Whitmore on Coaching

Sir John Whitmore passed way earlier this month.  I was saddened to hear of his death, and particularly so, as I felt I had only really begun to appreciate his work in any meaningful manner over the course of 2016 while undertaking an Advanced Diploma in Executive Coaching.

Whitmore is regarded as one of the fathers of the discipline of coaching.  His book “Coaching for Performance”, was originally published in 1992. My volume is the 4th edition and its impact can be gauged from the fact that this edition alone has been reprinted a total of 11 times since it first appeared in 2009.

Whitmore asks “what is coaching?” and as those of us who are setting out on the path of becoming coaches, this is an important question to establish clarity on early on. Coaching is not merely a technique to be wheeled out and rigidly applied in certain prescribed circumstances. It is a way of managing, a way of treating people, a way of thinking, a way of being.

Another key concept clarified by Whitmore, is the important distinction between coaching and mentoring.  The origins of the term “mentor” lie in Greek mythology. Odysseus, departing for Troy, asks his friend Mentor to care for his son’s education. Odysseus’s request to Mentor with regard to his son is to “tell him all you know”. As Whitmore observes, these words sets the limits to what can be achieved through mentoring i.e. once the mentor has passed on all he knows he may feel there is little more that can be done. Whitmore believes that good coaching, and good mentoring for that matter, can and should take a performer beyond the limitations of the coach or mentor’s own knowledge.

Whitmore says that high awareness is vital for high performance, and so it follows that a key skill for any coach is the capacity to raise and sustain awareness at the appropriate level and in those areas where it is required. When a sports coach imposes a technique on an athlete this can provide an initial “win”. However, Whitmore says, this improvement in performance is ultimately self-limiting. He contrasts this with the improvement that can be achieved by coaching the athlete to raise their own kinesthetic awareness. This method can provide the athlete with a technique that is geared to that particular performer’s body rather than the “average” body.

Similarly Whitmore points out (correctly in my view) that a teacher, instructor or manager will be tempted to show and tell others how to do things in the way he himself was taught to do it, or the way “the book” says it should be done. Again Whitmore contrasts the initial performance benefit that this can provide, with that which follows through the alternative approach of seeking to build awareness within the individual and, in parallel, raising their self-reliance, self-belief and confidence. Whitmore says that once awareness is raised this will help to capture quality feedback and as a consequence natural and unforced change will follow.

You can read more about Sir John Whitmore and his work here.

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