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Coaching for transformation – a synthesis of the psychological, philosophical and spiritual

Updated: Sep 4, 2023

In my work as a performance and leadership coach I have the privilege of helping clients navigate all manner of issues in their lives. While I have been having these types of 1-1 developmental conversations for a long time, I have relatively recently taken this work into a standalone, private coaching practice. I have noticed how my coaching approach and style has been developing rapidly since I’ve taken this step.

I have a background in elite sport, and so my coaching approach has its foundations in performance psychology, drawing on my experiences of working with some world class sport psychologists over the years. But I quickly realised that a purely psychological approach is severely limited when it comes to creating real, personal transformation and growth. For instance, this type of work often involves training the brain through many repetitions and with lots of trial and error, which can take a while before you experience anything like a transformation taking place. It can feel a bit like the band-aid approach, where you apply the correct psychological technique in the instance of a particular issue arising, to greater or lesser effect. Before it becomes second nature, you often have to first remember to apply the technique, and this is why it is often so important to put in place mental routines and frameworks, so that you minimise the risk of forgetting what you are working on. My own consistency in performance skyrocketed when I first introduced a comprehensive mental warm-up to compliment my physical warm-up at competitions – all thanks to my then sport psychologist, Katie Warriner. I would also add that a large reason why my work with Katie was so transformative, was that she wasn't limited by the traditional band-aid approach.

Even allowing for the limitations of the traditional approach, I still believe there is tremendous power in the use of psychological training and preparation. When you first start doing this work, it is a bit like being handed a user-manual for your mind, and you wonder why nobody has ever told you this stuff before. I believe that everyone would benefit hugely from the kind of mental training we do as athletes and it’s a travesty that so few get the opportunity – even those who are in non-sport related high-performance jobs.

But as I said at the start, I have noticed my approach to coaching individuals changing, and specifically, broadening out from just the psychological. It became clear to me that to really embed the mental training techniques that I was introducing to my clients, it was essential to dive further under the surface and uncover their underlying beliefs about work, life, their own sense of purpose and meaning – in essence, to explore their personal philosophy. You see, these underlying beliefs are guiding us, often unconsciously, and at a speed far greater than our conscious mental processes or our psychological training. Without exploring at this level, we may miss key inhibitors or barriers to change and risk misalignment between our conscious and subconscious goals. I have found this probing and challenging of my client’s beliefs to be profoundly effective – it’s the kind of work that leads to deep introspection, amazed and bemused looks, ‘Ahaa’ moments, and real breakthroughs. In our fast-paced, hyper-distracted world, it is very common for people to never take the time to examine their own belief systems. Our beliefs get built up over our entire lives, and are born from all manner of experiences – personal and vicarious. If you haven’t regularly put your deepest held beliefs to the test, then there is almost always low hanging fruit to grab that will represent quantum leaps in your journey to becoming the person you want to be.

So, alongside addressing the psychological, we must understand and explore the philosophical perspective of a person, in order to help them achieve their growth and development goals.

But there is another level, deeper than both the psychological and philosophical – how a person relates to the question of what it is and what it means to be in the world – their spiritual understanding. It is not every client that I would go to this level with, largely because I do not yet feel skilled enough myself in these arts, but I have come to understand that it represents the source of all inner transformation and so holds potential far beyond the psychological or philosophical. A starting point for this spiritual exploration is in self-enquiry. This is a method by which you look inwards to your own experience and ask a series of questions to get the truth of who we really are, beneath the transitory thoughts, feelings and memories, that we tend to think of as making up our sense of ourselves.

Before we go too far down the rabbit hole, let’s bring a practical example into the mix and explore it through these three lenses.

The concept of compassion is fast coming to prominence, across team culture, leadership and personal development. There are increasingly high-profile examples of great leaders and coaches that are lauded for the compassionate environments they cultivate, and my work with clients almost always involves compassion work in one way or another. If I could point to one central, driving force for guiding our species in the right direction it would be the cultivation of greater compassion (I’ve never been afraid of a bit of hyperbole).

