Coaching Cornerstones: Listening and Mentoring

It’s official; I am branching out and starting a blog that will focus on some things that are near and dear to my heart. As a coach, a teacher and a father, I am going to use this blog as a means of sharing some of the things I have learned in my career (and my personal life).

My first topic will cover what it means to be a “coach.” I have heard many definitions of this over the years, and whether or not you are in athletics, you have done some form of coaching. As a parent, you “coach” your kids all day long as you raise them to be the best versions of themselves. At work, you probably have “coached” a co-worker through a tough situation or you have managed an office and had to make all the tough decisions. And as a friend or sibling or son, you have had to “coach” those around you at many points in life. To me, coaching is many things, but let’s focus on two key things in today’s blog – listening and mentoring.

To be honest, it’s taken me years to develop my listening skills. My personality leans more towards, “what’s next” or “let’s move on” rather than “tell me a little bit about why you feel that way.” But to be a good coach in life, you need to be able to figure out the real root of the problem. An athlete might not be performing well one week and you really want to know why. A student may have missed a few classes this week, and you are curious why they had perfect attendance and then all of a sudden they aren’t there. Or your spouse has been quiet and has been distant and you just cannot figure out what you did wrong. The only real way to find out why is to ask questions.

You might think the power lies in the question asked, but I think the power lies in the answer that is given. Start with one question and see what happens. A question generates a response, and that response is something that could help you figure out the real answer to the problem. What I have learned in my life is that you need to ask the question and pay close attention to the answer. Listening can save your season, your relationships and propel you and those around you towards greatness.

All right, Coach, how does mentoring fit in? Well, that can be the tough part. Once the answer has been received through listening, you have to help the other person “process” what they are going through. I have found the most efficient way to do this is to ask even more questions. But, they need to be directed at the issue. You see, my philosophy has always been that the person with the problem really does have a solution. They just need to be nudged to make the final decision.

I met with a young man a few weeks ago, about a relationship he was working through with his younger sister. He was not sure why she was ignoring him. They used to be close, but something changed in their relationship and he was not handling it very well. Instead of giving advice from the start, which may have been easy, I decided to ask question after question and let him reply. By the end of the ten-minute conversation, he had figured out (by himself) what he needed to do. I literally did nothing other than ask questions and help him “process” what was going on with him and his sister.

Mentoring can be simple, but it can also be messy at times. True mentoring for the purposes of helping a person reach their full potential in life involves tough questions and difficult responses. It can be emotional at times, but don’t be afraid to enter into those conversations if you think they are what the other person truly needs.

And another point I wanted to make about mentoring is to be yourself. During a staff meeting a few months ago, I urged some co-workers to take some time to think about a role model who has influenced them in their life. I gave them a few weeks to think about that person, jot down a few reasons why they were a mentor and asked them to bring a photograph so the rest of the group could see the person. For me, this was an eye-opening experience and I took a few things away from that exercise that I think are important for us all.

There is no perfect mentoring or leading style. You don’t have to go to a conference on leadership to learn leadership skill; just go into each situation with the goal of helping the other person and let your instincts take over. Just be you; I am sure it will be good enough.

Mentorship can be reactionary in many situations. You may make the choice to mentor someone around you, and that is a great thing. But in many cases, you are mentoring “on the fly.” That’s because mentoring is reactionary. For me, that’s what I find as the most rewarding part of my job on a college campus. Every person that walks through my door brings a different issue, and it is exhilarating at times to be able to help them navigate through the problem and work toward a solution.

You will be called to mentor or lead in untraditional situations and circumstances. Sure, there are jobs or positions in life that are more suitable for mentoring. A teacher, parent, coach or a minister come to mind first because they have direct access to youth and they are in a setting to make an immediate and measurable impact. But you can make an impact in other ways. It’s hard for us to believe sometimes, but we are mentoring without even knowing it through the modeling of good behavior. You are mentoring someone right now, and you may not even be aware of it. Take a few minutes to think about it…there is someone in your life who is watching you and probably trying to model your behavior. I bet if you think hard enough a few examples will come to mind. Maybe it’s the waitress at the local diner, a co-worker at the office or the elderly neighbor you meet at the mailbox each morning. These are all untraditional settings, but they are powerful moments of mentorship none the less.

We have officially circled back now to the initial topic of what it means to me to be a “coach.” I started athletic coaching in 1996, and it has been a remarkable journey so far. I have transformed as a person through those two decades and feel I have much more to learn in the next 20 years. But for me, two things have remained consistent through the years: I love the challenge that this profession provides and I want to make a difference in the lives of others. That will never change.

Enjoy your Journey and embrace the challenge that lies before you…..

Chris Hardie is the Head Men’s and Women’s Cross Country Coach at Waynesburg University.  You can follow him on Twitter @Coach_Hardie_WU or follow the team on Facebook at Waynesburg University Cross Country.

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