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Do you dare to be coached?

Jessica-Russo.jpgIn my experience, most youth work professionals are constantly scrutinizing their own work. But how willing are we to allow others to do so? Could coaching be a key to developing satisfaction for professionals in our field?

In a recent report, Dana Fusco explores "the tension between a trial-by-fire approach to training [of youth work professionals] versus the overtraining that can lead to the 'anesthesia of the expert' or the loss of the 'heart.'" She concludes that knowledge and knowing are positioned "not as end products but as processes within the learning journey that require ongoing visitation."

youth-workers.jpgI found an interesting complement to Dana's report in an article in the New Yorker, where surgeon Atul Gawande explores the use of coaches in professional fields, after realizing that while many professional athletes use coaches to help them be the best that they can be, doctors don't. As Gawande discovers, coaching as a concept for amateurs is currently very popular (as even a cursory Google search will confirm), but "coaching aimed at improving the performance of people who are already professionals is less usual."

Many youth-serving organizations are already exploring and employing evaluation and coaching methods to improve the quality of their youth programs. The Youth Program Quality Assessment (YPQA) is one tool that Minnesota 4-H Youth Development, the city of St. Paul's Sprockets initiative, and many other entities are using throughout the state to engage front-line youth workers in a coaching process to improve their practice.

In our sister field of formal education, teachers have been exploring the use of coaching for years. Gawande cites the Kansas Coaching Project, directed by Jim Knight at the University of Kansas, which uses instructional coaches to help teachers implement proven teaching methods. Although more research is needed to determine how and to what extent, so far we know that coaching positively impacts teacher satisfaction, practice, and efficiency, as well as student achievement.

Gawande himself experienced the striking benefits of coaching after inviting a former teacher of his to observe him during surgeries: "I know that I'm learning again. I can't say that every surgeon needs a coach to do his or her best work, but I've discovered that I do."

Coaching for youth development professionals could easily be seen as "another freakin' thing we've got to do," as professional development often does for both formal and nonformal educators. And it is not always easy to muster the courage and humility required to invite someone to observe and critique. Humility may not be the most popular value in mainstream dominant American culture, but it may very well be the value that can turn a good effort into the best one.

As you consider this question, think about how much we stress to youth in our programs that they need to receive and process feedback as they learn. Can we realistically and authentically expect them to do that if we are not willing to do it ourselves?

What do you think of this idea? Would you be willing to invite a "coach" to assess your work as a youth development professional?

-- Jessica Russo, assistant Extension professor and director, Urban 4-H Youth Development Office

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  1. What I appreciate about your post is that it recognizes that we can all get better, and that we can’t do it alone. Common sense tells us that we improve with practice, with experience. But we don’t get better when we just go through the motions. As the “anesthesia of the expert” comment suggests, we can go stale on a job from doing it in rote ways year after year. In fact, years of experience is a poor predictor of performance.
    Atul Gawande's work reminds me of Anders Ericsson’s research that suggests that “deliberate practice”—appropriately challenging tasks that are chosen with the goal of improving a particular skill—is the kind of practice that produces expertise. Deliberate practice requires reflection on what worked and what didn’t work and it is often paired with immediate feedback. In other words, we learn when we engage with the full range of challenges associated with our practice AND receive authentic feedback. I think that feedback piece is where coaching comes into play, and too often it’s the missing piece. I think coaching is a great professional development strategy, and one that really complements youth development practice!

  2. Thanks, Kate, for bringing Ericsson's important work to the conversation. It ties in well with Flow (see Jennifer Skuza's blog in the March 2012 archives). Flow describe a sense of effortless action and satisfaction a person feels in moments when they are completely absorbed in what they are doing. This feeling is what people of all ages crave in a learning experience--it keeps them engaged in the moment, and it brings out their natural inclination to seek out more learning opportunities. I think it's easy to forget sometimes how powerful a learning experience our professional work is--the tendency is to see it as simply a necessary part of our day, rather than an opportunity to grow.

