“Keep your eyes on the ball!” – Good intentions, bad advice

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I’m sure we’ve all had this statement shouted at us from the sidelines of a tennis court, football pitch, rounders at the park, in fact pretty much any occasion that’s involved us and ball. The advice may have come from a team mate, coach, or loving parent.  We’ve heard it so much that we even pass it on to our loved ones.  Now whilst it may seem good advice with good intentions (that we may actually make contact with the ball!) does it help?

Professional tennis coach Tim Gallwey asked himself this question after getting frustrated with slow progress of some of his players.

The story goes that one day he decided to stop giving this instruction but instead asked the players to say ‘bounce’ when the ball bounced and ‘hit’ when the ball met their racket. The improvement in players was remarkable and what’s more they didn’t seem to be putting as much effort in it as before (with less results).

The reason for the marked improvement was that it made them ‘look’ at the ball, through an ‘indirect’ request as opposed to a ‘direct’ one. The players had a simple command to follow without the demand of continuously looking at the ball and the stress that such an instruction brings.

This led Gallwey to stop giving the traditional instructions, but instead ask questions designed to help his players find out for themselves what need to be done in order to achieve their goals.

For example, if their goal was to improve their first serve, he would ask how many first serves out of ten the player wanted to achieve – this set the ‘goal’.

Next was to observe the ‘reality’ of how many times out of ten the player made a successful serve.

It was then a case of making the players ‘aware’ through questions to notice aspects of their play that they may not have noticed before, for example “What do you notice you are doing differently when you see the ball going in or out?” This helped the player understand themselves what was going they were doing both physically and mentally with each serve.

By self answering these questions the player could then identify a number of barriers and options to overcome them and move forward.

In our role as managers in the workplace, these coaching techniques are very valuable to us and its worth remembering the next time a member of our team is struggling with a situation or task – Are they looking too directly at the challenge? Can they develop a process that focuses on the obstacle indirectly? Am I as a manager using the true value of questions to help my team identify strengths and blind spots?

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