Three Things Psychotherapy Teaches Us About Effective Coaching

Movement is amazingly complex.

What we quickly realize is that there's more to the body than muscle and bone.  We have tendons, ligaments, connective tissues of all kinds...and a nervous system to top it all off.

But what's most confusing for so many movement practitioners is the mind-body connection.  In fact the whole idea of the mind is confusing even for cognitive scientists.  Nobody has a clear idea of what exactly the mind is, let alone the whole picture of how it relates to the body.

One thing that we know in the somatic field--and that modern neuroscience is backing up empirically--is that whatever the mind is, it's inextricably linked up with the body.  Even the term "mind-body" doesn't quite do it justice.  One can't exist without the other, so how can we conceive of them as separate entities?  That's where the idea of the "soma" comes into play: the human organism in its wholeness.  I think of it as mind plus body plus environment over time.

And we know this somewhat intuitively.  Everybody can think back to a time when they were--or somebody they knew was--in a terrible mood.  Low energy, not a whole lot of drive to accomplish much of anything.  We could characterize it physically by slumping our shoulders forward and curving through the back, as if we had the weight of the world on our shoulders.  Contrast that with a buoyant, uplifted mood.  Lots of energy, a drive to get things done.  We might think of this as being more upright, perhaps even puffing the chest up a bit.  

Feel familiar?  These are a couple of postural archetypes that highlight the striking relationship between mind and body. 

That's what makes psychotherapy such an interesting field to examine.  If we can help someone improve on the "mind" side of the equation, then it stands to reason that might create a physical change as well.  I'm not advising you portray yourself as something you're not.

But there are certain lessons we can learn from the world of psychotherapy that can help us become more effective coaches.  Below we'll examine some key characteristics that give us clues.

Words Are Powerful - The Use Of Conversation As An Intervention

Stripped down to the essence, psychotherapy is a dialogue between two individuals.  The same goes for coaching.

In the Deep Coaching Intensive we talk about how this can be a major way to increase your value as a coach.  Think about it: you know based on the SAID Principle that a few sessions each week are a drop in the bucket.  If you can't help your clients change their overall context--how much sleep they get, how they eat, their relationships, their stress level, how much movement they get throughout the week--you're not going to be as effective as you could be.  

But if you can dedicate a session to helping a client really shift their perspective on movement and their overall lifestyle, then you can be confident they'll put in the practice outside of your sessions.  That's why I'm fond of saying that conversation is a more powerful intervention than movement.  

One conversation can totally shift how somebody lives their life.  In turn that shifts the choices they make on a day-to-day basis, and as we know, that's the foundation of how they move.

Relation And Empathetic Understanding

Just as the foundation of psychotherapy and coaching is a dialogue, it's also a relationship.  What sets them apart from other relationships is that one party is there specifically for the benefit of the other person (as opposed to hanging out with buddies where you all might complain and commiserate together).  

It comes down to a fundamental shift in the way we coach.  We need to move from working on a person as a body to working with a person through their body.  That's worth reading a couple of times to understand the difference.

We need to look past scores on a movement screen, dysfunctions and restrictions, and performance metrics.  Human beings--as it turns out--like to be treated like human beings.  In fact they thrive on it.  Cultivating genuine relationships with clients goes a long way to improving your effectiveness as a coach.

Validation Of Subjective Experience

This is perhaps the most healing aspect of psychotherapy.  The validation of subjective experience lets a person know they aren't alone in the world.  And if you think this doesn't apply to movement, think again.

Our subjective experience of movement plays a tremendous role in how we move.  Our perception of a task affects our execution of that task.  If you've failed twice to pick up a loaded barbell, how well do you think you'll fare on the third attempt?

But where this has perhaps the most relevance is the problem of pain.  It goes without saying that pain influences our movement.  Try making the opposing argument after stubbing your pinky toe.

The thing is: pain is still largely misunderstood.  We know for example that you can feel pain far away from the site of an injury and that you can have an injury with no pain whatsoever.  It's a complex phenomenon that goes beyond much of our logical reasoning.

Pain is much more than objective measures.  It's a subjective experience, one that it takes great care and understanding to work through.

The ability to validate a client's experience of pain plays a tremendous role in how well you'll manage to help that person.  Telling them to push through the pain simply won't cut it.  We need to validate their subjective experience of movement and co-create solutions to their challenges.

What Do We Leave With?

Based on these lessons from psychotherapy, we have a few key points to take away as coaches:

  • It behooves us to learn how to use coaching conversations effectively
  • We must develop empathy and genuine relationships with our clients
  • We owe it to those we serve to be mindful of their subjective experience

All in all it's important to keep in mind that when it comes to movement, we really only know the tip of the iceberg.  Human beings are way more complex than we'd like to think, and there are factors influencing their movement that we can't often comprehend.  

Keeping a level of flexibility and humility go a long way in helping us work with our clients more effectively.  When you don't--and can't--know everything, you better be able to relate on a human level and adapt to changing circumstances.

If this topic interests you, and you want to dive in further, I highly recommend the following books as introductions to the field of psychotherapy:

  • Gestalt Therapy: 100 Key Points & Techniques - D. Mann
  • On Becoming A Person - C. Rogers
  • Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality - F. Perls, R. Hefferline, P. Goodman