Coaching the expert

In sport, we accept that even champions continue to be coached throughout their careers. We don’t hear the Sinkovic brothers saying that there is nothing left for them to learn. They’re expert rowers, yet they are constantly working with their coach to find more speed in the boat (in between naps).

So, what about other parts of our lives? Could coaching benefit our professional lives, even if we’ve become expert at what we do?

Surgeon Atul Gawande describes in his Ted Talk, Want to get great at something? Get a coach, what he learnt from sport—that even the expert can improve through being coached.

Below are the more salient points from the transcript; they resonated with the rower in me and also made me ponder other parts of my life.

“Turns out there are numerous problems in making it on your own“, says Gawande.

“You don’t recognize the issues that are standing in your way or if you do, you don’t necessarily know how to fix them. And the result is that somewhere along the way, you stop improving. And I thought about that, and I realized that was exactly what had happened to me as a surgeon.

“I’d entered practice in 2003, and for the first several years, it was just this steady, upward improvement in my learning curve. I watched my complication rates drop from one year to the next. And after about five years, they leveled out. And a few more years after that, I realized I wasn’t getting any better anymore. And I thought: Is this as good as I’m going to get?

Gawande asked a former professor of his to come to his operating room and observe him.

“I remember that first case. It went beautifully. I didn’t think there would be anything much he’d have to say when we were done. Instead, he had a whole page dense with notes.

‘Just small things,’ he said.

“But it’s the small things that matter”, says Gawande.

‘Did you notice that the light had swung out of the wound during the case? You spent about half an hour just operating off the light from reflected surfaces. Another thing I noticed,’ he said, ‘Your elbow goes up in the air every once in a while. That means you’re not in full control. A surgeon’s elbows should be down at their sides resting comfortably. So that means if you feel your elbow going in the air, you should get a different instrument, or just move your feet.’

“It was a whole other level of awareness. And I had to think, you know, there was something fundamentally profound about this.

“He was describing what great coaches do, and what they do is they are your external eyes and ears, providing a more accurate picture of your reality.

“They’re recognizing the fundamentals. They’re breaking your actions down and then helping you build them back up again.

“After two months of coaching, I felt myself getting better again. And after a year, I saw my complications drop down even further.

“It was painful. I didn’t like being observed, and at times I didn’t want to have to work on things. I also felt there were periods where I would get worse before I got better. But it made me realize that the coaches were onto something profoundly important.”

Sound familiar? 🙂

P.S. Gawande is also an excellent writer. I recommend his book, Being Mortal.

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