A Coach at Your Back
Having a coach right behind you, an ally guiding you and the bike as you both peddle along together, is an example of the partnership position. Rather than observing from a neutral distance (therapist), explaining how to do it and what equipment to use (consultant), a coach shows you how to ride the bike, stays right along with you, helps you practice your riding skills, and keeps you motivated to continue riding until you know how to do it like a pro. You're in the steering position, but she has your back. She has no agenda other than wanting you to get where you wish to go.
After I graduated from CoachU in 1998, I started working as a business coach, helping therapists develop the business side of their practices, at a time when managed care was beginning to take a heavy toll on therapists' incomes. With my practice-building program gaining interest, I fleshed out the manual with the idea of writing a book. On a whim, I sent a query to an editor, asking her if she was interested in a book about my program, although I didn't yet have a manuscript, just a few loose chapters. I got a speedy response from the editor saying to send it on.
At that point, I developed a crippling case of writer's block. I just couldn't move forward. I'd never hired a coach for myself, but if not now, when? I sought out Pam Richarde, a former therapist, now working exclusively as a life coach and director of training at CoachU, who'd helped other people get published. During our first call, one of Pam's questions was, "What's important about writing this book?"
"Well, it would be good for my career. It would help me build a business-coaching practice. I think it would help me teach more classes. I'd be an author and could present workshops." On and on I went with ideas that were basically about furthering my career.
"Anything else?" she asked.
"No, that's all I can think of."
"And you're really stuck. You haven't written a word in over a month."
Pam took a moment to think about this. "Lynn, I'm listening to your reasons for writing and, sweetie (I learned later that Pam called all her coaching clients affectionate names), I just don't think that you have a big enough vision to get you over the writer's block. I request that you find a bigger, better reason, other than your personal career agenda, for this book to exist."
"Like what?" I asked.
"Honey, that's what I'm asking you! I can't find the answer, but I do believe it's inside you. If I was thinking about this for myself, I might be thinking about my values. Think about this over the week and let's talk more on our next call."
For Pam, the best way to shift perception when someone was stuck was to get them to think bigger. She invited me to develop a vision for the book, so I looked at a bigger reason for writing one--beyond my capital-C Career. I took long walks that week and thought about what a book with this topic might accomplish for others. It occurred to me that if I could help therapists be more successful, it might keep the therapy profession alive in the world, maybe help it grow! I thought about all the therapists I knew who toiled in private practice--good, generous, caring people--who deserved to earn a good living. I began to get the spirit and motivation I needed. I finally started writing in earnest.
Pam was a cheerleader while I was writing, but she also brought in her expertise with publishing. When I'd completed four chapters, she outlined the next step--how to write a book proposal--and when I'd done that, she opened her Rolodex and gave me the name of a copywriter to perfect it and a book-marketing expert to advise me about how to get the world interested in it. I sent out the proposal to six publishers and got back three offers. As a coach, Pam modeled a partnership position: she stood behind me and it felt, to me, as though my goals became her goals. Her interest in my success felt real and helped me move forward faster and more easily than if I'd been on my own.
But when I tried to describe my relationship with Pam to other therapists, I got stuck. Pam was kind of an advisor, but she worked with me, as one therapist would describe, "close-in," like a longtime buddy. She had immediate, real reactions. She cared a lot about my goal. Certainly, no therapist had ever called me "sweetie" and "honey." But she wasn't really a friend or even a colleague. And while I paid her--as I would a therapist--she was transparent and self-disclosed tidbits about her own life and her work to help me stay motivated. She'd "break the frame" to e-mail me between our sessions to find out how I was doing and if I was making progress on a specific action. She made suggestions freely and openly and I got immediate and long-lasting results from her partnership stance within our coaching. My book got published and became a resource for tens of thousands of therapists, fulfilling the vision Pam pushed me to define.
The Coaching Edge
In 2005, I was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a bilateral mastectomy with no reconstruction. My body, as I knew it, changed forever. My doctor told me to start exercising, but after so many years of sitting--as a therapist, coach, and author--I just couldn't get myself moving. So I hired a young sports coach as a personal trainer. In the same way that psychoanalysis represents an extreme model of psychotherapy, a sports coach is an extreme experience of coaching. My trainer, Andrew, was young, but a serious coach who ran soccer, basketball, and martial art camps for children. When I explained the physical limitations from my surgery, especially my problem with upper-body range of motion, he looked me over and said, "I think I'll train you to play basketball, the way I train the kids I coach. It'll help you get strong and fit, and stretch your arm and chest muscles." I laughed at this, as though he were joking; I'd never even held a basketball or played any sport. But Andrew didn't even smile. He was serious, and I was about to learn what it meant to be coached to the extreme.
Working with Andrew was a full mind-and-body reeducation. I signed up for three hours of training (or torture, as I called it) each week. I was out of shape, and the first year of training was miserably difficult. Over the course of that year, Andrew cajoled, pushed, encouraged, and challenged me again and again, helping me rebuild my physical capacity to a point far beyond what I could have imagined possible. I learned to do lunges and push-ups, jog, lift weights, and, of course, play basic basketball. That frightened me because it was a contact sport, but also thrilled me as I--an antijock, if ever there was one--learned to shoot baskets and make layups.
When I was too tired to jog, Andrew literally got behind me and pushed. He wasn't physically exceptional (shorter than I, no defined muscles), but his passion for sport and training made him an impressive athlete on and off the basketball court. He was patient and demanding, a constant cheerleader and a rigorous tactician, noting and measuring any amount of progress. I had to learn perfect form for every layup or dribble. I became stronger, more coordinated, and more confident. My improved physical health and fitness was a kind of revelation, opening up an aspect of myself I'd never known existed. In the moments when I could catch my breath, I observed that Andrew often relied on a technique called, in coaching jargon, a "coaching edge."
Using the bicycle metaphor, when you're positioned to sit right behind a client and see when the client is about to crash, you can't just stay mum and casually observe the crash. Using a coaching edge means delivering a "Put on the brake!" message when the client is about to self-destruct. A coaching edge gets attention and, hopefully, a buy-in from a client for action or peak performance. When Andrew wanted me to run faster during my sprints, he didn't ask in a therapeutic, friendly voice--"Could you move a little more quickly, please, Lynn?" He barked. "Pick up your pace, right now! Give me 100 percent. Let's see you really run!"
This coaching edge is one of the hardest skills to teach aspiring coaches or therapists who want to coach, too, because it's confrontational. For me, it took a client whose experiences paralleled many of my own to help me put together the elements of how best to work as both therapist and coach. Not only was Nancy, who was 32, young to have breast cancer, but like many who become ill at that early age, it was an extremely aggressive form. She'd completed her surgery and chemo, but was being watched carefully by her medical team. Her oncologist had strongly encouraged her to lose weight and exercise, to become as physically healthy as possible. But depressed and angry about her illness, Nancy was stuck in a rut of watching endless hours of TV and being preoccupied with her rotten luck. She was already in couples therapy with her husband, but had decided she wanted some individual sessions with a therapist who understood cancer.
In our first therapy session, Nancy said she couldn't get herself to stay on her diet and exercise program, and knew why. "Part of me just wants to give up," she admitted in a little girl's whining voice. She knew she was grieving. Bitter about getting the disease so young, she also worried about her two young children. What would become of them? She took out her worry and anger on everyone and everything--her treatment team, her husband, her friends. She repeated several times that it was so unfair, that no one really understood how awful this was for her. I listened silently for about 15 minutes, nodding my head, saying little other than a few validating comments. Then I switched gears.
"Do you have a jacket?" I asked.