Why Healthcare Needs "Sports Coaching"

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Applying a sports model in healthcare will increase the connection between coaching interventions, improved employee performance, and desired business outcomes. 

Every company pursues consistent performance excellence. This pursuit is especially important in the healthcare industry. Unfortunately, a record of “consistent inconsistency” is typically the normand performance is sometimes less than excellent. 

Here’s the good news: several factors can help organizations deliver performance excellence more consistently, including great leadership and management, motivation, belief and passion, technology, proper equipment, protocols, efficient processes, and training. In fact, many experts agree that one of the most important methods for improving performance is world-class coaching. Although many companies talk about the importance of coaching, few get it right. 

The objective of coaching is to provide value-added advice that translates into improved performance in every aspect of any industry—especially healthcare. Further, within healthcare, coaching is not just between supervisors and employees who interact with patients, but also between every level of management.

Why Traditional Business Coaching Fails

The coaching model used by most businesses fails to clearly and directly link employee behaviors to specific, desired business outcomes. Instead, coaching primarily focuses on broad goals and plans. Naturally, it also includes motivation and other psychological elements. 

Coaches (who are often managers as opposed to dedicated coaches) typically ask employees where they “think” they are in relation to their performance goals, and then they discuss how to meet those goals. Then the coach gets a verbal commitment that the employee will follow through with these plans. 

What’s more, some coaches confuse motivating employees with coaching. Many coaching sessions focus on motivational attitudes more than how to perform better on the job. As a result, less time is spent on observation and offering detailed, specific advice. 

No doubt, motivation is part of coaching, but it isn’t the main focus. Why? Because even though motivation can increase the desire for employees to improve performance, it does not directly provide advice on how to work better. And although motivation may help create more consistency, it’s not consistency of the best possible performance. Bottom line: even brilliant motivation will not increase the quality of the employee’s skills. 

In addition, coaching protocols can become exercises in “form over substance.” That is, there is a specific number of scheduled coaching sessions—both formal and informal—that are expected. These meetings can become “check the box” sessions rather than skill-building experiences. 

Certainly, there must be a minimum number of coaching sessions to be effective. But the issue here is not primarily the frequency of coaching sessions, it is the quality of coaching sessions. In this regard, quality is not an abstract term. Instead, quality means that the coaching actually improves behavioral outcomes. For example, this could include superior patient experiences, reductions in medical errors, and so forth.

Why Healthcare Should Apply “Sports Coaching”

Many healthcare organizations use sports analogies to motivate and create insights for employees. But these traditional coaching models are far from what occurs within professional sports. Senior executives have the hospital staff read sports books, watch popular films, and listen to sports-related speakers, for example. Employees may feel pumped up, but very little typically changes—or lasts. 

What these sports analogies fail to teach is how to improve actual performance within healthcare. Like many other coaching programs, this focus on sports offers more in the way of motivation than actual skills enhancement. 

Instead, healthcare organizations that embrace sports analogies and use sports speakers and motivators should also use the proven methodologies of sports coaching, which focus on observation and skill building. Of course, motivation is part of the mix, but the majority of time is spent on value-added, results-producing advice. In fact, the job of a sports coach is to instruct and show players how to do what they have been asked to do. Therefore, a sports coach must know the skills and plays necessary for performance excellence. 

For instance, let’s say you hire a coach to help you improve your golf game. Typically, the coach would meet you at a driving range and brings you a bucket of 200 balls. He or she would then watch you hit 200 balls, observing your swing and offering instruction on how to improve it. 

Now imagine a scenario in which the coach said, “Hit these 200 balls as straight and as far as you can…” and then went to the clubhouse. You would probably ask, “Where are you going?” The coach would likely reply, “I’m going to get some breakfast. As soon as I’m done, I’m going to come back to you and you’ll tell me how you did.” 

Would this approach be acceptable? Absolutely not. But this scenario is analogous to a lot of the coaching occurring in the healthcare arena today.

What Sports Coaching Does Right

There are several key actions sports coaches do to help players reach optimal performance. Coaches in healthcare can apply these actions as they help employees change behaviors and achieve desired outcomes on the job. 


Sports Coaches Observe

A lot of organizations believe that managers and coaches are already observing employees, but those observations are typically superficial. Worse, when they observe workers, some accept less-than-perfect performance. 

Case in point: A coach observes a task that requires seven steps, but only five are performed. Some coaches are so grateful that even five steps were done correctly, they’ll say, “Good job.” This sends the wrong message. They should compliment the individual for those five steps, but also be completely honest (also kind and tactful) about the steps that were missed. Then, the coach needs to provide how-to advice and perhaps role-play performing the task correctly. That’s what a sports coach would do. 

