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Coaching Lessons Learned From Watching My Karate Kid

Written by Bonnie Van Epps, Director of Talent Development

My oldest son Gavin has been in karate for over three years now and thoroughly enjoys the discipline and focus that karate requires. He’s now committed to a multi-year program that will take him through the steps to earn his black belt.

As a part of this program, each time he tests for a new belt, he’s given the opportunity to try and break a board. This isn’t some piece of plywood or board with a pre-perforated seam to it. Nope, this is a solid piece of thick wood that Gavin is going to hurl the heel of his foot and/or hand through to break it in two. (Thankfully, he DOES NOT try this at home!)

Now that Gavin has had several belt tests and board break attempts, he’s able to do this with precision and ease. But I can’t help thinking back to the very first experience he had. He attempted to break the board three times and the thud of his heel against the board was painful to hear. I know Gavin well enough and, despite the pain, I could see in his face that he was determined to succeed. His coach must have recognized it too, as he approached Gavin for a quiet pep talk.

I will never know exactly what he said, but what I do know is that my then-11 year old boy stepped up and was ready to face that board. Gavin appeared to make the same motions as he had previously, but this time, with the inspiration and focus provided by his coach, he broke straight through that board and beamed the most exhilarating smile I’ve ever seen!

It was an amazing moment for him and a proud one for his mom too. And then I caught a glance of his coach and saw the pride on his face as well. It made me realize what a great example of the power of the coaching relationship I had just witnessed.

As a manager and organizational coach, here are a few of the A-HA moments I took away from that experience:

  • Provide the opportunity
    In karate, the team doesn’t practice board breaks in class. The test nights provide the unique opportunity to step out of their comfort zone and take their skills to a new level. Perhaps the students aren’t completely ready, but they’re almost ready. This gives them a chance to rise to the occasion and learn.When it comes to development in the workplace, it’s important to provide employees with that same opportunity. They may not be completely ready, but they will learn and you may very likely be surprised by what they can accomplish.
  • Be attentive to the cues
    The karate coach noticed and was aware of Gavin’s nonverbals – his determination and “want” to reach this goal. He also knew his abilities from seeing him in class week after week. The coach didn’t stop the experience short despite three failed attempts – he stepped in to coach and encourage in hopes it would lead to success.Pay attention to the cues your employees are giving you, know your people and what they need to be successful, and do what you can to provide them with the tools that will help them get there.
  • Provide guidance and inspiration
    What I later learned is that, in that quiet moment where the coach pulled Gavin aside, he provided guidance on the best heel placement on the board. He also coached Gavin to visualize his heel breaking straight through the board and to visualize it several times before ever making a move to actually do so. Lastly, he told Gavin, “You’ve got this. I know you do.”  The confidence that his coach instilled in him made a tremendous difference in Gavin’s demeanor as he approached the task at hand and finally broke straight through the board.
  • Celebrate the effort
    Not every kid breaks the board every time. The karate coach offers quite a few opportunities, but sometimes it’s clear that it just isn’t going to happen this time around. The expectation he sets for the team is that you acknowledge and encourage the effort that was put forth, regardless if the board is broken. And when a teammate does break a board, all team members celebrate that success with them. This doesn’t mean you lower expectations or that you support the “everyone gets a trophy” mentality. But it does mean that you recognize and meet each person where they are today and celebrate when they’ve given their best… regardless of the outcome. Show them you believe in their overall capabilities even if they didn’t win today.

So whatever “board” or challenge is in front of you, I hope you can apply the lessons I learned from watching my son Gavin. When you think about your life and/or career, how are you inspiring and guiding your family or team to success? What do you do to encourage them and help them know they’ve “got this”?

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