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Volume X, Article 4, September 2018

The Mystery of Coaching Mastery

Stephen Burt, Gibsonstarr Ltd

This article draws on primary research with expert coaches, established research on skill acquisition and ‘parallel worlds’ of practice to offer a new model of coaching mastery. Coaches know that there is more to top-quality work than technique. But what is that extra ingredient? And what is the contribution of technique? Research on skill acquisition offers some insights and we can learn from the general progression from novice to master identified in the literature. But we should not adopt established models wholesale; coaching is different in significant ways. So we can build on the research but new insights are needed if we are to account for coaching mastery. I argue that music, sport and art provide those insights. These multiple sources suggest that, alongside technique, master coaches have two further qualities and abilities: excellent self-management, borne of deep self-awareness, and powerful self-expression. Together they give the coach their signature presence; and the interaction between them points to how the master coach holds their expertise.

Drawing on other worlds of practice and performance broadens the language available to coaches to describe their expertise and opens up new sources of insight into mastery. The model of mastery that I propose has profound implications for coach development. It suggests that coaching mastery requires learning along three inter-woven paths. It requires mastery of three domains – technique, self-management and self-expression – and, by implication, of the tensions between them. It is not enough to be technically good; we also need to know ourselves deeply and show ourselves in the service of the client.

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