Coaching philosophy Education for grown-ups

Education for grown-ups pt 1 – The good listener

”For dogma is expressed in the form of assertion, and is unshakeable, but at the same time any practical opinion can be said to harmonize with it”

Ludwig Wittgenstein

In many educational contexts teachers are identified as communicators of values, skills, and knowledge from a certain community. They are regarded as instructors or drill sergeants rather than coaches and their students are identified as recipients in a practice and of being initiated into an acceptance of the givenness of that knowledge and those values and skills. We feel tempted to say to these students that they must do as we conceive ourselves doing. 

This view of teaching seems problematic as it presupposes that we can know in advance what it means for the students to go on the way we expect them to. And if they do not accept this givenness of our knowledge is then that dissonance located only in the student?

Regardless of which a teacher must let his students understand themselves and their actions in order to apply them to new, always different situations. And then it does not suffice with conformity, to always following instructions. That does not create the necessary agreement, the attunement, between environment, body and teacher.

This is difficult, because just as for the craftsman that only have a hammer and for whom everything looks like nails, so often we mistake the rules we are following as working even when they are not.

”As a coach, adopting a top-down approach is bound to fail. You do not want silent and ignorant athletes that just follows orders. Knowledgeable athletes become partners and improve the training process”

This is how maybe my greatest coach inspiration Dan Pfaff answers a question in the fantastic new book “Training talk – conversations with a dozen master coaches”. He likens the coaching process with a company that is constantly at risk of failure if management cannot listen to and adapt its processes to a constantly changing world. And believes that the management does well to listen to the “worker on the floor”, since he is usually the one who both first sees new problems as well as finds new solutions to them.

And all the while there are certain foundational pillars of a movement or a task that needs to be stable, to always happen, for a movement to even be of that type. In the beginning of learning, or when re-learning something, we are forcing behavior into something that is not currently natural and those common building blocks are sometimes not known to the student at all. Then the guiding towards a discovery and stabilization of those “general rules” might certainly include instructions and commands, but always with an eye open for what follows them, for what they meant in this situation with this student. 

Real teaching can never be a one-way road – it is also education of the teacher. And the good coach is the one who listens as actively to his students as he wants the students to listen actively to him or her.

But being a good listener is not only something that we should aim for only for our students, but also for ourselves as well. Only expressing our own opinion, or being so distracted by technology or our own thoughts makes us isolated, misinformed and intolerant. To be a good listener one has to play down one’s own ego, one’s own thoughts. It’s all too easy to fall into behavior that closes the discussion more than we would like, like the tendency to interrupt leading to half-finished sentences and an inability to absorb what is truly said.

Kate Murphy, who has written a book about being a good listener, says that something she has noticed in all the really excellent listeners she interviewed was that they all had a very calm demeanor. This expresses an openness, that while it could be unnerving, also forces the talker to weight their words more carefully. Because to someone who actually listens one has to take responsibility for what is said. Maybe that means that the archetypical “no nonsense” American football coach often portrayed in TV series is not producing a fruitful climate for either conversation or learning?

Usually the beginning coach greatly overestimates their own knowledge or competence, and is thus less likely to view a situation with eyes open to what sets it apart from other situations he or she has been exposed to, while the wiser and more experienced coach would be more likely to ask questions and to explore different viewpoints before deciding on a plan. This is not only to please the student, but because the student, or other peers, actually can contribute to a more constructive plan.

My friend, who is a well-regarded and highly experienced Sommelier in the Michelin guide-domain of fine dining, once said to me that nowadays, as opposed to earlier in his career, he always asks his guests what type of wine they prefer and then simply just gives them that wine all night. Obviously he also has to know when and how he should break this general rule, and it is in this knowledge his brilliance in his craft is to be found. Making the effort and having the wisdom to to read the situation at hand is what separates the novice from the master.

But as well as it might be true that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, I think good intentions is quite often a predisposition for keeping on one’s toes, taking the risk of being corrected, in the coaching role. And hence I will give this advice in order to be a coach rather than a drill sergeant:

Coach tip #1: Find students you care for

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