How To Use a Coach Effectively


How To Use a Coach Effectively

"I learn teaching from teachers. I learn golf from golfers. I learn winning from coaches." — Harvey Penick

What you get from coaching is largely up to you.  Whether it’s a teacher, a mentor, a sports coach, or a coach at work, making the most of a coach is a skill that you get better at with practice.  If you can master your ability to leverage the coaches in your life, you can accelerate your success, drop bad habits like a hot potato, grow new skills and abilities, and make the most of what you’ve got.

Make the Most of Your Coach
I’ve been lucky to have some incredible mentors and coaches from wrestling coaches that taught me to "never give up" and "don’t be a mental midget" to Microsoft executives who taught me to see the chessboard from other angles.  I made the most of my coaches by staying curious, testing their suggestions, listening to their feedback, using them as as sounding board, communicating openly and honestly, and working through the tough stuff.  Nobody said change is easy, but when change helps unleash your best, it’s worth it.

Coaches come in all varieties and different styles.  What do Yoda, Mr. Miyagi, and Rocky’s coach all have in common?  They set the stage for growth by asking the tough questions, challenging, motivating, and coaching where it counts, and providing timely, relevant, and actionable feedback.  What did Luke, Danielson, and Rocky all have in common?  They all worked hard at changing themselves and they made the most of their coaches.

10 Ways to Make the Most of Your Coach
Here are 10 ways that you can make the most of your coach:

  1. Decide to make the most of your coach.  Your attitude goes a long way in enabling or limiting what you get from your coach.  There’s an old saying that when the student is ready, the master appears.  Making the most of your coach means starts with deciding to make the most of them.  You can start by asking, "What do I want to accomplish?" and "How do I make the most of their experience, insight, or feedback?"
  2. You change yourself.  Your coach doesn’t change you.  Your coach is not a crutch — they’re a potential change agent, but change is up to you.  There’s an old saying, "You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink."  An effective coach will ask you questions and provide feedback that help lead you to your ah-ha moments, but it’s ultimately you’re the one who changes you.  If you want fast results, remember that it’s faster to change yourself, than change others.
  3. Expect change to feel awkward or even hurt a bit.  It’s like working out for the first time and that’s what growth feels like. Work through your humps and know that practice will get easier over time.  What’s important is that you don’t get hung up on how it feels awkward, and instead, focus on doing the things you know you need to do, to get the results you want to achieve.
  4. Accountability is still with the people with the job.  The coach can help you navigate risks and add another head to your problems, but they aren’t the worker bee.
  5. A coach doesn’t change who makes the decisions.  A coach is an influencer. You still own your decisions. One way to think of this is a RACI chart (Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, and Informed.)  Your coach is Consulted or Informed.  On a team, it’s the team members who are still accountable for the work getting done and responsible for doing it.
  6. Feedback is a gift.  Treat it as such.  You can choose what to do with it.  An effective coach holds a mirror to you or to the team.  You have basically three ways to respond: 1) You can just take it all in at face value without any filters, 2) You can put it into context and consider it, or 3) You can ignore it.  If you’re not getting the feedback you need, ask for it.  If it’s not specific enough, then clarify.  For example, I like feedback to be specific actions I can take or thoughts I can think for specific events.  This helps me immediately act on it and start testing it out.
  7. People down from your command chain are your responsibility. If you’re in a management role or leadership position, you have to set the stage for effective coaching.  If your coach recommends you change X, but your reports like X, then you have to look at all their feedback but you have to support coaching decisions at your higher level and tell your reports to ‘go with it’ and have objective evaluation later.  The reverse is also true — you may feel pushback, but you should voice it and not “hide” behind your reports’ opinions.
  8. Don’t let style issues get in the way.   Style issues are things like communication approaches.  For example, some people like direct communication, while others might prefer more tact.  Some people are more audio while others are more visual.  Some people prefer face-to-face, while others prefer email.  The best way to work past these is to focus on the goals, call out style differences, and find a way to communicate that works for everyone involved.  Being flexible in your style can help you avoid limiting yourself, and finding ways to bridge styles can exponentially improve communication.
  9. Don’t let your coach set you outside your values.  Style differences are one thing, but your personal and organizational values serve as effective boundaries.  Give your coach feedback if you think they are proposing things out of line.  Find out what they want to achieve with the recommendation that you don’t like and see if you can design a different path together that is closer to your beliefs.
  10. Stay focused on goals.  It’s easy to get lost along the way or focus on improvement for the sake of improvement.  I find it’s more compelling to have a goal in mind that you can test your results against and checkpoint progress along the way.  This helps with motivation and it helps with more actionable feedback.  It also helps you ask your coach more specific questions, which keeps them engaged in the process.  While you stay focused on results, enjoy the process along the way.  The process is your growth and goals are simply a way to pick a path and measure.

