Coaching by Values

Published March 6, 2015

Inspired by my book on Values-in-Action: Igniting Passion and Purpose in Sport Organizations and my certification in 2014 as an Integral Master CoachTM, I’m writing this blog to show how values can enhance the coaching experience. I was also recently certified as an Associated Certified Coach (ACC) through the International Coaching Federation (see press release here), thereby bringing multiple perspectives to the broader field of coaching. I see coaching as a way of supporting an individual as they look to flourish in their personal and professional realms.

Coaching defined

The International Coaching Federation (ICF) is the support network for professional coaches that has the mission to lead the global community in advancing the profession. They define coaching as “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.” From a sport coach’s perspective, sport coaching might be similarly defined as “partnering with athletes in a highly focused, creative and supportive process to inspire athletes to maximize their personal and athletic potential.”

Coaching by values

The profession of coaching is similar to any other profession and requires a commitment to having a vision, a mission, and a core set of values to guide the way ahead. Coaching by values underscores the pivotal role that personal values play in decision-making and how they affect our daily interactions with others. My research uncovered that when stated, known, and shared values are absent, employees and volunteers within sport organizations use their own personal values to make decisions. Recent research also suggests that a more explicit and intentional use of values can help people make better decisions – decisions which reflect a shared understanding of what matters most to the organization and its people. A shift toward values-in-action that reflects not only what we do but also how we do it may provide coaches with an additional lens to motivate excellence on and off the field of play.

Values in sport

A number of life-giving forces have descended on the Canadian sport landscape over the past decade. Indeed, Canadian sport is on a positive trajectory to becoming a valued public asset as witnessed by the unfolding of the Canadian Sport Policy, the launch of Canadian Sport For Life (which provides for a more athlete-centered, coach-driven and system-supported sport experience), and the growing number of Canadian communities that are officially declaring their commitment to True Sport. But work needs to done to continue building on the progress made. Leaders in sport will need to dig deep to meet the challenges of increasing participation while enhancing excellence. They will need to consider not only what they are trying to accomplish but also how they might achieve their objectives. They will be called upon to consider partnerships and alliances where once fences and barriers existed. And given that sport is influenced by societal trends that are affecting the way people work, think, and act, we might want to take a moment to reflect on the role of values from a coaching perspective and how they might be used as a platform to enhance communications, generate shared objectives, and inspire common ground.

The road ahead

Leaders and managers in nonprofit organizations are currently faced with how to create and maintain successful organizations based on what is equally good for business, people, and society. In their book Forces for Good: The Six Practices of High-Impact Nonprofits, business researchers Crutchfield and McLeod Grant explored some of the key trends affecting the nonprofit sector in the United States.

The book illustrated the importance of values throughout the operation of nonprofit organizations. Organizations communicated their commitment to their values, employees were hired according to the company’s values, decisions were made that reflected the values, and the values were used as a means of inspiring both employees and the members or clients they serve. Values can play an instrumental role in managing the tensions between what is good for the organization, its employees, and society at large. For instance, a growing number of social and natural crises are making issues that were once considered peripheral (e.g., investment in human capital, environmental sustainability, ethics and corporate social responsibility) now increasingly relevant to everyday management practices.

Values help clarify what matters most to an organization and its leaders by stimulating dialogue and by engaging all people in the process. Values are likened to the glue that connects an organization’s mission to its vision and can serve as a platform upon which shared understanding emerges. In this increasingly complex environment, organizations are facing very different kinds of challenges from those of the past and therefore the constructs forming organization theories are evolving as well.

Coaches who often also wear management hats have had to adapt and manage through these turbulent times. But at what cost? Many coaches are left wondering how best to navigate the troubled waters. Being clear on their own personal values and the ones they want to see clearly demonstrated within their teams is one way to address uncertainty and interpersonal issues that arise when people work together towards common objectives.