  3. Thanks, Jessica for such an interesting thread. I couldn't agree more with your observation: "And it is not always easy to muster the courage and humility required to invite someone to observe and critique." This requires a tone or climate within the organization that is inviting of 'critical friends.' Some have looked at this as creating a 'learning organization' - one able to invest in ongoing reflection and improvement. In our field this shouldn't be such a disconnect since we ask this of the young people all the time. We invite them to take risks, engage in challenges, offer support and critique to each other - all in the name of learning and growth. So why shouldn't we have the same learning structure with each other?
    I would suggest think more creatively about what coaching looks like. I think the term is riddled with images of someone shouting from the sidelines. I would hope the focus is not on performance or skills or behaviors but on relational practice (e.g., self, use of self, and being). This requires even more courage and humility and it requires coaches who are also willing to be part of the relational nexus, not removed from it as the 'experts.' Coaches must also be learners and willing to be impacted by the relationship.
    Finally, I think there could some fun stuff to explore with young people taking on such a role. Imagine have a young person following you around for the day and providing some commentary and helpful suggestions on what you could have done a bit better? Certainly they would help 'keep it real!'
    Thanks for playing!

  4. Dana,
    I agree, it's important to specify what that coaching looks like. The Kansas Coaching Project I cited in the blog article uses what they call "instructional coaches," who look specifically at how teachers implement ideas, methods, etc, into their classrooms. They also talk about what this coaching should look like, and if fact, the article by Gawande does a pretty good job of describing in detail what he witnessed in visiting a coaching session with a teacher. It was non-hierarchical--the two coaches and the teacher spent much of the time troubleshooting together, brainstorming ideas for what could work to solve one of the issues the teacher wanted to work on. The teacher set the agenda, and the coaches were not the experts, but a second and third eye available to see her classroom from an outside perspective. It's a pretty interesting read, and reminded me of how we like to work with young people on projects--asking them to decide the focus and working with them to find solutions.
    I like the idea of asking young people to take on the role of coach. We do this a bit with youth-driven evaluations, but we don't take it a step further in asking them to "coach." It would be a powerful experience on both sides.

  5. Humility is the key to an open heart. The question of "willingness to be coached" begs a much larger issue. That issue is trust. Whether it is coaching or mentoring, trust establishes a framework for learning. It needs a symbiotic relationship that is founded in mutual understanding and respect.
    It cannot be a one shot intervention where the "expert" provides the answers. It has to be an ongoing relationship that develops over time that recognizes the strengths of both individuals and provides avenues for growth for all parties. It cannot even be perceived as a "gotcha" mentality if any growth is to be achieved.
    This requires a sustained and ongoing commitment by the agency and the staff if real change is to be accomplished. All parties must actively pursue the learning experience with the role of mentor and mentee being fluid. Shared learning builds confidence, resiliency and an openness to change. This does not come easily or naturally to many but by developing trust it can achieved.

  6. Well said, Steve!

  7. Thanks, Steve. I really recommend reading the article by Gawande, because it addresses just what you're talking about. The kind of coaching that I would advocate for is very much a non-hierarchical model, where the "coach" is not the "expert," but another set of eyes to provide perspective. In fact, the "teacher coaches" the author describes were chosen, not for their particular expertise in teaching, nor the subject matter of the teacher being coached; rather, they were chosen for their skills with people.
    I agree it requires a great deal of trust all around, and the humility from both parties--humility from the coach to be able to state what is happening without judgement (and without considering oneself "THE expert"), and from the one being coached, to be able to hear the observations without defensiveness. Trust can't be built without humility.
    Commitment from the agency would be required if the process were to be made systemic; but I don't think something like this should be forced upon anyone. Better for people to volunteer themselves for it (although in many places, first year teachers are required to have a mentor or a coach), and then a great deal of focus made on finding the right mentor/coach, making sure that ground rules and goals are set together, etc. As you suggest, it's a model for recognizing strengths and promoting growth. It is meant to strengthen a person's skills, not break them down (why would anyone put themselves through that?).
    I think the word "coach" throws people off because it invites a very specific connotation. Yet it's a very different notion from a mentor. I could say what I think about the difference, but I'm more interested to hear others' thoughts.


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