Coaching: It’s More than Just Playing Around

I started using a game in a class I teach on coaching to try to generate some discussion on the difference that coaching makes. Sound like a waste of time? You’d be surprised! Here’s how the game works.

One person on a team volunteers to try to bounce or throw a ping pong ball into a small tub from about 15 feet away, while blindfolded. The object is to see how many out of ten the person can get into the tub.

During round one, I ask for the rest of the team to stand around the contestant to give moral support, but the teammates cannot say anything. Not one word. They are just there for moral support so that the person will know he/she is not alone. The result? No one has ever put more than one ball in the tub. Most get zero, and most of their attempts are nowhere near the tub. Same zip code—barely.

During round two, I select a different team and a new person to be the blindfolded contestant. However, in this round, I tell the other five team members that they can encourage their colleague by saying something to them just before each throw. However, the teammates can only say what is on the index card that I have given them—nothing more. Since there are five teammates and ten balls, each person gets to say his/her “saying” two times. What’s on the index cards? Platitudes. Things like, “I’m glad you are on our team,” “I am here to support you,” etc. The result? The contestant always (and I mean always) gets more in the tub than the person in Round 1. Usually four times as many! Even though all they are hearing from their teammates is platitudes.

In the final round, I select a third team, but this time I tell the team, “You can do anything you want to help your blindfolded teammate be successful. No restrictions.” The result? It’s a mixed bag. On the one hand, the blindfolded contestant always gets as many or more in as the person hearing platitudes. On the other hand, it’s very interesting to see how some people “interpret” coaching. Some teams listen to me and realize that I’ve said, “No restrictions!” So, they have their teammate step closer and closer to the tub and drop it in the bucket. But other teams take their coaching style from the previous team, and seem to be able to think of nothing to say except the platitudes that they heard that team spouting!

Afterwards, I let people talk about it in small groups and then share with everyone else. The discussion is always lively. Here are my three favorite comments or observations that I’ve heard people share:

  1. “Saying nothing to the person throwing pulled our team apart. We tended to emotionally distance ourselves from her the more she failed.” (You don’t say?)
  2. “Well, we don’t just blindly put people into positions without giving them any guidance!” (The room broke up laughing, and said, “Oh Yes we do! We shouldn’t, but we do!”)
  3. “Maybe too many of us just coach the way we’ve heard others coach, instead of thinking outside the box and focusing on what we really can do to help others succeed.”

Sometimes you can learn a lot when you’re just playing around!

Mike Mowery

Written by:
Mike Mowery
Director of Leadership Development, Strategic Government Resources

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