What does a coach do?

help me

from A to B

  A collocation experiment

Try this experiment in collocation on your own or even better with someone else in the room. You read the following list one at a time. After each one your partner must say the word for the person who helps you get better at it. For example you say “tennis”, they might say “coach”.

…language, pronunciation, speech, singing, fitness, grammar, football, acting, music, maths, piano…

You possibly found that “coach” collocates with sporting and physical activities, tennis, football, singing, pronunciation and “teacher” with more intellectual or apparently complex, activities like grammar, music, maths. By the way speech seems to collocate with “therapist” for most people, I wonder why?

What about “language”? Is improving your English akin to improving your maths or your tennis? If you think the latter you will probably feel comfortable thinking of yourself as a language coach. If not, well read on…

Some definitions of coaching from Wikipedia

“Managing is making sure people do what they know how to do. Training is teaching people to do what they don’t know how to do. Mentoring is showing people how the people who are really good at doing something do it. Coaching is none of these – it is helping to identify the skills and capabilities that are within the person, and enabling them to use them to the best of their ability.

Professional coaching uses a range of communication skills (such as targeted restatements) to help clients shift their perspectives and thereby discover different solutions to achieve their goals.

Coaching, with a professional coach, is the practice of supporting an individual, referred to as a coachee or client, through the process of achieving a specific personal or professional result. The structure and methodologies of coaching are numerous but are predominantly facilitating in style”

If our aim as is to help students get as far as they want to with their English, we need to take an interest in our students “language life” not just their “classroom life”. A “coaching” approach is called for in this case.  Let’s make a comparison with a human endeavour which is nearly as challenging as learning a language -losing weight!

Weight watchers

Weight watchers are people who meet, once a week perhaps, with the common goal of losing weight. Let’s suppose this meting is one hour long.  Spend a few minutes now imagining what happens in this meeting. Now think about what this situation has in common with a language class. (i.e. a group of people who meet regularly to improve their English). When you imagined the weight watchers, you possibly imagined people setting targets for their weight loss, talking about food, getting some expert advice, talking about what they have eaten during the week and the exercise they have done, encouraging (and consoling) each other, weighing themselves, doing some exercises?… (By the way if you have participated in weight watchers, I’d be interested to know exactly what does happen!)

What I imagined in the weight watchers meeting is a coaching approach, a coaching culture if you like. Losing weight and practising English are similar in that they require a commitment to change, lifestyle change even. The weight watcher commits to changing their “food life”, the language learner commits to changing their “language life”, to spending time doing things in English which they would normally do in their own language. I also imagine the weight watchers getting some counselling from the group leader when they fail to meet their objectives, which brings us to “inner game” theory.

“Inner game” theory

Timothy Gallwey, a tennis coach, developed an idea called inner game theory which he describes thus, using the example of playing tennis.

In every human endeavor there are two arenas of engagement: the outer and the inner. The outer game is played on an external arena to overcome external obstacles to reach an external goal. The inner game takes place within the mind of the player and is played against such obstacles as fear, self-doubt, lapses in focus, and limiting concepts or assumptions. The inner game is played to overcome the self-imposed obstacles that prevent an individual or team from accessing their full potential.

Does that remind you of some of your students? Teaching helps them to play the “outer game”. Students practise their English in class and get better (hopefully!) Coaching helps them to play the “inner game”. By working on their “inner game” students will likely get more from class time and commit more to further practise out of class time. Imagine a student who is reluctant to listen to English on You tube. Why might this be? How might this reluctance be addressed and overcome? If the teacher-coach or classmates are successful in “unblocking” this student, think how much potential English practise could be generated.

There are activities on this blog which are designed to help students and teachers use some class time for coaching, supporting some of the theory outlined here. There are also activities which encourage students expand their “language life”. Finally here is one more coaching tool I have found useful.

The “GROW” model

Alan Fine’s GROW model is commonly used in coaching for individuals or groups. It provides a structure which can help students set goals and work out how best to achieve them. Here is a summary.

G Goal This is the end point, where the client wants to be. The goal has to be defined in such a way that it is very clear to the client when they have achieved it.
R Reality This is how far the client is away from their goal. If the client were to look at all the steps they need to take in order to achieve the goal, the Reality would be the number of those steps they have completed so far.
O Obstacles There will be Obstacles stopping the client getting from where they are now to where they want to go. If there were no Obstacles the client would already have reached their goal.
Options Once Obstacles have been identified the client need to find ways of dealing with them if they are to make progress. These are the Options.
W Way Forward The Options then need to be converted into action steps which will take the client to their goal. These are the Way Forward.


Wikipedia for Alan Fine’s GROW model and more on Timothy Gallwey

You might find this You Tube clip “How Coaching Works” useful


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9 Responses to What does a coach do?

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  6. Dan says:

    There’s a Leni Dam talk here where she mentions something that you bring up, Duncan: Learners can be autonomous even if they are very teacher directed. Learners can develop learner autonomy in a teacher directed classroom:


  7. Great question Theresa,
    I think this could be the subject of a future post, or several! Briefly, for now, I would say that one implication of a coaching approach for teacher development is that teachers will focus less on improving “classroom” skills, the “outer game” and more on “people” skills, the skills needed to help students play their “inner game” more effectively. They may then start judging their own performance as professionals more in terms of what their learners achieve than what they themselves do in the classroom, just as Rafa Nadal’s coach must glow when Rafa wins a grand slam. This does lead us, as you suggest to a situation where teachers and learners are codependant for their development and the distinctions become more blurred. All of which could be pretty liberating for teachers and students, or can you see a downside, perhaps?

  8. Theresa Gorman says:

    I’m really enjoying this blog so far and intend to try some of your activities myself as a language learner. The visual metaphors in the “How Coaching Works” video are great, I especially like the trampoline.
    The wonderful thing about this coaching approach is that when the learner reaches his goals, he will say, “I did it”, rather than, “My coach got me here.” With the learner’s new ‘shifted perspective’ as you mention, he will be ready to tackle his next ‘knot in the path ahead’ independently. So, the coach’s toolbox can also be a toolbox for teachers interested in fostering greater autonomy in their learners.
    You brought up a very interesting idea about ‘blurring the distinctions between teacher and learner development in many respects’. With this in mind, how will using a coaching approach, assuming it bears fruit in the learners’ “willingness and capability to take charge of his own learning” (Leni Dam), affect the teacher’s development? Dam identifies teachers’ reluctance to letting go of control as one of the main obstacles to fostering learner autonomy. How do we prepare ourselves for the shifted perspective that our learners may have when they improve their ‘inner game’?

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