ATD Blog

Support Coaches: Key to Reinforcing Your Training Programs

Monday, October 13, 2014

After learners attend an outstanding training program, there’s often an afterglow of good feelings for the instruction they received. Participants are eager and motivated to use what they have learned. If training was excellent and learners bought into the content, the assumption is that they will easily apply new skills back on the job. But that isn’t what really happens. 

All too often people revert back to what they’ve always done. After years of performing tasks a certain way, their brains are literally wired for that behavior. New skills simply haven’t had a chance to “stick” yet. Even though learners agree with the new skills and knowledge, they fail to make a conscious, consistent effort to apply them when facing the demands of a busy workplace. Consequently, many new learners become discouraged. 

A recent conversation with an executive at a fast-growing start-up shed light on why the money invested in learning and development doesn’t always transfer to improved performance. He told me that in his 34 years as a manager with a Fortune 500 company, he had never once received follow-up after attending a training program. He said that most of the training didn’t stick—with him or anyone else. 

Most experts agree with his assessment. Books by such esteemed authors as Mary Broad, Jack Phillips, Donald Kirkpatrick, and Robert Brinkerhoff all point to the lack of follow-up as a leading reason why so few training programs have lasting impact. Bottom line: It takes lots of repetition to rewire the brain for a new skill. 

Training is an essential first step, but it is only the beginning. Clearly, some sort of long-term reinforcement process is necessary. People need reminders, encouragement, feedback, and accountability to continue to apply what they learned in training. 

Enter support coaches 

Consider professional athletes who invest in coaches to show them ways to take their game to the next level. They apply what they learn over and over, receiving feedback during practice, and analyzing how to improve the next time. This ongoing process takes time, but results in improved performance. 


Similarly, fitness club members who invest in a personal trainer tend to visit the gym, stick with their workouts, and maintain healthy eating habits more often than those who don’t. Why? Their coach holds them accountable until these habits become routine.

Sponsors and coaching is also a key success factor for 12-step programs and Weight Watchers.  To achieve their goals, participants need to make lifestyle changes. To accomplish these changes, a sponsor or a group of caring individuals help them stay on track as they adopt new behavior patterns. 

If coaching is such a critical component in the formation of lasting, positive habits, why don’t more organizations make it an integral part of the learning experience? 

Some companies do bring in external coaches for their executives, but it’s just not economically feasible to supply professional coaches for every person who attends training. On the other hand, any co-worker who cares about another worker’s success can provide professional development support. We use the term “support coach” because colleagues, team members, managers, training facilitators and co-participants, friends, and even family members can give this kind of help. 


Support coaches don’t need special training or certification. To be effective, though, they need to employ a few standard communication skills to encourage someone to keep applying new skills on the job—to “do the reps,” so to speak. Support coaches can guide learners to analyze their experiences and hold them accountable for following through on their commitments. 

For example, top executive coach Marshall Goldsmith had a friend who served as a support coach for his own development. Every day at the same time his coach would call and ask him a series of questions that Goldsmith had given him. Questions like: How much time did you spend writing?” and “How many times did you try to prove you were right when it wasn’t worth it?” Knowing that he would have to answer these questions kept Goldsmith focused on the desired behaviors throughout the day. He became more deliberate about implementing them—making them comfortable habits over time. 

To make your training programs “stick,” consider how you could enlist support coaches to help course participants receive the follow-up they need to ingrain new skills and improve performance.   

To hear more about this topic, sign up for a free ATD webcast "How to Use Coaching to Make Training Stick" with Meredith Bell.

About the Author

Meredith Bell is president and co-founder of Performance Support Systems, a software company that has published award-winning assessment and development tools since 1987. Meredith is a major content contributor to Strong for Performance, a unique virtual coaching system for personal and professional development. This online technology combines resources for developing the two core areas and a proven process for building new success habits using a group of support coaches. To learn more, watch a brief overview video and download the free ebook, The Dark Secret of HRD, at: You can reach Meredith at [email protected].

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