What Is Coaching, and How you Can Use It?

Most people have experienced coaching in some form or another in their life. From sports, to music, to art, and to life. People are coaching and being coached all of the time. However, most people assume coaching is telling – by an expert to a novice. But if that were true, no elite performers would have coaches. Instead, think of coaching as asking. And to be an expert coach you need to be an expert at asking good questions.


Good day there, bakers, writers, and rock stars. Dr. Richard Huysmans here. You might have heard me talk a lot about or not a lot, but refer to myself as a career coach for PhD students, academics, early career researchers, and wondering what the heck is a PhD coach or perhaps what the heck is a coach?

Most of you probably have experienced some form of coaching in your life. I guess we refer to people that help us with same music or sport or art as coaches or sometimes teachers. But one of the misconceptions that I think a lot of people have with who, and what coaches are is that they are directive. So, you know if you think about a sports coach often they’re telling you what to do. If you think about a music coach, again they’re telling you what to do and how to do it. But I think a coach is more about asking good questions. If you think about it, it makes sense. Because if a coach was being directive, then you would musicians who are elite wouldn’t have coaches, but they do. Sports people who are elite wouldn’t have coaches, but they do. You know, even athletes in general have all sorts of coaches for their training. Yes, they’re elite, and yes, they know what they’re doing, but their coach gets them to ask questions of them that help them to realize how their performance could improve. So, to me a coach is all about asking good questions of people to help get to good answers which can then improve performance.

There are some really great examples of coaching and the application of good coaching questions from one setting to another. I guess the quintessential example is a book called, The Inner Game of Tennis written by Timothy Galway. Have a look it up look it up. Basically, that’s turned into an entire series of the inner game of, and that probably kicked off what we now consider to be the coaching movement. If you’re interested in, I guess hearing coaching sessions. If you look up the podcast coaching Real Leaders, there are coaching sessions that are there and analyze. That’s been a really useful resource for me to think about coaching, and how I can coach more effectively. But you might also find it useful to put yourself in the shoes of the coach or the coachee, and how a session might be useful for you. Or how if you’re a leader or a manager, how you could use a coach approach with the staff or the students that you supervise. Or even if you’re not a leader or a manager, if you find yourself working regularly with your peers on improvement that a coach approach rather than a directive one might be useful. Another podcast worth listening to the track’s kind of the history of coaching and the application of coaching to various settings is a podcast called, Against the Rules. It’s specifically focusing on season 2 there. Where they look at a range of coaches in a range of settings, and how over-coaching can lead to problems, but lack of coaching can put you behind the eight ball. So, those are some resources that you can use to find out more about coaching, and kind of get to experience coaching without having to enlist the help of a coach. But how can you use coaching right now? How can what I’m doing today help you now? So, obviously you could sign up for coaching, and I’d love if you did that. But I want to help you in more than just that way.

So, what are some good questions that you could potentially ask yourself or ask others that might be useful. The first thing is to remember the coaching yourself is often a series of self-reflection exercises. So, if I were you, you know, I do this on paper or on screen or write it down or record it, because you need to actually answer it in real terms rather than just theoretically answer it in your head. So, the first question that you can ask yourself or those around you, “What are you doing well?” or “What are you doing poorly?” Now, you really need to be honest with yourself in both of those questions, and that’s a good place to start. Just nice and easy question to go with. Some other questions you could try, “What are you trying to achieve?” Now, what I like to do with these kinds of questions particularly, when it’s an exercise. Where I’m helping you become a better coach of yourself, and of others is to then follow up that essentially with a series of whys. So, “What are you trying to achieve?” then you say, “Why are you trying to achieve that?”, and then you’ll say, “Why you were trying to achieve that, and why you were trying to achieve that?”, and on you go. Roughly 7 times. It gets boring and gets monotonous. But what it will do, it’ll get you to the nub of what you are trying to achieve. It will help you work out what the real motivation is rather than what you think the motivation is. You could ask yourself what is missing right now or you could ask your staff what’s missing right now, and again you could go down that route of the 7 wise. You could ask yourself the one question that you don’t want to ask yourself. So, what’s the one question that you’re not asking of yourself right now. What’s the one question that you’re not, you don’t want to answer right now, and you could ask yourself that question. And you could ask yourself why you don’t want to ask that question or answer it, you could then again drill down if you want to. If you’re in a tough situation, one of the things that a mentor once suggested to me or a coach I should say once suggested to me was if this, “If you created this deliberately, what would you have done to get here?”, and that can really help you see some of the things that you might have done along the way, that contributed to the situation that you weren’t otherwise able to see. You can ask yourself, “Why would I have done those things?” “What was the motivating factor?”, in if you know again in this hypothetical situation of you making this situation the way it is. What would you have done? Why would you have done it? Another question you could ask yourself again if you find yourself in a difficult situation or if you’ve come to a conclusion that perhaps isn’t overly based on evidence, but rather assumptions. What would it look like if the opposite were true? What would someone else’s behavior be like if the opposite were true? What would my behavior be like if the opposite were true?

And finally, a question that can hopefully help you move into action rather than just analysis is, “What’s the one thing I could do right now?”. Ideally in less than 10 minutes that would advance, improve or shift my current situation or whatever it might be. So, for example, if you are thinking about applying for a job, and you don’t know what job. What’s the one thing I could do right now that would help me move that needle, and I could do it in 10 minutes? If you are wondering about a grant opportunity, what’s the one thing I could do right now that would move the needle? That would help me make progress, and I could do it in 10 minutes. If you got a projected inner grant, and now you’re wondering what to do next. What’s the one thing I could do right now that I could do in 10 minutes that would help the situation?

So, there you have it. There are some ideas on what coaching is. Some resources that might help you understand coaching better as well as help you become a better coach of the staff, and the students that follow you. if you’re interested in ask these kinds of questions, check out my book review on the book that Craig Harper wrote called, 20 Questions for Humans. It’s a great self-coaching resource as well. Take care. Bye!