I’ve been quiet on the posts here. Four weeks ago today, my youngest brother Bill collapsed from a heart attack. He was doing something he loved: waterskiing on a mountain lake. We tried to revive him but were unsuccessful. He leaves behind a wife, three daughters, three brothers, his father, and many other relatives and friends. At his memorial service with just the family, one of his daughters spoke about Bill’s passion and intensity for sports and competition. Bill coached one daughter to the National Spelling Bee three consecutive years. (Anja Beth is still the only Swoap to appear on ESPN!) Bill also coached soccer and was involved with many other sports.
So this post is in honor of Bill and to salute coaches everywhere.
Two years ago, surgeon and journalist Atul Gawande wrote a must-read New Yorker piece about coaching.
Expertise, as the formula goes, requires going from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence to conscious competence and finally to unconscious competence. The coach provides the outside eyes and ears, and makes you aware of where you’re falling short. This is tricky. Human beings resist exposure and critique; our brains are well defended. So coaches use a variety of approaches—showing what other, respected colleagues do, for instance, or reviewing videos of the subject’s performance. The most common, however, is just conversation.
Having watched master performers in music, sports, and other fields, Gawande concluded that effective coaching was crucial no matter what the profession or the level of performer. Gawande writes about asking his retired surgical mentor, Robert Osteen, to act as a “coach” for him.
I brought my laptop to Osteen’s kitchen, and we watched a recording of another thyroidectomy I’d performed. Three video pictures of the operation streamed on the screen—one from a camera in the operating light, one from a wide-angle room camera, and one with the feed from the anesthesia monitor. A boom microphone picked up the sound.
Osteen liked how I’d changed the patient’s positioning and draping. “See? Right there!” He pointed at the screen. “The assistant is able to help you now.” At one point, the light drifted out of the wound and we watched to see how long it took me to realize I’d lost direct illumination: four minutes, instead of half an hour.
“Good,” he said. “You’re paying more attention.”
Just like a post-game film analysis conducted by any coach! And the coach is paying attention to the little things. Coaching is largely about paying close attention and then giving clear and short feedback. Long-winded speeches go in one ear and out the other. Keep it short, specific, and help your student incorporate the feedback the next time out.
My brother Bill was committed to helping his daughters learn and enjoy their sports (whether it was soccer, dancing, or spelling). He engaged fully and deeply with his family, his faith, and his community. He will be sorely missed.