If we take the psychological approach to becoming more compassionate, we might start by nurturing our self-compassion. When I focus on self-compassion with clients (which is among the most beneficial topics that can arise), I recommend becoming more aware of their inner dialogue and trying to treat themselves as they would a close friend or loved one. Another important piece of this is to recognise, in times of your own suffering, that failure, inadequacy, and making mistakes is part and parcel of being human, which everyone experiences at some point in their lives.

These techniques really work, and if kept up over time they can have a dramatic effect on how you treat and speak to yourself. But what if your early experiences have left you with a deep, underlying belief that to be a champion you must be ruthlessly self-critical and never satisfied. Or perhaps that deep down you are not worthy of love. Then, the mental training processes above will forever be undermined, and most likely will never take hold in the first place. What is needed here, then, is to uncover and overturn those beliefs, while also implementing the new psychological routines.

I had a profound experience of this kind of belief shift, which I described in more detail in this blog piece, which updated my perspective on my experience of elite performance almost overnight to something far healthier and more effective. In brief, I had always been incredibly tough on myself when I lost a match in competition, and the emotional baggage became a huge weight on me during each performance, but at the same time I felt it was what drove me to become better. Working with Katie, the same sport psychologist I mentioned earlier, she let me know that I didn’t have to suffer after a loss. In fact, if I was doing my best to win, it didn’t make any sense at all to beat myself up if it didn’t go my way. I wasn’t being sensationalist when I titled the blog about that experience ‘The single sentence that changed my life’, and I still keep that learning close to mind to this day.

Now to the spiritual approach. You ready?

There is, of course, no prescription for achieving personal breakthroughs via a spiritual path, so this is just one example of how it could offer something for the case of compassion that underpins, but also goes beyond, the psychological and philosophical approaches.

I have been enjoying exploring the spiritual philosophy of non-dualism for the past few years (again, more about the relevance of non-dualism to performance and culture to be found on my blog here). At the heart of non-dualism is the understanding that the feeling we have of being separate, individual selves is an illusion, and in reality we are all formed out of one shared consciousness, much like waves on the ocean. what you are, in your deepest essence – beyond your thoughts, feelings, memories and body composition – is pure consciousness. And the consciousness that makes you you, is one and the same as that which makes me, me… and everyone else everyone else. We are all one.

Many people will resonate with this sense of the oneness of life, in some sense or other. Maybe you’d like to take a minute to consider your own stance, now.

With this understanding comes an inevitable consequence that is relevant to our discussion here. If we are all one, then by hurting you, I hurt myself, and equally by caring for you, I care for myself. If you accept this as simply the nature of reality, then you become infinitely more open to acceptance, non-judgement, and compassion for the struggles of others (that cause them to behave in all manner of unpleasant ways), which in turn creates fertile conditions for connection with everyone around you. This is beyond a philosophical stance, as it is felt and embodied in ways that subconscious beliefs are not. It is how you understand the world to be, based on your own experience of it, moment to moment. And it leads to a whole-spirited embrace of everyone and everything, without condition, simply for being.

So, I have presented here three different paths to welcoming more compassion into your life. The first deals with the surface level thoughts and emotions. The second with the underlying beliefs that support or inhibit the psychological level, and the third, which encompasses a felt sense of what our true nature is, and the inevitable openhearted acceptance and love that comes with it. Each, in their own right can profoundly transform a person’s level of compassion, but the ideal scenario is where all three levels have been explored and aligned to form a powerful synergy of thought, belief and spirit.

If I’m honest with myself, I can see that getting straight to the spiritual is the most direct and effective path to real, lasting transformation. Though I still feel that for some people it may be important to consider the psychological and philosophical approaches like gateways to the deepest and most profound insights. For now, my path and my privilege is to explore the interplay of these three approaches to coaching.

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