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Therapeutic Coaching: Inspiration from the Basketball Court

Coach #21

By Rich Simon Like a lot of us in this field, I’ve had boatloads of therapy over the years, but never a coach. At least not until recently, when Andrew—my 26-year-old basketball coach—came into my life to school me in the fine art of the crossover dribble and how to slide my feet on defense. At no extra charge, he’s also begun providing me with some of the best therapy I’ve ever received.

We all know what good shrinks are supposed to do. They gently probe their clients’ psyches with empathic regard for their need to feel safe, understood, and appreciated. But Andrew’s focus is on instruction and challenge, and he’s certainly willing to raise his voice if he thinks it will get his point across. And yet, working with him has given me a greater sense of my own possibilities (on the court and off) than just about any relationship I’ve ever had.

A small example: One day a few months ago—at Andrew’s suggestion—I challenged a guy 30 years younger than me to some one-on-one. At first, to my delight, I was unstoppable, hitting everything I threw up, showing off like a proud 12-year-old in front of my coach. But then, my opponent began to wise up to my fancy new moves and my aging body began to run out of steam. With a six-inch height advantage, he started grinding me down, and I soon reverted to my old offensive repertoire of jerky head fakes and off-balance jumpers. In the end, he just crushed me.

Once again, I was a 12-year-old, but a demoralized, humiliated 12-year-old—I’d let the team, the school, the whole district down. As I dragged my 63-year-old body off the court, I snuck a look at Andrew, half expecting a sour face or an exasperated shake of the head. Instead, he just told me, “Go get a drink of water, and then we’ll talk about it.”

It was the perfect response. I got a moment to separate myself from my defeat and when I came back, he sat me down and said, “You know, I didn’t like your body language out there.” But there was none of the disgust I expected to find in his voice. “Do you think you’re Michael Jordan? So why did you hang your head every time you missed a shot? And what was the race out there?” He described how the more I fell behind, the more I pressed and sped up my pace. In a few moments, I had a full picture of how—body and mind—I had prepared the way for my own defeat. There it was: An indelible image of not only how I had handled myself on the court, but in plenty of other similar situations in my life.

Our November/December issue of the Psychotherapy Networker is about what coaches like Andrew have to teach psychotherapists, and the role that challenge and incorruptible truth-telling can play in the process of change. A good coach is someone who—however hard he may push you—above all respects your ability to push yourself to the next level, and sees you as stronger, smarter, braver, and more capable than you think you are. But is that approach irreconcilable with in-depth understanding of traditional therapy? And what do coaches have to teach mental health professionals about the importance of intentionality and goal-oriented purpose?

If these questions intrigue you, take a look at what Lynn Grodzki and Terry Real have to say about how they’ve integrated coaching into their therapeutic work. And while you’re at it, check out the other clinically useful, provocative, and irresistibly readable material in our November/December issue, and earn 2 CE credits by taking a CE quiz once you’ve done so. Want to have our articles delivered to your door? See about getting a subscription to the Psychotherapy Networker.

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8 Responses to Therapeutic Coaching: Inspiration from the Basketball Court

  1. great story thank you
    I look forward to learning more

    Despite years of academic training, I have always thought of myself simply as a coach in the counseling room. This may be a stretch but i think when i simply taught a senior partner in a law firm to throw a baseball in the alley behind my office (telling him to get his body into it and showing him he could loosen up and do it) I helped his self esteem more than challenging his belief system.

    And directly telling a patient that they were talking to me with an arrogant condescending tone that was going to lose them points in the world they wanted to win in was probably more effective than interpreting their behavior.

    So thank you for a great story and bringing this approach into the consulting room.

    Larry Drell,MD for info on coaching,therapy, and the treatment of anxiety and depression.

  2. Peggy says:

    I’ve been using the concept of “I’m the coach and you are the team. If the football coach says 2, 5, 23, and you go on the field and do 7, 4, 42 and lose the play, well, you haven’t used the skills the coach taught you. I teach you skills, when you work on using them you are in charge of your life.” I find teaching cognitive skills to be effective in clients becoming empowered in considering problem solving options to guide their decision making and which imporves their lives.

  3. Andrew Schwartz says:

    Excellent – seriously looking forward to this issue!

  4. Jim Kotleba says:

    About four years ago I took a 20 hr conference call style basic training program as an entry towards coaching certification. The mantra I kept hearing then was ” Coaching is not psychotherapy. You are doing coaching-not therapy”. What you are saying sounds like that is no longer the case. Has the thinking changed?

  5. Evie Bodling says:

    I have been expressing this concept to my clients throughout my social work career. It appears to be a great motivator for them. I know it’s a great motivator for me! So glad it is being more fully explored within the therapeutic realm.

  6. Judi Laskodi says:

    This sounds like a great blend of approaches and a good fit for me. It is not strict ‘coaching’, with no history, insight, focus on feelings, etc, but is more concrete, practical and directive than straight counseling/therapy. For the right clients it sounds perfect. And, with some positive psychology theory in there, focusing on strengths, what a way to help folks move forward! Looking forward to hearing more.

  7. ellenbcgirl says:

    Very skeptical that “coaching” is anything other than what a broadly-educated/broadly skilled therapist does automatically whenever that particular mode is called for! Therapists have never been prevented from advising, pointing out, calling attention to, teaching practical ways of improving clients’ lives. What’s so new?! My view is that coaching is the latest catchy thing-( I’m aware it’s been around for about 15 yrs) – An excellent invention by somebody who knows how to market/ make money! Wish we therapists were really good at inventing also! I’m a terrific therapist, but poor as a churchmouse…ellenbcgirl

  8. Julia RN-BC, LPC says:

    Loved it. Came to my attention at a great time. Thank you.

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