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The executive backhand

In an imaginative, if rash, moment I took up tennis again recently after more years away from the court than I dare to admit. It has been simultaneously a delight and an irritant, humbling and encouraging, a time of growth and a time of deep frustration.

Perhaps I’m not alone in my love-hate relationship with my backhand. It used to be my ‘best’ stroke – again that word is used in its comparative rather than absolute sense. By that I mean that I derived great pleasure from the physicality of returning the ball in this way – occasionally it used to go in – very occasionally it landed where I intended.

I was never a natural with a racquet; neither was I an assiduous student. Some x years later, this did not provide me with a solid foundation on which to build. Whereas previously I could, at least, call upon a degree of ‘athleticism’ (I use the word in its loosest sense) to mask deficiencies of technique (and there were many) the passage of time no longer affords me that luxury. There is now no escaping the reality of technique as foundational, even for a passable social game.

This time a different approach was required. No more brute force and ignorance. Rather proper attention to technical competence. This required professional support. So, my wife (who joined me on this venture – safety in numbers) and I secured the services of a tennis coach. What a transformation!

Of course, none of this should surprise me. As a professional executive coach, I witness day-by-day the impact of coaching for my clients, and I never cease to be astonished by the capacity of coaching to evoke excellence by unlocking potential. In saying this, I lay no claim to my quality as a coach, but rather the capacity of the coaching approach to inspire and instigate change – the hard nine yards is always done by the coachee.

This experience has given me abundant opportunity to reflect upon the parallels, and divergences, between the superb tennis coaching from which I am benefiting, and the transformational executive coaching I try to deliver to my clients.

Of course, both branches of coaching share common antecedents. They share, too, some methodologies, the best of each being evidence-based and informed by insights from psychology and neuroscience. Shared intent is often present, too, where this is focused upon goal orientation for performance. The truly individualised nature of excellent coaching is present in both arenas and this personalisation contributes substantially to its transformational impact. [It is interesting to muse upon the capacity – or otherwise – of the emerging AI approaches to coaching to achieve the same impacts.] Moreover, the attention paid to psychological resilience is common to each domain.

As such, many aspects of practice are transferable. It has been insightful as a coach to observe my tennis coach in operation and to analyse his approach, methods, and style. He’s probably not aware of these unexpected benefits I’ve accrued from his coaching – if he reads this, perhaps his fee will be adjusted – but I have learned more than just tennis technique.

Of course, there exist some significant differences too. Prime upon these, perhaps, is the degree of directiveness invoked and the corresponding requirements for domain related knowledge. My tennis coach requires deep knowledge and skill of the tennis techniques he is coaching whereas I do not require intimate knowledge of the industry vertical in which my clients operate in order to be effective. That is to say, each activity tends to operate in different regions on the coaching-mentoring continuum.

Furthermore, the goal orientation may well differ in each domain. My tennis coach is, correctly, primarily focused on my game performance, personalised of course with reference to my – extremely limited – capabilities. While much of my executive coaching has strong performative drivers, particularly at the outset, more often than not these functional aspects evolve to encompass aspects of flourishing, often at a more ontological level. In this regard, I often make recourse to concepts and methods drawn from second-wave positive psychology alongside my existing solutions-focussed toolbox.

I am delighted to have had this opportunity to reflect upon the symbiosis of sports and executive coaching and also to celebrate their unique characteristics. And I think I take from it renewed insight and commitment as I work with my clients as they struggle with the challenges of their leadership ‘backhand’.

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