A recent conversation I had with some friends led me to think more about coaching. Why do athletes at the top of their game have coaches, and why are the coaches not as good as the person they are coaching? Why do people in varied industries have coaches that don’t know much about how the industry works?

As many of you know, I have worked as part of the leadership team at Tony Robbins events for many years, coaching and working with people from every walk of life. So I have a little bit of insight into coaching. Also, Robbins basically created the coaching industry, and has various models for how to work with people to improve their lives and/or performance.

Often we enlist a coach to get better at something – golf, tennis, day trading, real estate — whatever we want to improve in our lives. But the coaching only seems to work well for a very few people. Partly I think this is because there are many coaches who are not equipped to help some clients, and there are uncoachable clients, and the spectrum in between all that.

Malcom Gladwell, in the book Outliers, talks about how we learn. Maybe he doesn’t say that specifically, but when I read it, that’s what I get out of it. That we need to learn stuff at the subconscious level to master it (that’s a Robbins thing) but when we have learned it this way, then we really have no idea, consciously, of what the “secret sauce” is that makes us successful; as a result, we have problems when we try to coach others to have the same success that we have.

For example, if you want to learn to day trade, you can be taught by the very, very best. And they will in all sincerity tell you how they trade. And you will follow exactly what they tell you, and you will lose.

Why? They are good at what they do because they are in the flow; their subconscious mind is doing the work, trained by thousands of hours of failing and ultimately succeeding. Their conscious mind thinks it knows what they do – they will tell you they know exactly what they do – but in reality they are wrong! Their subconscious knows what to do.

Gladwell talked to a bunch of tennis players, I forget the specific details now, but he asked them how they hit their best forehand shots. And they told him how they hit the ball, how they swung the racket, etc. And so Gladwell used a high speed motion camera and filmed them making the shots.
None of them made the shots in the way they described. They do not know exactly what they do. But a good coach knows, he has watched them and others like them until the coach figured out what was happening.

I have a great example from my personal story. When I was 30 (yes 30…) I decided I wanted to be a gymnast. Now at 6’2″ and 220 pounds this did not bode well, but I got into the greatest shape of my life, and over 5 years I got pretty decent, I had a floor routine and I could do giant swings on the high bar, I could do some rings, I pretty much accomplished what I set out to do. It was VERY hard but massively rewarding.

What I learned was that when little kids learn, the barrier between the conscious and the subconscious is thin – the filters and meta programs have not developed. So little kids have no problem learning the skills, they see them, they do them. But as an adult, oh boy. I practiced. I read books. I watched videos. It was brutally difficult.

It doesn’t help that as a little kid you have no idea about mortality and getting hurt, but as an adult, contemplating spinning in the air above the ground… And kids weigh, what, 70 pounds? Try missing something when you are 225 or so and having everyone in the gym stop and stare to see what the loud noise was when you smashed onto the mat.

One particular example was trying to learn to do a back extension roll. This is where you do a backwards summersault and, when upside down, you pop up into a handstand. It looks easy. (And it is…) But I could not make it work. My coaches, one of whom was a national champion gymnast, said, “It’s just timing”. Others said I was not strong enough (right, I could do 20 handstand pushups…)

So one day I asked one of the coaches if he would spend 20 minutes and do a bunch of them, right in front of me. And I watched. And then finally I saw what he was doing, which was not in any way what I had been told. As soon as I saw what he was doing, I had the trick. Like in that moment. None of those coaches had any idea how to do the trick. They thought they did, but they didn’t. And while timing is a factor, it had nothing to do with how the trick works.
I am really good at coaching older kids and adults in gymnastics. Because I had to figure out how the tricks actually work, because it was never in my subconscious.

So if you have been trying to teach someone a skill and it isn’t working, try getting someone who has never done it to watch – and ask questions. It can be eye-opening.