It is important to distinguish between the values that people hold personally and those that they espouse on behalf of an organization. In the context of organizations or teams, a value system exists when individuals share certain values related to acceptable behaviour within the organization. Shared values determine and regulate relationships between individuals, the organization, and other stakeholders. From a sport perspective, I put forward that at the heart of each sport organization is the coach – the central figure who bridges the gap between the organization’s statement of values and those values that are lived on the field of play. The question for coaches to consider is to what extent are they using values intentionally when coaching athletes? To what extent are coaches mining their group’s values for their full potential?

How coaching by values can make a difference

Coaches who are looking to inspire athletes to reach their full potential understand the benefits of connecting first to the person, then the athlete. A way to build an empathetic connection is to first understand what belief system drives the athlete. When a coach can relate to what matters most to this person and speak their language, they are more likely to understand the intrinsic motivation that the athlete draws from as part of their daily training and readiness for competition. Having a conversation with athletes on their core beliefs and their reasons for competing can provide the coach with critical information that can be drawn upon when it matters most.

Coaches in a team sport setting are challenged to not only understand the motivations of each individual but to also determine what approach will bring different people with different backgrounds and belief systems into a unified team. If the ideal state is to create a ‘band of brothers or sisters’ who are prepared to ‘go to the wall’ for each other when it matters most, shared values provide the ‘glue’ that connects the disparate parts to a cohesive whole. Shared values provide the common language that enriches the conversation and helps create shared stories memories and shared values are what athletes and coaches can source for inspiration in the waning moments of a competition.

With so much resting upon the shoulders of coaches across this country, the opportunity to intentionally increase our appreciation for the role of values is at our doorstep. The promising possibility of coaching by values is an intriguing concept worthy of further exploration.

How coaches can incorporate values

From a coaching perspective, each coach/athlete relationship forms a micro-organization of sorts and as such, having a conversation on the shared values which underpin the relationship will prove to be very useful. For instance, if organizational values are important principles that guide the behaviour of the organization’s leaders and staff, then values might also serve as a means to connect athletes and coaches on a shared vision related to performance, attitude, expectations, and commitments.

I would encourage coaches to work through the following exercise first individually and then with your athletes to stimulate a discussion on personal values and how you might agree on the kind of values required for your micro-organization (team) to achieve success. The conversation that ensues, the trust that it generates, and the authentic communications that it produces might have you considering how to integrate values more explicitly into your coaching philosophy.

The value of values exercise

STEP 1: With your athletes, encourage a discussion on values, their importance, and how they can be used to make decisions, influence our behaviour, and guide our choices – 10 minutes

STEP 2: Individually and on their own, ask your athletes to write down between 7- 10 values that are important to them individually and that they feel reflects who they are – 5 minutes

STEP 3: Have the athletes circle the top 5 that they feel are most closely aligned to what matters most to them – 2 minutes

STEP 4: Now have them reduce their core values to their TOP 3 … the ones that they can’t live without. Have them consider these values as “the ones that describe to the world what you stand for” – 1 minute

STEP 5: Share the values with the larger group and use this opportunity to engage your athletes in a meaningful conversation on the importance of personal values. In their sharing, and especially working in teams, knowing what matters most to individuals can help enhance interpersonal relationships and appreciation for others perspectives.

STEP 6: Now that athletes know and have shared their own values, you can facilitate a conversation on creating a core set of values for the entire team. The dialogue is meant to stimulate discussion on which values your group requires to meet and achieve stated objectives. The kind of values that might distinguish you from other groups. These values should:

  • Be known by all
  • Be communicated regularly
  • Be used to make decisions
  • Be drawn upon in moments of conflict

These values form the lifeblood of your group and will help to generate a resilient, adaptable, progressive, innovative, and respectful culture. For instance, you might include a measurement on values when evaluating the athletes’ performance. You might invite athletes to consider the group’s values when making a challenging decision. You might help prevent a risk from occurring by considering your group’s values. By defining your team’s values you are intentionally prioritizing the values that you expect to see and helping to support the setting of norms and behaviours that define the group and breathe life into creating the kind of culture desired to achieve shared goals – 20 – 45 minutes

STEP 7: Share this with others (organization, parents, technical director, etc.) so they too can begin to use values more intentionally in their organization.

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