Friday, February 14, 2014

The Ironies of Coaching

It is important to keep in mind that a coach is not a judge. Your coach's main responsibility is to help you improve, not to tell you how good you are. Ironically, therefore, the amount of praise you get will often stand in an inverse relationship to the progress you are making, and to your own sense of accomplishment. If you are doing well, and feeling confident, your coach will point out your errors. If you are failing, and feeling despondent, your coach will encourage you by reminding you of everything you've learned, everything you're doing well.

This sometimes makes coaching a thankless task. I coach writers who ultimately succeed or fail in the confrontation with their editors and peers reviewers. I try give my authors activities that they can carry out repeatedly, day after day, to become more efficient, more effective, and happier writers. Knowing almost nothing about what is on a writer's mind, I can help them map out the forty paragraphs that they can write over twenty hours of work, 27-minutes at a time. I can then coach them through the process of writing those forty paragraphs. I tell them they are doing well if they are writing the right paragraph at the right time. And I gently chide them if they write when they haven't planned to, or don't write when they have. Though I try to stay away from making judgments about their ideas, I do sometimes find myself telling them that what they're doing "sounds interesting", and that the argument "seems sound". When they're finished they send the paper off to a journal.

If getting the author to write in a disciplined way has been like pulling teeth—if they write only when they feel like it, always ignoring their plan, and put down whatever comes into their head, rather than what they decided to write the day before—and then get glowing review reports and immediate acceptance, I come off looking like a jerk. If I've been focusing on the weaknesses of someone's paper and they then get it published, they may gloat and tell me how wrong I was. Conversely, if I've been encouraging someone to submit who then gets rejected, or even a "revise and resubmit", they might lose confidence in my judgment. When I coach in groups, some of the participants feel like I'm being too hard on them, and not hard enough on the others, or too hard on (i.e., too useful to) the others, and not hard enough on them. Here it's important to use what I tell others as one sees fit. It does not matter whether I recognize your needs or your efforts. Often your sense of what you need will do just fine.

(This reminds me of the weird problem of students allowing themselves to be "demotivated" by input even when they are perfectly conscious that this is what is happening.)

The whole point, of course, is that it is always the author's accomplishment or failure, not mine. I just have the honor of participating in the process. All I can do is try to suggest a week's worth of activity that has a good chance of making someone a better writer, and foster a constructive mood in which to carry those activities out. I can never know whether the author knows enough, or writes well enough, to get published in their discipline. I'm rarely a member of their disciplinary community, after all. Even if I were, my judgment would not be what matters.

There are of course coaches who stand on the sidelines and shout at their players and the referees. There are also coaches who think the game is rigged. But I'm not one of those. I can help you train. I can't help you play.

No comments: