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Women’s speed coach Chris Knight coaches Lindsey Vonn to one of her most successful seasons. (Getty Images/Agence Zoom-Alexis Boichard)

The Coaching Relationship

How do you see your self as a leader?

How do others see you as a leader?

What do you understand about your own vulnerabilities?

How do you respond when you feel fear?

What actions are you taking to address fruitless behaviors?


One’s relationship with his or her coach, whether for sports, health and fitness, or career is of the utmost importance. The value and effectiveness of the coaching relationship are based on openness and honesty where vulnerability is accepted and even expected. Trust and acceptance are key in this relationship. Often, the student of a sports coach looks up to them as a mentor and role model, even a philosopher of sorts. Most athletes will tell you they tend to perform better when their coach is present, supporting, analyzing, and providing feedback to improve performance. With executives, they are a client, not a student, and their coaches play more of partnership role, typically only present before and after an event such as a meeting. Regardless, the power of the relationship can often follow the executive into the meeting, providing a sense of supporting presence.


When asking coaches about how they view these relationships the sports coach often responds they think of their students as protégés’ or mentees. Sports coaches express their respect for their students, and the courage and dedication they have to their sport and their body.


The sports coach, being a coach because they have often reached the level of expertise in the sport themselves, respects the process the athlete is going through. They understand the motivation, determination and focus required to train and attain the level of skill to be a professional athlete. The sports coach relates to the whole-body/whole-person commitment to their sport and their body as their tool and that is part of where the value of having a coach comes in for the athlete.


The relationship between the executive and the executive coach has its similarities in many respects. Questioning people who have an executive coach, they express great respect and even gratitude for having the ear of one who understands the training and commitments required to emotionally and intellectually endure and maneuver the politics, emotions, and competitiveness that come with working in the business world.


Executive coaches express the respect they have for their clients comes from the very reason they are there to coach—the client’s commitment to endure and navigate the business world and all the challenging terrain that comes with it. An executive’s commitment to their mission, their job responsibilities, and to the people involved such as the staff, partners, clients, and the community at large is impressive and certainly respected by the executive coach.


Their accomplishments and resume are something to be respected as well; often it is the day-to-day existence that is the most impressive to the executive coach. Just as the day’s performance on the course for the ski racer is the ultimate impressive element of the athlete’s performance, the day’s performance in a meeting or challenging encounter can be the ultimate impressive element of the executive’s performance. The coaching relationship, whether for the athlete or the executive, requires trust and honesty for the student/client, with their success as the ultimate goal.


An important role of the sports coach is the ability to literally see and analyze the performance of the athlete. In a sense, the athlete is performing blind in the visual sense and their poor movement patterns are blind spots. Unless athletes see themselves on video, they are literally unable to see themselves. Similar to the athlete, it can be challenging for an executive to see themselves and how they appear in the field. What differs is that the type of blind spot is based simply on their humanness instead of physical performance; each produces its own type of vulnerabilities.


My take on the executive’s blind spots boils down to ego, unwise intentions, or over-confidence. Athletes also deal with ego, over-confidence, and competition—in fact, these things are huge barriers to success for the athlete. It is different though in the sense that a physical vulnerability such as athletic performance, is concrete and tangible with clear goals for change, whereas leadership vulnerabilities may be more personal, more about who the person is and how they are in their world. This difference of physical change versus way-of-being change creates a vulnerability much harder to see and admit to as well as change for the executive than for the athlete.


Another difference that stands out to me is that for the athlete, it is most often when they reach the top level of their field that they deal with these issues, whereas the executive may deal with such challenges at any point during their development. Having a coach to help manage these challenges are important for both the executive and the athlete, with the strength of the relationship being key.


Similar to a new skier, when executives encounter new terrain, it can be scary, creating vulnerability they are uncomfortable expressing for fear of looking weak or incompetent. Both the athlete and the executive face fear. Many blind spots are based on fear. The skier leans back when they are hesitant or afraid of the terrain or the speed they are gaining and I think that is an accurate statement and a good analogy for the executive as well—they lean out from, instead of into, the table or the conversation or the situation when the terrain is unfamiliar, picks up too much momentum, or gets bumpy.


This is where the coach comes in and adds value by implementing the delicate skill of helping to create awareness, for example, creating awareness of when in the process of their success did fear start to set in. The awareness may be as deep seeded as the use of early-learned survival behaviors in their family unit or in their social circles or it may be as surface as just never having experienced a particular situation; similar to the skier’s fear that happens when approaching unfamiliar terrain.


One executive I worked with shared she took on the role of mean girl in school and learned not to trust people because of witnessing gossip among her friends. The way in which she survived this experience was by distrusting and pushing her way over people. This learned behavior is very similar to what an athlete experiences if they learn poor movement patterns such as muscling one’s way through the bumpy terrain instead of balanced alignment allowing flow through the bumps. The way past these learned patterns of behavior are similar for both the athlete and the executive and can be changed through supportive coaching that creates awareness of challenging patterns while promoting positive ones.


The ski coach provides the resources in the form of physical skill building for the skier, knowing what terrain to put them on to practice those skills in order to own them and build confidence. Similar to the ski coach providing exercises for skill building and action steps that address the fear, the executive coach helps the client explore situations and resources and mirrors back what the executive is sharing, empowering them to see themselves. Both types of coaches provide guidance so the student/client can reach the top of the mountain without breaking their own leg or anyone else’s, if that is their goal. The difference in the relationship with the coach for the executive is that the executive has the answers whereas the athlete looks to his or her coach.


The relationship between the coach and the student/client is based on trust and respect. The student/client must feel comfortable being vulnerable and letting, even hoping, the coach sees them completely.


In part three of this series I address setting and attaining goals.