Real Leaders

How to Coach Yourself to Greatness


I love to go surfing with my friend Jim. He is a great coach in the water. He always encourages me to ride the biggest and best waves even when the waves are a little scary big. He will frequently encourage me to paddle over to where he’s sitting and when his mystic vision spots a prime “outside” wave he points to where I should paddle and says “that’s your wave Will.” His encouragement literally en-courages me to take off on waves that I normally would be too chicken to paddle into. Jim has a greater confidence in my ability than I do and it makes all the difference. Jim is a superb informal surf coach.

Research on the effectiveness of coaching reveals several reasons it is proven to be the key to growth, stress resilience, performance, learning and mastery.

  1. Having a coach increases your confidence and your calm. A great coach sees your real potential and motivates you to act from your highest and best ability.
  2. Affirmation from a third person helps quash self-doubt and silences your inner critic.
  3. A great coach heals you from failure by being supportive in helping you learn important lessons when you are not performing well.
  4. A wise coach will increase your “grit”…the will to persist and keep trying when success is elusive.

Most parents are great coaches when it’s time to help their pre-toddlers to start toddling. It’s true. Learning to walk is a very difficult motor skill. We have to coordinate our eyesight, balance, agility and judgment simultaneously. It is common for new walkers to fall down 200 to 500 times before they become dependable performers. That’s pretty amazing. There are not too many things a human being will fail at hundreds of times and yet keep trying.

Developmental psychologists tell us that what helps children learn is highly supportive coaching from parents or other caring adults and a silent inner critic. Like most parents when my children learned to walk, a single step was met with a boisterous celebration declaring my child to be completely awesome.

What’s also helpful is that when most one-year-olds begin walking they don’t have a psychological voice doing a play-by-play of their life. Instead our brains are completely focused on the present moment without self-judgment. That enables us to notice that we are falling down without labeling ourselves as hopelessly clumsy. Just think about this…if we waited until we were teenagers before we tried to walk most of us would give up after falling down 10 or 20 times, label ourselves as a hopelessly uncoordinated loser and become permanently dependent on wheelchairs to get around.

Now the good news. Recent research from Dr. Ethan Kross at University of Michigan has uncovered the secret to self-coaching. It’s talking to yourself in the third person. I know we don’t like this when we hear it from others like LeBron James saying, “I’m moving back to Cleveland because that’s best for LeBron James.” It sounds a bit elitist. But actually Dr. Kross’s research reveals that that kind of third person self talk is much more likely to lead LeBron James to actually move back to Cleveland without regret. And that, I think you would agree, is a pretty big challenge.

Here is what the research says. When we use first person affirmations to encourage ourselves such as “I should go for it, I can ride this wave,” that message hit’s a power switch in our cerebral cortex which actually increases the emotional intensity of fear. This is a serious problem for most of us because it seems natural to encourage ourselves using the “I can do this” first person. But this is unwise. Brain scans reveal that addressing our inner doubts with “I” messages amplifies our stress and fears of failure. 

However making a simple change of calling yourself by your own name or using the pronoun ‘you’ switches you’re thinking like switching a train track. Your new ‘train of thought’ creates focus, clarity and confidence. So for me the difference between saying, “I should paddle into this wave” versus “you should take this wave” greatly increases my success. All I am doing is mimicking my friend Jim when he coaches me.

That’s simple enough. Just coach yourself as if you’re coaching advice was coming from someone else… “You can do this Will!”

As for your inner critic… you just have take charge of that fearful, whiny, judgmental voice. Here’s how. Harvard business school professor Alison Wood Brooks has conducted experiments with people who were told that they have to give a speech. This immediately creates anxiety. She told some members of the group to try self-relaxation and tell themselves “I am calm.” The problem was people who are effective at self-calming we’re judged by the audience as giving very boring speeches. So the stress reduction techniques had a negative impact on performance. She told others that it was natural to be “excited” before giving a speech. She simply re-labeled their stress as positive excitement. The result was performance excellence in terms of audience reaction. The speakers who saw themselves as excited we’re judged to be more persuasive, confident and competent. According to Dr. Kross’s research the best way to raise your positive excitement level would be to say to yourself, “you are excited” just like a good coach would say.

In another experiment with high stakes test-takers, people were told that feeling anxiety and stress can actually help test performance. They were coached that anytime they became aware of their anxiety it was an opportunity to remind themselves that their stress give them energy to excel.

Test results showed that students who embraced their stress as positive outperformed students who tried to calm themselves. Additional research confirmed that the test-takers who exceled maintained high levels of stress hormones throughout the testing but this did not negatively impact the results. This leads researchers to believe that it isn’t so much that stress kills performance as much as our story about our stress drives our results.

So here is how you become your own best coach.

  1. Talk to yourself like a Coach using your name or the pronoun “you” (instead of “I”) when you’re telling yourself to go for it.
  2. Tell yourself that stress is excitement. Turn the energy of stress into enthusiasm and focus (like my surf coach Jim) rather than let fear wipe you out.

The great thing about being your own best coach is that you are always available. So go for it. Go for the life you want and the work you want. Now, say it with me, “You can do it!”

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