Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Following Through: Create The Right Environment For Learning

Over two years ago, the folks over at the athenahealth kindly invited me to submit columns to their Health Leadership Forum, and I have done so on an occasional basis since them. As I recently reviewed the columns, I realized that my own thoughts on the topics of leadership and coaching have evolved a bit, and I thought my readers over here at Not Running A Hospital might enjoy witnessing the transition. So for several days, I will be reprinting the posts from the Forum over here. Comments are welcome at the original site and here. Today's reprint, with an additional photo, is from a post dated June 3, 2015, "Following Through: Create The Right Environment For Learning."

One of my twelve year old soccer players, Adair, was having trouble consistently kicking long and accurate through balls. As I watched her, I noticed that most everything about her body position going into the kick was fine, but she ended up punching the ball with her foot rather than following through, or she would cross one leg over the other as she delivered the kick.

“You need to follow through better, and don’t cross your leg,” I instructed, to no avail. The pattern of inconsistent, low power kicks continued, often not leaving the ground, and often not directed at the target.

In a moment of insight, I remembered that she plays golf. I asked her, “What does your golf instructor tell you about driving a ball? Doesn’t he say to think about where your club will end up at the end of the stroke?”

“Yes,” she said, “the club head should end up high above my head at the end of the swing.”

“Oh my gosh! So I should do the same here?”

“Right,” I said. “Don’t worry about your foot kicking the ball hard. Just like in golf: If you try to hit the ball hard, what happens? Your body loses the natural leverage and balance that makes a swing work well. Think about where you want your foot to end up after the kick: Up high and pointing towards your target.”

“I want to try it!” she exclaimed.

We stood about 30 yards apart, and she nailed five, then ten, then twenty perfect through balls, arching gracefully through the air and landing directly at my feet.

At our game the next day, Adair used her newly developed skill to place a 25-yard free kick at an angle from the goal in the upper left hand corner of the net. She glanced over, flashed a thumb’s up, and offered a smile that seemed to say, “Look what I can do!” I smiled and returned the thumbs up. It was her moment of satisfaction and joy.

Privately I thought: It isn’t often that a coach gets such immediate validation of a pedagogical technique.

Adair reminded me of an important lesson from the world’s greatest basketball coach, John Wooden. He used to say, “You haven’t taught till they’ve learned.” He meant that if your student wasn’t learning something, chances are it was due to your failure as a teacher. The trick is to employ a pedagogical approach that meets the needs of the student, not the staid patterns of the coach.

Here, I had started with didactic instruction, the least likely way to help a young player employ and perfect a new physical skill. Is there little wonder why it failed? It did not fail because of any lack of intent on Adair’s part. Indeed, she is very well intentioned and extremely focused on improving—with a desire quite typical of 12-year-old girls who do not want to let their team down.

No, it failed because her coach was not sufficiently empathetic about her learning process.

Like the stereotypical American tourist trying to get a native-speaking person in another country to understand his English, I was just saying the same thing over and over. In a figurative sense, I was not paying attention to what she was “telling” me, not in words, but in the behavioral pattern of her body. Once I woke up and was able to see how my own stubbornness was interfering with her need to establish a new conceptual framework for her kick, I could be free to try a new approach.

As coach, all I needed to do was to help Adair to draw the analogy to some other part of her experience. Then, the physical concept became intuitively clear. She could make the connection and apply the analogous skill effectively and consistently.

I am telling this story in this Forum to help leaders remember that it is usually not your job to engage in didactic instruction of your staff. That leaves them as uncreative drones trying to do what you say rather than employing their broad perceptive powers and inquisitive inclinations to develop the impetus for change.

Your job is to create the conditions for a learning environment, having sufficient empathy with your people to understand where they are in their learning process and to learn what interventions you can offer that will help them grow and excel.

Don’t lecture. Ask. Listen. Explore. Experiment.

As a leader, you are ultimately a coach. The best coaches let their players take credit for success. Just stand on the sidelines and smile when it happens.

Ice cream helps, too!

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