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What Makes Top Performers Better?

If you’re excellent at what you do, then coaching may make you better. But coaching exposes your weaknesses to. And not all great performers are prepared to take the chance on exposing their failure.

Here are some quotes from Atul Gawande Coaching a Surgeon: What Makes Top Performers Better?

The concept of a coach is slippery. Coaches are not teachers, but they teach. They’re not your boss—in professional tennis, golf, and skating, the athlete hires and fires the coach—but they can be bossy. They don’t even have to be good at the sport. The famous Olympic gymnastics coach Bela Karolyi couldn’t do a split if his life depended on it. Mainly, they observe, they judge, and they guide.

For decades, research has confirmed that the big factor in determining how much students learn is not class size or the extent of standardized testing but the quality of their teachers.

when coaching was introduced—when a colleague watched them try the new skills in their own classroom and provided suggestions—adoption rates passed ninety percent

The U.C.L.A. basketball coach John Wooden, at the first squad meeting each season, even had his players practice putting their socks on. He demonstrated just how to do it: he carefully rolled each sock over his toes, up his foot, around the heel, and pulled it up snug, then went back to his toes and smoothed out the material along the sock’s length, making sure there were no wrinkles or creases. He had two purposes in doing this. First, wrinkles cause blisters. Blisters cost games. Second, he wanted his players to learn how crucial seemingly trivial details could be. “Details create success” was the creed of a coach who won ten N.C.A.A. men’s basketball championships

Élite performers, researchers say, must engage in “deliberate practice”—sustained, mindful efforts to develop the full range of abilities that success requires. You have to work at what you’re not good at. In theory, people can do this themselves. But most people do not know where to start or how to proceed.

We treat guidance for professionals as a luxury—you can guess what gets cut first when school-district budgets are slashed. But coaching may prove essential to the success of modern society.

In the past year, I’ve thought nothing of asking my hospital to spend some hundred thousand dollars to upgrade the surgical equipment I use, in the vague hope of giving me finer precision and reducing complications. Avoiding just one major complication saves, on average, fourteen thousand dollars in medical costs—not to mention harm to a human being. So it seems worth it. But the three or four hours I’ve spent with Osteen each month have almost certainly added more to my capabilities than any of this.

The greatest difficulty, though, may simply be a profession’s willingness to accept the idea. The prospect of coaching forces awkward questions about how we regard failure.

This is why it will never be easy to submit to coaching, especially for those who are well along in their career. I’m ostensibly an expert. I’d finished long ago with the days of being tested and observed. I am supposed to be past needing such things. Why should I expose myself to scrutiny and fault-finding?

I have spoken to other surgeons about the idea. “Oh, I can think of a few people who could use some coaching” has been a common reaction. Not many say, “Man, could I use a coach!” Once, I wouldn’t have, either.

“Most surgery is done in your head,” Osteen likes to say. Your performance is not determined by where you stand or where your elbow goes. It’s determined by where you decide to stand, where you decide to put your elbow. I knew that he could drive me to make smarter decisions, but that afternoon I recognized the price: exposure.

For society, too, there are uncomfortable difficulties: we may not be ready to accept—or pay for—a cadre of people who identify the flaws in the professionals upon whom we rely, and yet hold in confidence what they see. Coaching done well may be the most effective intervention designed for human performance. Yet the allegiance of coaches is to the people they work with; their success depends on it. And the existence of a coach requires an acknowledgment that even expert practitioners have significant room for improvement. Are we ready to confront this fact when we’re in their care?

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