Observing employees implementing their job functions is ideal. Realistically, healthcare coaches cannot hover over somebody minute-by-minute—nor should they. Consequently, real-world observations are often a sampling of behaviors. (The only exception is in call centers where coaches can listen to calls randomly and frequently.) 

To increase the amount of observing being done by coaches, role-playing practice is absolutely necessary. Following role plays, coaches must provide immediate, honest, and specific feedback, as well as targeted skill-building efforts. 

Unfortunately, regardless of the culture, coaches and employees seem to equally resist the importance of observation. The reason for resistance is obvious: It creates accountability. Imagine an athlete telling a coach, “I’m really great at this. I’ll tell you how I did after the game on Saturday…but don’t come to the game and watch me!” That would be unacceptable. So why is it okay in healthcare? 

Sports Coaches Role Model Behavior and Give Practical Advice

The point of sports coaching is to improve specific performance skills. Therefore, coaches must know exactly how a skill should be performed, be able to articulate how to perform the skill, and demonstrate the desired skill. 

Sports coaching also can help change employee attitudes. Because attitudes are internalized, they aren’t “seen” per se, but they do manifest in employee behaviors. For instance, to know if a worker has a “caring” attitude, the coach would observe what the person says, does, facial expressions, and body language. 

So, if a coaching session is focused on increasing “caring,” it’s not enough to inspire the employee to be more caring. Even if an individual feels internally like they have a caring attitude, patients and other staff won’t know it unless caring behaviors manifest externally. The coach must clarify what increased caring actually “looks” like.  

In addition, although insights derived during coaching sessions are important, unless there are behavior changes based upon these insights, then these insights were merely academic. So just like coaching regarding attitudes, even wonderful insights have to be externalized via behaviors. 

Sports Coaches Don’t Assume

Sports coaches check to see whether their coaching intervention actually changed player behaviors. This has to happen in healthcare as well—even with something as simple as proper hand washing. 

Unfortunately, a coach in healthcare often “tells” the employee what they should do better. For example, after talking about hand washing, the coach may ask, “Do you understand why hand washing is important?” or “Do you know the proper technique for hand washing?” Later, they may ask, “Are you washing your hands like we discussed?” 

Even if the employee responds positively, where is the proof? Instead, coaches should say, “Okay, let’s see you demonstrate how to properly wash your hands.” This is exactly what goes on in sports.  

Bottom Line

Making the shift to a sports model of coaching sounds simple, but it is a huge paradigm shift—especially for coaches who have focused more on motivating employees rather than building skills. Healthcare organizations looking to make the shift will find success if they make sure to remember these key aspects of sports coaching: 

  • Coaches need to observe employees doing the work.
  • Coaches need to role model what new and improved behaviors look like.
  • Coaches need to provide practical skill-building advice.
  • Coaches need to follow-up to see if behaviors are being implemented on the job. 

Want to learn more? Join me November 13-15 at the ATD Healthcare Executive Summit for my session: Sports Coaching for Healthcare – A Breakthrough Approach to Increasing Outcomes.


About the Author
Martin L. Cohen, M.D., chief executive officer and co-chairman of Cohen Brown Management Group, Inc. and Breakthrough PerformanceTechSM, is one of the leading strategists, consultants, managers, motivators, lecturers, and trainers in the industry today. Together with his partner, Edward G. Brown, Dr. Cohen has led the Cohen Brown Management Group and Breakthrough PerformanceTech to become world leaders in maximizing performance, and in sales-and-service culture change. Their global client list includes companies in the United States and in more than 100 countries worldwide. They have also successfully implemented Breakthrough PerformanceTech within major nonprofit organizations. As the inventor of Performance Drilling®, one of the key tools from Breakthrough PerformanceTech, Dr. Cohen is now leading efforts to revolutionize learning and verbal human performance worldwide, both in business and within every aspect of society. Prior to forming Cohen Brown Management Group, Dr. Cohen received his medical degree from the University of California, Los Angeles School of Medicine in 1971. He completed his internship in internal medicine at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, and obtained his psychiatric degree from the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute in 1975. Dr. Cohen formerly maintained one of the largest psychiatric practices in Los Angeles, specializing in behavioral and attitude change. He was also a visiting professor of management at the Peter F. Drucker Graduate School of Management at the Claremont Graduate University in 1975 and 1976. Additionally, Dr. Cohen has designed and funded medical research projects that have resulted in eight published articles in prestigious medical journals.
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