“Yea, video-tape your ass all you want. You think Kobe Bryant got great by only by watching VHS?”
6 months ago I decided to end my 20-year corporate career and started my own leadership coaching gig. There was one person that I blame this whole mid-life crisis on: One of my bosses at Nike. This was in the late 2000s. He was an ex-NBA player, and he was the first person that forced practice-based coaching at the workplace on me.
One fall, he started dragging me to join the executive leadership team meetings. I would be asked to present parts of our business unit’s strategy, or participate in debates around quarterly priorities. As a member of the executive team, he would always be in the room to observe me. In the first meeting, I struggled mightily. During our next one-on-one, he went straight in.
“You sucked. You need a lot of work.” He said. “Do you expect a basketball player to not work on his or her weaknesses?” He continued.
He forced me to come up with things to work on. I listed a bunch of things, from the excessive hand gestures to the pathetic incoherence of my logic.
He then asked, “Which one of all these stupid habits of yours is foundational?” I must have looked perplexed because he just continued, “A foundational skill is the bedrock of a set of skills. You first strengthen that skill, and all the other skills can then be stacked on top of it. If a basketball player can’t play with his off hand, what should he be working on first? Is it his left-handed shooting, going to the hoop with his lefthand, or dribbling with both hands?”
I rolled my eyes (in my mind). It was trite to be reminded that we should be aware of our weaknesses, we should commit to practicing new skills, and it was important to know which one to start with. “Duh.” I fired back (in my mind).
“Do you know what made you look nervous and shouldn’t have been let into that room? You know what made that tiny ugly desk outside of my corner office your perfect home? You said ‘really really’ a lot. ” He said.
“The consumers really really engaged with us.” “It is really really important that we focus on activation.” “The team was really really excited about the mission.”
I didn’t think that would be the first thing I should work on. There must be other far more significant flaws I should be tackling instead, I thought. I reluctantly took on the challenge and decided to work on it.
The behaviour itself was easy to overcome. In addition to “really really,” He suggested me to find two other words to rotate through. I chose “incredibly” and “very.” He threw in “really x 1” just to annoy me.
This really really habitual behaviour of mine was an unconscious coping mechanism to nervousness. The simple new habit of alternating adverbs made me become more aware of the moments when nervousness struck. I started to notice my incessant pacing, my distracting hand gestures, and other really really annoying reactionary reflexes. In the past, even if I knew I was nervous, I didn’t know what to do. As I progressed, I started to get better at pausing and creating this tiny mental gap between feeling nervous and reacting.
Tackling this single behaviour turned out to be a foundational change of the relationship between my emotions and my reactions. After having micro-successes in replacing “really really” with … “really x 1”, I gained confidence in my ability to widen the gap between an emotion and taking action. This ability evolved into an anchor for me to work my composure. This gap began to become available when I was flustered, when I was annoyed, when I was defensive, when I got too excited.
Another thing that he did for me was he would always observe me in action. Similar to a real sports coach, he was always sitting at the “courtside” to watch me “play.”
“If a coach of a professional tennis player never actually watched her students played, she wouldn’t be much of a coach.” He retorted when I complained the looming pressure I felt when he was in the room watching me.
“Yea, video-tape your axx all you want. You think Kobe Bryant got great by only be watching VHS?” He barked at me after I suggested I could just review video-recordings of my presentation instead of practicing in front of him.
He applied this practice-observe-iterate coaching approach on my other leadership and interpersonal skills, from negotiation to relatability to self-motivation. In my entire career, I grew the most under him.
He was the catalyst of my appreciation of coaching. He was also that annoying voice in the back of my head that pushed me to make the leap and turn my career towards becoming a leadership coach. Even though this new journey is nerve-wrecking, I know what are some of the things I could do to ensure some meaningful progress. One of them, is to stick to a coach.