The Golden Rules of Coaching

man presenting to small group

The Other Side of the Table

Angie stood up and approached the podium nervously fidgeting with her notes. Her anxious hands and sweaty palms were definitely a tell, but her glazed deer-in-the-headlights face was a dead giveaway. Then, she made her opening statement, which removed all doubt and revealed her deathly fear of public speaking.

You know that helpless and hopeless feeling when you are trying to master a new skill, but you feel like you are falling further and further behind? We’ve all been there at some point in our lives. I was only a year removed from that same nervous podium and now sat on the other side of the table, judging Angie’s performance with two other colleagues.

We were in moot court class in law school, a place that should be safe for learning, making mistakes and practicing the skill of making a legal argument in front of judges. Like many of you coaches, my purpose was not to tear Angie down; rather, it was to build her up.

Constructive not Destructive

Fortunately for Angie, our panel had three rules for feedback. Golden rules that are applicable for anyone in a coaching or teaching position:

1. Be Positive. When providing feedback, it is extremely valuable to start with something that was done well. Build confidence and trust in the client/student so they know you support them and are there to make them better. Make them defensive and the opportunity to learn is lost.

With Angie, it was clear that she had researched and prepared well, so we highlighted what she had done well.

2. Be Critical. While being positive sets an awesome tone, it does very little in terms of helping clients/students actually improve on their weaknesses. In being critical, try to delve deep and uncover the root of the shortcoming.

Ask, “Why is this happening?”

Or finish the statement, “The reason you are experiencing [this shortcoming] is because …”

Angie was nervous because she was trying too hard to please her judges. Angie fumbled her quotes because she was trying too hard to get each quote perfect.

3. Provide Tools. Though being critical is absolutely essential, it alone is simply not enough. You have to provide direction for the client/student. You have to provide tools for them to practice. This takes them from the mindset of thinking “I’m not good enough” to refocusing them on a new tool to master to make them better. It invigorates the client’s/student’s desire to learn.

Angie needed to stop presenting to the judges and should have started a conversation with the judges. We suggested she practice talking to herself in the mirror and pretend she was explaining her argument with a friend over coffee. Stop trying to be overly technical.

As for the quotes, she needed to stop trying to be perfect. Paraphrasing was perfectly acceptable.

The Results

A few weeks later I bumped into Angie, she had a different feel to her. She thanked me profusely and said that my panel was the best set of judges because we went the extra mile to provide tools for her to improve. She said she practiced all the tools we gave and that her scores had consistently improved each week. More importantly, moot court was now something she looked forward to. Her newfound confidence was palpable.

Whenever we have the opportunity to coach or teach, the opportunity must be valued with the utmost respect. By being positive and critical and by providing tools to your clients/students, you provide a safe environment for learning, advancement, optimism and fun. Anything less is a disservice to your client/student.


Creighton Wong headshotCreighton Wong has a wide and varied experience as a coach, teacher and client/student. He is always curious to learn, willing to share his insights and uncover better ways to do things.

 Currently, Creighton is developing a software platform to help independent coaches run their business better through technology. He needs your help to understand what challenges can be solved with better software solutions. Your opinion is valuable. To help, please follow this link to answer a few questions: https://trainertips.leadpages.co/coaches-trainers-consultants-survey/.

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