Picture this. You’re an elite rower, in the senior national team, competing at a world cup. After giving your all in the final race, mentally, physically, emotionally you come off the water having underperformed, finishing 5th. You’re completely exhausted, having given it your all for just over 6 brutal minutes (as you always do), and you make your way along the bank to where your coach will be waiting. He’s standing there, not giving much away, but you know that he’s not happy. Your crew just didn’t put the gameplan you’d been working on these past 12 months into action in the final and you’re not sure why, yet. Your coach is clearly going to have his ideas, and he has incredibly high expectations of you all, so it’s not going to be pretty. It’s never very pretty unless you’ve won.
Sure enough, after a giving everyone a moment to settle into the group he begins by asking – “what went wrong?”, and before anyone can answer, follows up with “because I could see from here that you weren’t executing the gameplan that we discussed and agreed”. And that familiar sense of weight descends over the already exhausted group. The support staff start to edge away from the nearby area, knowing what’s coming. Nobody wants to be here now, not us, and not even coach. This is normal, of course. Every crew goes through something similar when they underperform, don’t they? Probably the same goes across all sports. Or does it?
Now let’s pull back to think about this scene from a distance.
This is a moment of real vulnerability on behalf of the athletes. They have just poured their hearts into a performance, which didn’t pay off as they’d hoped. And the moment they step onto dry land they feel like they are on a gallows walk, and then immediately have to answer for themselves and analyse a race that they haven’t yet stopped sweating from. This is not an outlier scenario, but rather the norm in elite sport, and it is almost unthinkable how misguided we have been, operating as coaches in this space, and other times like it. I am talking here about moments of extreme vulnerability in the people we are working with – of course, this can be extrapolated to all leadership contexts. Not only have we mixed up our priorities in those moments, but we have completely missed the profound human experience within them.
I had a conversation with an Olympian friend of mine recently, who described situations like the one above as being perfectly indicative of her experiences at the top level of sport. But when I looked back at my own 10 years as a professional athlete, I realised that I had a totally different experience of these post-match scenarios. Quite the opposite, in fact. For me, those were moments of solidarity and support from my coach. For the vast majority of my career, I had a coach who wouldn’t dream of making me feel more uncomfortable than I was already feeling after I had lost. This discrepancy between my friend’s and my experiences of being ‘coached’ felt significant and worthy of investigation. What our respective coaches were exhibiting was more than just a simple difference in coaching styles, more, even, than a deeper philosophical difference. What I would like to propose is that our coaches were embodying altogether different levels of consciousness in these spaces. If levels of consciousness are a new concept for you, then you can just think about there being a spectrum of consciousness, as with emotions where shame, guilt and fear characterise the lower end and love, joy, peace and connection the higher end. Actually it goes beyond that, because consciousness connects all of us and therefore our consciousness affects those around us and vice versa. If you walk into a room filled with a sense of joy and peace, then that space and all those within it will be affected by your presence, whether they know it or not.
There is a phrase that stuck with me from the course I took in transformational coaching – “The quality of my attention determines the quality of your thinking”. I think we can take this idea further to be “the level of my consciousness determines (or at least significantly impacts) the level of yours”.
So, now let’s bring this back to our example of the post-race debrief. Imagine the difference if you implanted a coach, more like my old coach, who truly inhabited a higher level of consciousness in those sensitive moments. First of all, what would lead a coach to be like that, as opposed to the traditional, less enlightened approach? Well, they would not see the race or the team as ‘their’ thing at all, but rather that they are just there to support the athletes in their mission. Their ego is thoroughly parked, as this is not about them. None of it. And this allows them to show up, with true presence, in whatever way is supportive of the athletes needs. They recognise the messiness and complexity of performance, and that any sense of control they may sometimes feel is just an illusion, so they are able to let go and allow that what will be, will be. At the foundation, they are guided by the joy and love of coaching, and of connecting with their athletes, which leads to having deep compassion for those athlete’s vulnerability.
