Coachability isn’t a word that rolls off the tongue. However it is a critical element in development. Chiumento’s Ian Gooden describes how a wet Wednesday night on a rugby field was a critical reminder that coaching is a two-way relationship.

Pre-season training in July is usually fun. The biggest issues often being hydration, insect bites and remembering the sun block. By contrast, July 2023 will go down in one word: wet. I’ve come off the training field soaked so many times I have lost count. Its been pretty miserable. Thankfully the enthusiasm of the women players I coach has been inspirational. They are so keen to learn that the weather has been, at most, a distraction. They’ve kept going no matter what – often wanting to stretch training well past the planned finish time.

A coaching role isn’t just about what goes on “on the grass”. It is also inevitably about making choices off it. Like who gets nominated for advanced development programmes aimed at your most promising players. So what determines who are the most promising? The top item on the checklist leaps out at you: “coachability”.

Are you ready to learn?

When thinking about learning, I am often reminded of the old saying about “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink”. And that, in a nutshell, is what coachability is all about. Does the individual being coached actually want to learn?

One of the most frustrating things for me as a rugby coach is a player who has the core ability but no appetite to release that potential. The same applies when I am coaching individuals in a professional context.

So why aren’t individuals open to learning and developing? What are the barriers that get in the way?

Emotional barriers

An obvious example of this comes in outplacement coaching. We see individuals who are still at the stage where they can’t process, or let go, of what has happened to them. Redundancy provokes lots of emotions – and unless you come to terms with them they can paralyse your ability to move on.

Those same emotions can apply in executive coaching too. Anxiety, suspicion, anger, fear and many others can get in the way. You have to establish a base platform before you can move on. If you can’t get past the initial emotions then you may never be ready to learn.

Mental barriers

You see it on the rugby field. The player who thinks they are already the best on the pitch. What can you teach them when they are clearly so technically dominant? Ego can be one of the biggest mental barriers of all. If you don’t believe you need to change, you likely won’t.

We use the Chiumento Culture matrix a lot in our work. It looks at how performance isn’t just about delivering results but how those results are achieved. You can be the best accountant, chef, sales professional or engineer but your behaviours may have a hugely negative impact on those around you. Unless you deal wth those behaviours your progress will be limited.

On a rugby field you are one of 15 players. You can’t win a game on your own. If you don’t pass, or get isolated and lose the ball, you limit the potential of others. Wanting your name on the scoresheet is often not the same as helping your team to win. In a business context that might be compared to the sales person who is only focused on their own target…

Avoidance of pain

Learning is often a matter of receiving and processing feedback. And sometimes that feedback can be difficult to hear and accept. One way of avoiding that pain it is to put up a barrier.

Through our lives we build up a powerful self-concept – an image of who we are. Coaching is often about helping people see themselves in a different light. The Johari Window is a constant reminder that how we see ourselves may not be the same as how others see us. Sometimes that can mean we are better than we think. Or that we add value to others we don’t recognise.

“All feedback is a gift” as an old boss of mine liked to say. However to benefit, you have to be willing to unpack that gift. Coachability, in part, is the willingness to look hard at yourself.

New isn’t always easy…

Doing something different or trying something new can be quite scary. Over time we all develop habits that can be hard to break. And, when the pressure is on, it is so easy to revert to the tried and familiar. You see that in the heat of a rugby game. That new stuff you worked so hard with on the training ground gets lost in the heat of a match.

The same happens with business coaching. No matter how much you want to change, there are times when old patterns of behaviour re-surface. Embedding new learning takes time, practise and determination. You may not get it right first time. It may feel cumbersome and odd for a while. Change isn’t easy. It requires resilience and determination. Coachability is in part about the willingness to keep going until it clicks.

Avoiding dependence

The greatest gift I believe any coach can deliver is independence. That point where the coachee no longer needs you. Or they are ready for a new and different coaching relationship.

Recognising when a coaching relationship has come to an end is really important. You see it regularly in professional sport as individuals realise they need something different. In team sports that point can come when you “lose the dressing room”. A great coach recognises that its time to move on before the individual or team they are working with.

For me that’s an experience I am going through right now. I was the right coach for a rugby team at a point in time. They now need a different approach, so I am handing over the reins to someone new, with a different skill set. It means parting in the right way, at the right time to everyone’s benefit.

In summary

The power of coaching is ultimately all about the coachability of the individual. Do they want to learn? Do they want to change? Do they have the energy and resilience to complete the journey? Even the best coach can fail to succeed if the coachee isn’t receptive or willing to engage.

A coachee’s needs will change over time too – so their coach may need to be refreshed. Beware coaching relationships that create dependence – ultimately the individual has to grow and move on.

There are so many potential scenarios where coaching can transform performance or help individuals make important career choices. We always welcome conversations with organisations about how coaching could help their people. Just get in touch.