Weekly Things to Do
Here are some weekly things to do to make the most of your coach:

  • Ask for feedback  and give feedback.  Make getting feedback a habit.  Give your coach feedback on their feedback to help them improve their effectiveness with you.
  • Introspect about reactions.   Introspection is simply looking inward and reflecting on your conscious inner thoughts.  It’s thinking about your thinking.  This is where you can catch yourself in patterns that you want to change, or where you can find and challenge your resistance.  Remember that what you resists persists, and getting a better look at where you’re blocked can help you get unstuck.
  • Use your coach as “a fly on the wall.” Have your coach observe you in action.  For example, take your coach to meetings as a “fly on the wall” and ask them for feedback and opinions afterwards.
  • Suspend your disbelief.  Let your coach design plays and try them out; and have a way of coming back and evaluating how well it worked.
  • Don’t let your insecurities thrive.  Keep in mind that critique is a tool for growth.  Don’t let your insecurities or concerns brew under the surface.
  • Be open and transparent.  The more you share, the more your coach can help.  Be transparent about fears, hopes, etc. so that your coach can help you make the best of them.

Make the most of your teachable moments.  Whether you have a formal coach or not, coaches and mentors are all around you everyday.  Learn all you can, from everyone you can, and make the most of what you’ve got.

Many thanks to Eduardo Jezierski for sharing his insights, perspective, and lessons learned with me for using coaches effectively.


  1. Nice post J.D. It’s interesting that you had wrestling coaches and Microsoft executives as mentors; it must have been cool to listen to two different kinds of perspectives.

    I agree some people who use a coach don’t use them to their full potential. They might quit at the first sign of discomfort or unease felt by the way the coach teaches. I remember my high school basketball coach was one of the meanest people I have met my entire life. But these types of people don’t come often, and although their teaching methods may be strict and difficult, ultimately they are trying to challenge us and make us grow stronger.

  2. Wouldn’t a weekly thing to do be to re-assess the goals, or would it be the kind of thing done much more often than that? I’m just wondering on this point.

    The “decide to make the most of your coach” has some interesting questions to my mind. Coaches can do a lot of different things to my mind: They can teach or offer opportunities for learning, console the losses one can have, cheer on for the pending victories and help celebrate the victories, or just provide another opinion on various matters. “What can a coach do?” is one of those lovely simplistic yet possibly complicated riddles we have in life. They can do quite a lot, but there are some pointers that you point out quite well.

    Part of me is still processing part of this wonderful post, thanks for sharing some of your wisdom JD. Do you ever tire of getting feedback from regular readers of your blog? I’m just wondering on that last question.

  3. #6 is important. Remembering that the advice you are receiving has worked for others, yet you may have to adapt to your own particular circumstances can be the difference between success and failure. Sometimes just knowing what is going wrong helps suggest solutions, even if they don’t come directly from a coach.

