaviors held them back, and the way they protected their work prevented collaboration. So, how could I best help them? I needed to understand what is important to them, how they communicate, and find ways to show that there is value in adapting to meet the needs of those with whom they work.

In our sessions, we discussed how others perceived them versus how they meant to come across. We identified behaviors that translated as approachable and open rather than shut down or erratic. We held postmortems, talking through situations in which communication broke down and brainstormed ways to use different approaches in future. And we role-played, particularly about scenarios or people that seemed to knock them off balance.

With my young flag football team, we do similar exercises. I line up each team member in their designated position. Then we run each play at half speed multiple times because the players need to be aware of not only what they are doing, but also what their teammates are doing. Before you throw a pass to the wide receiver, you need to know that they’re in place before you throw the ball.

The same is true for working with teams in business. A great leader needs to understand the strengths of their colleagues and teammates to know how they can win.

Developing a Playbook

In coaching sports, strong coaches set goals for their players, laying out what they should accomplish based on their skills and potential. In coaching for business, strong coaches partner with their clients to find ways that skill, talent, and interpersonal relations can help them achieve their goals. 

Coaches help examine mistakes and build on successes.

After a game or important meeting, coaches help players and leaders review and regroup. We examine mistakes and build on successes.

If they did not succeed, we talk about what could go differently on the next attempt. When they achieve their goal, we applaud success and reinforce the positive outcome of great preparation.

With the executive who struggled with elements of the business environment and colleague relations, we worked through strategies and employed tools to help them feel more secure in a variety of situations. The executive learned to pick their battles and not let others unsettle them. With clarity about what was important and what was just “noise,” this individual could maintain equilibrium. Of course, there were setbacks and mistakes. But there were also great successes, which we reinforced and celebrated. After two years of outstanding progress, this executive was recently promoted to a coveted role. They credited much of their expanded leadership abilities to the power of coaching.

At the Naismith Awards, I heard clearly how important coaches are in helping players perform at higher levels, overcoming adversity, and serving as strong support when stress becomes overwhelming.

Here are some proven practices coaches and managers can adopt to help any kind of team perform at a higher level

Create Trust: Connect with team members to establish relationships that create psychological safety. Only then can team members be vulnerable and open to feedback.

Welcome Dialogue: Build an environment where team members feel comfortable expressing their thoughts, concerns, and ideas openly. Encourage regular feedback sessions to address issues and brainstorm solutions.

Provide Clear Expectations: Set clear goals and expectations for individual and team performance. Ensure that everyone understands their role within the team and how their contributions align with broader objectives.

Offer Ongoing Development: Invest in the growth and development of your team members through training, coaching, and mentorship programs. Provide opportunities for learning and skill-building to help them continuously improve.

Promote Collaboration: Encourage teamwork and collaboration by fostering camaraderie and collective responsibility. Facilitate cross-functional collaboration and communication to leverage diverse perspectives and strengths within the team.

Celebrate Successes/Learn from Mistakes: Acknowledge and celebrate achievements, both big and small, to boost morale and motivation. At the same time, embrace failures as learning opportunities to encourage a growth mindset.

Whether helping a young person learn to play a game or guiding an executive to their next career goal, coaches can empower individuals to become their best selves, creating a ripple effect of success that extends far beyond the arena or the office. 

What is that worth to you?