So, what difference would this make for our crew, now gathered around a coach embodying a higher consciousness? Firstly, they would arrive in to a space of being held in support and compassion by their coach, who recognises and appreciates these kinds of moments for the growth and connection they know can emerge from them. The athletes receive the message, non-verbally, but loud and clear, that they are accepted and appreciated in this circle, and that they are good enough, despite a disappointing result. This provides for the crew the spaciousness that they need to recover emotionally from the race, and the peace to see each other and connect over the shared experience. Perhaps a question from the coach is about what they are going through right now. The athletes, one by one, share their emotions and their physical state, bringing some awareness to how they are, and hearing from their teammates. The analysis of the race will come, but there is no need to rush to it. Anyone who has tried hot debriefs with athletes before knows that there is little point in trying to get any thoughtful or rational analysis out of them.
The coach, meanwhile, is listening. But not just listening as we tend to know it – waiting for a chance to say our piece – but generatively listening. Aligned with higher levels of consciousness there are also levels of listening. At the lowest level is listening simply to confirm our own ideas or just to identify the place to jump in. Generative listening is the highest level. This is listening from a place of connection with the potential of the person speaking, with what could emerge and be generated out of this specific dynamic relationship. There is no need to control proceedings, nor to get to the bottom of anything, but the goal, if there is one, is to provide the space for whatever wants to arise. That could just as well be silence – which many athletes will tell you is all they want from their coach in those moments. But it could also be more than that, and whatever emerges is held in the space of listening, like anything else. This doesn’t mean that the coach must remain silent throughout, but the point is that from this base, this level of consciousness and of listening, any response from the coach will be immeasurably more in tune with the needs of the athlete and the moment. Because at this level, the coach defuses from their own ego to the point that it’s no longer in the picture at all, and what is left, by nature, is able to recognise and connect more deeply to the people and the present moment, free of distraction. Otto Sharmer, from the MIT Sloan School of Management, believes that listening is “the most important and most underrated leadership skill today”.
I can speak from my own experience of this, and I can say without a shadow of doubt that my coach of 20 years was the embodiment of love and joy for the endeavour, sport, and art of fencing. He would put all his energy and passion into supporting me during matches, but when I lost, he was able to put his own needs entirely aside and attend to mine. There was nothing he wanted from me, but at the same time I knew he was with me. I think I only realise now, in seeing the contrast with my friend’s experience, how incredibly special that was. For most of my career, I was incredibly harsh on myself when I lost or made mistakes. What my coach provided for me was a safety net and support structure for those moments when I was hurting so much. He offered me unconditional acceptance, despite the defeat, and that is a true gift when you realise how much self-doubt and questioning was happening for me and is for many other athletes out there. I can only imagine what it would have been like for me, had I been met in those moments of incredible vulnerability by a coach whose acceptance and appreciation of me was linked to my performance. My friend told me they felt diminished as a person, confused, and sometimes left feeling empty.
It's not hard to think about what benefits are gained and lost in these two scenarios, and how that impact goes far beyond the experiences of just that day. The respective level of our coaches’ consciousness determined the level of ours, and in those crucial moments of anguish and uncertainty, that is the difference between harnessing the power of the experience and crushing it.
So, what are the other moments like this, that coaches are rarely trained and equipped for? Essentially, they are any situation in which an athlete (or anyone) is in a place of particular emotional vulnerability. That could be in moments of transition in or out of a programme; selections; when resolving a conflict; when a player is injured; or perhaps when a leader has to call out unacceptable behaviour. There exist training offerings for the skills of handling conflict, giving feedback, having difficult conversations, for example, but nobody is being prepared for the most important, most impactful aspect of all these scenarios – their level of consciousness at the key moment. Therefore, we have coaches and leaders who are led to believe that if they put into practice the techniques they learnt, then things will go well. But even if you say the right things, in the right order, we know that nearly 60% of the message is being conveyed by how you are showing up in the moment. And how you show up is dictated by your level of consciousness.
I’d love to create a programme focussed on helping coaches achieve greater peace, joy and connection in moments such as the ones described above. I already know what it would be called – Love Coaching. If you like the sound of that, then let me know, so I can get a sense of how much this concept of higher consciousness coaching resonates out there.
The title of this piece, this idea – Love Coaching – resonated powerfully with me and the friends who helped inspire it, because it recognises both that coaches tend to truly love what they do, and that love, not fear, is the ultimate driver of all that sport can be, in terms of performance, wellbeing and social impact.