  4. I am giving a really serious thought right now to finding a mentor. Not exactly sure where to look:) but I am sure as soon as I clarify in my mind exactly what I need and set out to finding the person who can provide that help to me, I”ll find one. Thanks for great tips JD, they are definitely going to be useful.

  5. I think the coaching rules can apply across the board in life whatever your improvement goals are. “You change yourself” is a nugget for all time.

    That’s cool you pursued wrestling, J.D. You are a man of many talents, that’s for sure. But not only that you’ve put your insights into action!

  6. Hello J.D. –

    I see that you are technical person from the about page of the website.
    I am visiting your website the first time. I do like all the points mentioned here.
    The first thing coming to my mind is – I remember when I was in school I used to scared of Geometry and my Geometry teacher knew that though I know the answers I was afraid or scared what if I am going to be wrong. She is a great teacher Mrs Bellary and she brought my fear of geometry to zero by asking questions, motivating me and also giving me good tips.

    The second thing reading your blog comes to my mind is the movie – “Remember the Titans” where Denzel Washington creates the winner team when America was going through the racial tensions.

    As quoted: A good coach is the catalyst that helps others achieve their full potential.

    Bye for now,
    Cheryl Paris Blog

  7. J.D., I like these ones best of all! 😉
    # Don’t let your insecurities thrive. Keep in mind that critique is a tool for growth.
    # Be open and transparent. The more you share, the more your coach can help. Be transparent about fears, hopes, etc. so that your coach can help you make the best of them.

    thanks for the reminder, I’ve been staying more open to the coach mentality lately and then I bumped into this! 🙂
    I was so inspired by Brian Orser’s interview about Kim Yu-Na. the qualities shared were also so helpful and natural and a healthy coach/trainee relationship. I think knowing the rhythm of the trainee is so important as he shares and also trust is huge! and everyone has their own formula that works, the best coaches work with this natural flow and build on it. Thanks for sharing this post! You might enjoy that interview I watched also, I found it so interesting!


  8. @ Hulbert

    Thank you!

    I always have to remind myself … discomfort is where the growth happens.

    Some of my toughest coaches have been my best mentors … although it was tough to see it at the time.

    @ JB King

    Checking your path and progress is always a good thing. I think how frequently you check is based on the time window you’re shooting for.

    For example, in project terms, for a six month project, I do monthly checkpoints, but at the 3 point mark, I’m hoping I’m significantly on track, or I gotta lotta changes to do.

    I think the key in checkpoints is picking a regular rhythm and adjusting based on the timebox you plan to spend for change.

    This really points out that it’s crucial to know when you’re done or what good looks like. It’s nice to be able to tackle the next adventure.

    @ Fred

    I agree — knowing what’s going wrong can actually be some of the most important insight. I often find that there are lots of ways solve problems, but usually a few ways you want to avoid. Knowing what to avoid is precious.

    @ Lana

    I’m a fan of using multiple mentors. For example, one of my mentors is great at strategy, another is great at leadership, and another is great at marketing. I have found that a few of my mentors are just great at life, so they always provide a great sanity check and sounding board.

    You’re right — you can find the right people by figuring out what you need.

    @ Jannie

    They definitely apply across the board in life … especially for life-long learners.

    It’s all about getting results, right 🙂

    @ Cheryl

    I love how a great teacher can help lift us up. It’s a great reminder how sometimes it’s a skills issue, but other times it’s belief or motivation, and when somebody believes in you, it opens doors.

    @ Jenn

    The trust thing is key. The more you can trust, the more you can gain … and trust means being able to be vulnerable, to get to the core of where it counts, and build up goodness from there. This is where I see a lot of people block their own progress … they never trust enough or try enough. That’s why life changing events are often the most significant catalysts … key blips on your life timeline.

  9. @ Dror

    One of the simplest ways is to schedule recurring meetings. For example, I meet with one mentor every other Monday, I meet with another mentor, every other Thur, and with another mentor, I meet once a month.

    I always have a focus or theme that I frame as a challenge, I bring a few questions to the table, and I take lots of notes. This helps me make the most of each mentor.

