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  • Matt Turner

Show don’t tell: The art of generative transformation

Silence, stats and restraint are good places to start if you want to explore the mental side of peak performance.

Nobody wants to be told they suck. You don’t, I sure as heck don’t. Why would the people we are trying to encourage into new behaviours? Well, of course, they don’t!

But this is a tactic we witness all too often in the world of Change Management. I say tactic advisedly, though it might be thought of by some as a strategy. Strategy, however, is supposed to deliver over the long term… and telling people what they currently do is bad is not a winning strategy for long term engagement. Oh, you’ll grab their attention in the short term, but you will not see the improvement you think you are heading for down the road.

I’m in the habit of looking to the sporting world for coaching success stories… not because they are abundant. No, like in business they seem to be (confusingly) few and far between. I look there because, well if you search a bit, behind the scenes you can find, like with Agile and Lean, there have been people beavering away at this stuff for quite some time, quietly changing the world despite all of the other staunchly defended orthodoxies pitted against them.

Take Kyle Boddy; he began coaching baseball with little league teams in the early noughties and now uses pitching data to help improve the world’s best baseball players…

“The training programs and the coaching programs were very bland, not based in any sort of evidence. It really shocked me… I figured I owed it to the kids to learn a little bit more about keeping their arms healthy.”

“Actively coaching athletes just makes them worse. Intervention is typically one of the worst things you can do.”

Kyle began to do things that were ridiculous to the old command and control coaches like…

He would try “informing the athlete (with data) that whatever they were doing could be better and then I would just see how they’ll change over time and how they will self-organise. This was a real heretical idea because most coaches think they have a lot to give to the athlete and my view on it, still is today, is that they’re good enough. We just need to give them the right direction and let them figure it out for the most part”

One of Kyle’s favourite books was “The Inner Game of Tennis” by the often-overlooked W. Timothy Gallwey.

“It was 4 o’clock in the afternoon. I’d been teaching all day – not coaching; and it gets a little boring telling people where the weight on their foot should be, where they should hit the ball on the racket.”

On the afternoon in question Tim was teaching a guy with a slice backhand who wanted to learn how to hit top spin. He was taking his racket back too high.

Ordinarily Tim would’ve just told the guy, “Hey, don’t take the racket back too high”

But he’d lost interest in the sound of his own voice, and pretty much everything else, so he just kept quietly tossing balls at the guys backhand.

“Within 3 or 4 minutes a strange thing happened. He was hitting top spin backhands and I had said nothing.

But then in my head I was saying ‘You lazy bum! You missed your chance! If you’d only taught him before, then you would have got the credit for his top spin backhand!’ And this was the point… I was more interested in teaching than in the student learning”

Tim had an idea. He was going to see how much improvement could be made without teaching anything. Reversing usual approach, he was going to try telling them as little as possible.

The very next lesson was with a complete beginner. She didn’t even know how to hold a racket.

When the novice arrived, Tim made sure to be seen hitting a few balls.

The student watched him hit 5 or 6 balls and said “I notice the first thing you did was turn your right foot sideways.”

“Yeah, yeah, don’t worry about that” replied Tim, because it wasn’t essential or significant.

Then he got her to close her eyes and see herself hitting the ball.

He gave her some balls to try for real and she began to hit them perfectly. Everything he would have previously told her to do, she was doing.

Her foot didn’t move and stayed where it needed to be.

The one thing she consciously thought about, Tim moving his foot, she didn’t do.

Everything she unconsciously thought about, she did naturally.

“Oh my god, not only did she do everything without instruction, she didn’t do the one thing she decided to do!”

“What shocked me and what thrilled me was to see the tennis improving without the student trying to improve. All I would do is ask them awareness questions, or give them awareness instructions.”

Awareness instructions. Saying stuff that cause them to focus on what was useful.

People loved Gallwey’s weird tennis lessons. He offered no criticism, no praise, hardly any talk at all just a nudge here and there that allowed them to silence the voices inside their heads. The voices that caused them to tense up.

Almost all of the above is from the “Against the rules” podcast by Michael Lewis. I have written before about the episode Respect the Polygon which is taken from a season dedicated to experts and how they are viewed. (Frequently with mistrust because they often don’t seek to give categorical answer to vague questions, sound familiar?)

The excerpts are from the season dedicated to coaches and specifically The Data Coach and The Coach in Your Head episodes.

These stories can teach us a lot about the nature of learning and teaching, and how we approach them. We regularly overlook the fact that the people we should be supporting are viewed as resources to be manipulated, which in truth is an exhausting and mostly unfruitful undertaking. In reality these people are voracious learners, for the most part, we have just forgotten either what it is to teach, or that we are learning at the same time, on the same path, discovering new and better outcomes, together.

Like Kyle we should spend more time polishing and holding up a mirror, moving around a bit so the subject can see from different angles, even if it makes our arms ache or our tongue hurts from biting it rather than blurting out…. We shouldn’t be walking round them critiquing things that look funny from our chosen perspective.

Like Tim we should role model, play the ball, show the way, then leave space and time for the subject to try it out for themselves. This can feel risky to us. We want to tell them first, so they can hear what we know will happen before they see it happen…but then that can seem like our achievement and not theirs.

Our ego is at stake in these moments. We are supposed to be the expert. What is our worth unless we have an answer for sale?

Silence the voices in your head telling you other have missed the point. Look to the data to tell a different story…and those you coached will be able to interpret it, and they will know.

The hard work is to shed the ego, to allow the subject to own their achievement completely and gain the confidence from it. To run the risk of other people thinking you’re (as Tim called himself) the “lazy bum!”

If you can do that, and hold that space for others to fill, you will leave a better place behind you. Brimming with newfound, sustaining capability and belief.

by Matt Turner, 11/10/22


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