Whether you’re an expert or a beginner, there’s always another level.

by Megan McDonough

Coaches help people reach for their highest and best. And to do that well, coaches invest in their own highest and best journey, too. What does it take for a coach—or anyone for that matter—to be at the top of their game? What does it take to continually make choices that develop you as a person and as a professional? It’s important to ask that question, because humanity’s greatest gift is our ability to make choices that sculpt us towards an aspirational ideal.

To reach his highest and best, Benjamin Franklin coached himself by starting each and every day with the question, “What good shall I do this day?” Then he ended each day with the reflection, “What good have I done today?”

Coaching towards an aspirational ideal—aiming towards greater heights of character strength, value-driven behaviors, important goals, or professional performance—comes at a cost. You can bet you’ll be uncomfortable, stressed, and bored with practice. Knowing what you’re up against helps you practice the moves necessary to navigate the inevitable challenges.

1. Practice getting comfortable with discomfort.

My husband is strong and fit. When we hiked in Alaska, he would point to a tall peak and say, “Let’s go there.” And we would. I’d be filled with pride to have made it to the top, and he would say, “Look there’s another peak! Let’s go there!” Before long, I’d realize there was always another peak.

Growth is uncomfortable. The athlete will have times of muscle fatigue and soreness. Work will bring challenges. Parents will be confused when trying to communicate with their teenagers. Being open to growth and learning means recognizing that the comfort zone you’re in won’t get you to the next level. Like my husband urging me to higher hikes than I was comfortable with, coaches help us reach for more.

For coaches to be coached to the next level of practice, they too need the support to push past comfort zones, honing skills that feel uncomfortable to use—making for stronger, more effective coaching sessions. This is why Dan Pink, author of Drive, writes that one of the three laws of mastery is that it’s a pain.

Whether you’re an expert or a beginner, there’s always another level. There’s always a next step. Good coaching means aiming towards a peak, and knowing we can keep going towards the next higher peak as long as the journey is meaningful.

2. Practice performing under stress.

Bodyguards need to stay cool in high-stress situations. To practice, trainers surprise bodyguards by shooting them unexpectedly during training. The bullet is only a plastic marking capsule like the ones used for paintball, but the trainees feel it—emotionally and physically. At first, their heart rate skyrockets, the stress response turns on full force, and they are unable to think or continue. The exercise is repeated at different times or locations, again and again, catching them off guard as they build “stress inoculation.” Eventually, the bodyguards learn how to keep going, to ignore the rush of adrenaline, in order to stay focused on client safety.

I’m not saying that you’ll be shot while aiming towards your highest and best (unless, of course, you want to be a bodyguard!). I am saying that reaching is, by definition, a stretch. If it’s not, you’re not reaching. This tension, this stretching, comes with a certain stress on the system, a disruption of the status quo.

Look at that difficult coaching client—the one that pushed your buttons, made you flustered, or caught you off guard—as an invitation to stretch. The opportunity to be “stressed” in new, good ways builds confidence and capacity for inner fortitude and the attitude of “Yeah, I can handle this.”

3. Practice deliberately.

Anders Ericsson, in his book Peak, writes, “These studies … tell us that the brain’s structure and function are not fixed. They change in response to use. It is possible to shape the brain—your brain, my brain, anybody’s brain—in the ways that we desire through conscious, deliberate training.”

So, if you want to be a great coach, you need to coach. Having a session one week, and then another two weeks later, is not a way to build your skills. This is one of the biggest problems of growth—we need to put ourselves into practice situations way more often than we usually do (see #1 and #2 above; it’s uncomfortable to stretch and it’s stressful, so we avoid it).

If you want to become a better writer, you need to practice writing deliberately. If you want to be a leader, you need to practice leading deliberately. If you want to improve your coaching success, you need to practice coaching deliberately. Again. And again. And again.

There’s always another peak behind the one you just climbed. Savor the journey, enjoy the view, and keep on hiking.

Learn more about our Positive Psychology Coaching Fundamentals course, the foundational course in our Positive Psychology Coaching Certification.
Megan McDonough

Megan McDonough

As the founder of Wholebeing Institute, Megan McDonough leads with divergent thinking and creative perspectives to build organizations and networks that harness the best in people for the greatest good. She has decades of leadership experience in diverse settings, in roles ranging from Alliance Manager of a $300 million relationship at DuPont; to General Manager of RISE at Kripalu, the largest yoga retreat center in North America; to numerous online-learning startups. A yoga enthusiast, Megan has practiced for more than 20 years and taught for more than a decade, and brings that mindfulness practice to her leadership. Her degree in biology, natural science, and nuclear medicine has little to do with her current work, and everything to do with her radically receptive approach to life. She is the award-winning author of four books on living mindfully.