Coaches: They’re not just for athletes

I work with a running coach. I never thought I would spend money on a coach. It always seemed kind of self-indulgent. But I learned it makes a huge difference. And I went it alone for a long time.

On Friday I will celebrate my 20th “Run-iversay.” It was on March 4, 1996, with my crash and burn performance at the 1995 Corporate Challenge still on my mind, that I decided to walk out my door and actually run. The snow from that January’s epic snowstorm had finally melted and I knew that if I was going to participate on my company’s corporate challenge team again that summer, I actually had to train.

But for me there was no “beginner program.” I just kind of figured it out. Ran a little, walked a little, ran a little more until I did a big circle of my neighborhood, which I discovered was 2-miles. I did this a couple days a week, running more, walking less. Eventually making a bigger loop.

I learned everything I needed to learn about running in the early years from books. And a subscription to Runner’s World. One year my subscription came with a booklet “Get Fitter Run Faster: Training Secrets From Top Coaches to Improve Your Speed and Endurance.” I followed the guide and clocked some fairly decent times. That booklet coached me to a 10k PR in 1998 that still stands today. But it never occurred to me to actually hire a coach.

Running was something I did in the early morning before work…alone. And no one but me really cared whether or not I did or didn’t run. The books and articles contradicted themselves at times and a lot of what I was doing was trial and error. I started thinking A LOT about what I should and shouldn’t be doing in my training.

I joined a running club and started comparing notes with other runners. That helped a little. Eventually I made time to participate in the club’s coached track workouts. That helped a lot. Unfortunately that was short-lived because I took another job with a long commute and couldn’t get to the track for the evening workouts. So I was back to running alone in the early morning.

Except I’d see a coach at the track with his private clients when I was doing my own weekly speed session. He started giving me some unsolicited advice and invited me to come to his group’s evening workouts, which were a little later. I declined. I knew what he was trying to do. But one day I agreed to meet him at Starbucks and talk about what – maybe – he could do for me…that was about two and a half years ago.

Under his guidance, as I closed in on my 50th birthday, I achieved personal records in the 5k, 8k, 5 mile, 15k, 20k, Half Marathon and Marathon – and in some cases more than once, plus I came closer to that 1998 10k time than I ever had before. But my coach didn’t just help me with my running. He helped me through a difficult time in my life. I’m not sure if he knows that; but yeah, by merely taking the “thinking” out of my running, I was able to focus on other areas of my life at a most critical time, while still making me accountable for my workouts that were a key stress reliever. And because my running improved I also benefitted from a self-esteem boost.

Everyone should consider a coach whether to improve your running, your career, or your life. I participated in the Bergen Volunteer Center’s Expert Exchange Webinar Series recently. The presenter was Eli Amdur who writes the Career Coach column for The Record and NorthJersey.com. The topic was “The One Word Missing from Your Organizational Chart.” The word of course was, “Coach.” Mr. Amdur explained that the problem in most organizations is that there is too much managing and not enough coaching. He explained that coaching was positive: “the process of helping others gain and improve skills, ability, and knowledge in order to better perform a task, or job, or to become more productive, integrated members of a team.”

He pointed to the game of baseball for the most useable coaching model: there are 40 players and only one manager – but 10 coaches! “Management,” he explained, “does not equal coaching. When done right, coaching helps people learn; it doesn’t teach them what you want them to know.”

I have always believed, especially in the non-profit sector, that people needed to be better “coached” as they acquired new responsibilities and took on leadership roles. Coaching is increasingly used in the corporate sector as the means of developing emerging leaders, while the non-profit sector has lagged behind. The Journal for Nonprofit Management explains, “The nonprofit sector has often utilized and adapted business strategies years or even decades after they become pervasive in the business sector, e.g. strategic planning, marketing, performance management, and so forth. Coaching has been another example of this trickle-down effect, and it is taking its time to become a standard offering among non-profit leaders.”

Coaching in the nonprofit sector is becoming more acceptable. Some funders are starting to encourage it. That’s good news. Since I established my consultancy in 2008, I have worked with clients to develop and manage fundraising events, have conducted organizational assessments, and created development and strategic plans; but where I have found I can have the most impact is when I have the opportunity to coach them through implementation of the recommendation or plan. And after doing this full time for a year and a half, I’m now moving more toward coaching nonprofit leaders so they don’t have to go it alone.

Coaching isn’t about making one accountable to someone (although I feel my running coach does and that’s a good thing). A coach helps us develop new skills, get feedback and support, maximizes our performance and assures we reach our potential.  Coaching isn’t just for athletes. And it’s not self-indulgent. It’s what will make us better.

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