  10. “I always have a focus or theme that I frame as a challenge, I bring a few questions to the table, and I take lots of notes. This helps me make the most of each mentor.” Is a very valuable tip as we have to first listen and then share

  11. @ Dror

    I bring a lot to the table so it’s usually a mutual exchange of insight and experience. I think that’s what actually keeps it going … it’s a two-way street of growth, perspective, and new lenses on things.

  12. Hi JD .. thanks for that and your answer to Dror has answered something I was going to add – we can’t just have a coach and expect to succeed or change, we need to be prepared and know what we would like to achieve and what our goals are .. I suspect many of us just wander in to coaching.

    It’s good to hear your background to coaching and that you’re continuing on with it – obviously as it’s a two-way process and I guess the coach is keeping one step ahead of you .. often that learning process for a teacher.

    Thanks – good to read .. have a good week – Hilary

  13. @ Hilary

    Right on … making the most of a coach means knowing what you want to accomplish … even if that means using a coach to find out what you really want to accomplish 😉

    I use a lot of short-term mentors for short-burst coaching in addition to my long-term mentors. One of my favorite things to do is find somebody’s super skill and learn it from them. Around Microsoft, there are so many high caliber people, I feel like a kid in a candy store … I scoop up all the skills I can 🙂

    Sources of Insight is my way of giving back, in addition to the people I mentor at work, and my upcoming book.

  14. Hi JD – thanks .. I can see that – it’s great to be part of ‘your world’ as such ..

    one other thing – is seeing what’s there, what you need to do, what is available … we don’t mull it out for ourselves – we don’t sit on things and work out what we need.

    I struggle sometimes with what is being said in posts – and it’s hard work to bring my brain onto or into the level of the blogger – to get the best benefit from what I’m reading. Yes – my mind is elsewhere with my Mum .. as with everyone else doing their thing – but to benefit from comments sometimes we need to pause, think, relate and learn, rather than scan past .. if your subject is personal and self development then you’re in that curve already and on a similar wave-length when you start out (and that must help!) ..

    Thanks for answering – appreciate that .. bye – have a good week – Hilary

  15. Hi J.D.

    I’ve heard folks say, and have been guilty of saying myself before I knew better, ‘I didn’t get much out of that.’

    Now I know better… ‘What do I bring to it?’ (coaching session, class, seminar, church, whatever) is my first question. Then I can more easily answer ‘What did I get out of it?’

    And that’s just your first point! Glad you started there…

    Do you think all coaching needs to be scheduled,acted on, evaluated, and rescheduled? Maybe another way to ask is: do all your mentors know they are mentoring you? Or do you consider as mentors those who author books, teach classes where there are no particular interpersonal dynamics, that kind of thing?

    I’m not asking very well, but maybe you’ll understand what I’m asking. Can you benefit from both types of mentors? Those you hire one on one and those who, simply by their shared knowledge and expertise have taught you…

    Another excellent food-for-the-brain post. Thanks.

  16. @ Hilary

    Being on the same wavelength is a good way to put it … and I find the following help
    – shared goals
    – shared values
    – vulnerability-based trust (they got your back)

    Those all contribute to building rapport and the golden rule is rapport before influence.

    @ Barb

    I have to say that as simple as it sounds, always challenging myself to come up with 3 take aways is incredibly effective … time and again. It’s the single most significant practice I adopted that really changed my game when it comes to learning from everyone and everything at an exponential rate. Who knew “less” would be more? 🙂

    I use a variety of mentors
    – scheduled mentors (regularly scheduled recurring meetings)
    – periodic mentors (people I meet with now and Zen)
    – virtual mentors (books, people, quotes)

    I’m a fan of surrounding myself with smart people and then letting nature take its course. Whether I have mentors or not, smarties rub off on me and I get exposed to lots of new ideas and information and growth … simply by showing up 😉

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