Coaching for Performance – GROWing Human Potential

July 2, 2012 | By

The Essence of Coaching

And Gallwey had put his finger on the essence of coaching. Coaching is unlocking people’s potential to maximize their own performance. It is helping them to learn rather than teaching them. After all, how did you learn to walk? Did your mother instruct you? We all have a built-in, natural learning capability that is actually disrupted by instruction.

This idea was not new: Socrates had voiced the same concept some 2,000 years earlier, but somehow his philosophy got lost in the rush to materialistic reductionism of the last two centuries. The pendulum has swung back and coaching, if not Socrates, is here to stay for a century or three yet! Gallwey’s books coincided with the emergence of a more optimistic psychological model of humankind than the old behaviorist view that we are little more than empty vessels into which everything has to be poured. The new model suggested we are more like acorns, each of which contains within it all the potential to be a magnificent oak tree. We need nourishment, encouragement, and the light to reach toward, but the oaktreeness is already within us.

If we accept this model, and it is only contested by some aging flat earthers, the way we learn, and more importantly the way we teach and instruct, must be called into question. Unfortunately, habits die hard and old methods persist even though most of us know their limitations.

Let me extend the acorn analogy a step further. You may not be aware that oak saplings, growing from acorns in the wild, quickly develop a single, hair-thin tap root to seek out water. This may extend downwards as far as a meter while the sapling is still only 30cm tall. When grown commercially in a nursery, the tap root tends to coil in the bottom of the pot and is broken off when the sapling is transplanted, setting back its development severely while a replacement grows. Insufficient time is taken to preserve the tap root and most growers do not even know of its existence or purpose.

The wise gardener, when transplanting a sapling, will uncoil the tender tap root, weight its tip, and carefully thread it down a long, vertical hole driven deep into the earth with a metal bar. The small amount of time invested in this process so early in the tree’s life ensures its survival and allows it to develop faster and become stronger than its commercially grown siblings. Wise business leaders use coaching to emulate the good gardener.

Universal proof of the success of new coaching methods has been hard to demonstrate because few have understood and used them fully, and many others have been unwilling to set aside old, proven ways for long enough to reap the rewards of new ones. Recently, however, as much through necessity as progress, employee participation, delegation, accountability, and coaching have found their way into business language, and sometimes into behavior too.

Inner Business

Tim Gallwey was perhaps the first to demonstrate a simple but comprehensive method of coaching that could be readily applied to almost any situation, particularly in his book Inner Game of Tennis.

Many years ago I sought out Gallwey, was trained by him, and founded the Inner Game in Britain. We soon formed a small team of Inner Game coaches. At first all were trained by Gallwey, but later we trained our own. We ran Inner Tennis courses and Inner Skiing holidays and many golfers freed up their swings with Inner Golf. It was not long before our sporting clients began to ask us if we could apply the same methods to prevailing issues in their companies. We did, and all the leading exponents of business coaching today graduated from or have been profoundly influenced by the Gallwey school of coaching.

Through years of experience in the business field, we have built and elaborated on those first methods and adapted them to the issues and conditions of today’s business environment. Some of us have specialized in teaching managers to coach, others have acted as independent coaches for executives and for business teams. Although coaches compete with one another in the market, they tend be friends and not infrequently work together. This in itself speaks highly of the method, for it was Tim Gallwey who suggested that your opponent in tennis is really your friend if hè makes you stretch and run. He is not a friend if hè just pats the ball back to you, as that will not help you to improve your game, and isn’t that what we are all trying to do in our different fields?

Although Tim Gallwey, my colleagues in Performance Consultants International, and many others who now practice coaching in the business arena cut our teeth in sport, coaching in sport itself has changed little overall. It remains at least a decade behind the methodology of coaching that is virtually universal in business today. That is because when we introduced coaching into business 25 years ago, the word was new in that context and did not bring with it the baggage of a long history of past practice. We were able to introducé new concepts without having to fight old prejudices, and old practitioners, of old coaching.

That is not to say that we met no resistance to coaching in business; we still do at times from people who have remained strangely insulated from or blind to change. Coaching as a practice in business is here to stay, although the word itself might disappear as its associated values, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors become the norm for everyone.

Excerpt from Coaching for Performance: GROWing Human Potential and Purpose – the Principles and Practice of Coaching and Leadership (4th Edition) (People Skills for Professionals) by Sir John Whitmore (

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