The process and the people

I am a Level 3 Kayak (L3K) coach and have been for several years, probably around 15. In the software industry there are a lot of folk who call themselves coaches, but I do find myself wondering if they’ve ever had any kind of formal training. It took me a lot of time, money and personal risk to become a coach and I don’t regret it at all.

By the way, I don’t consider a three day Scrum Master course to be formal training. I had to meet the prerequisites, which were things like being a Level 2 coach, and holding various first aid and rescue qualifications. Then I had to do a three day course, where I became a candidate, then I had to amass at least 50 documented hours of supervised coaching, and then I had to do another 3 days assessment. The people running these courses had to go through very stringent criteria to run them.

I also have to attend recognised events every few years to make sure I’m still up to date. I don’t see this in the software industry. I do see a lot of pretence and bureaucratic certification, but that’s a different thing.

A L3K can take people on white water, assuming he or she feels they are competent and the group isn’t too big. In fact I spend a lot of time working on flat water with the Guides and Brownies, which means I work with total beginners aged between 8 and 10 who can’t even hold the paddle. Many coaches don’t like this, they want to work with older and more experienced paddlers.

I love it. It means I have to keep going back to the beginning and making sure I can express them in ways people can understand. It means I never lose contact with the fundamentals. There is a story about an American football coach, who used to begin every training season holding a ball and saying gentlemen, this is a ball. You have to have the fundamentals or you won’t go far, and you have to return to them or you may lose your way. 

People learn by doing. There is no substitute for this, but equally there is  a problem where you can create an ingrained habit that is a bad habit, where that habit holds you back. This makes coaching a very tricky proposition, it’s not practice makes perfect. Although this is true, it’s perfect practice makes perfect. You need the input of someone standing outside where you are, who knows the common faults and their solution. Then you need to be willing to sometimes start again, or at least it feels like it. You need to be practicing in a way that grows your skill, not embeds problems.

For example in the kayking forward paddling is a fundamental skill. A beginner will place the paddle in the water and pull on it, this will give them some forward movement, after a while of trying and experimentation they will learn to paddle forwards in a straight line. But if you were to compare their paddling action with someone who was say, a top-level slalom competitor, you would see a number of differences. Mostly to do with keeping the paddle close to the boat and using twisting of the body rather than just movement of the arms to engage the core and leg muscles for maximum power.

So you have to keep learning to paddle forwards over and over again as you get better. I’ve had to almost go back to the start three times in the last twenty odd years I’ve been paddling and every time I come out of it with a better, more powerful stroke. But I can’t fill a beginner’s head with this stuff, it would only confuse them and put them off. I always try to get them twisting if they can understand it, that helps a lot.

When you find yourself in a coaching situation the other thing is you have to go where the people are. What this means in practice is there’s no point in talking about a complex stroke, or rolling your kayak, or even the many techniques for rescuing people who have come out of their kayaks until the person can paddle where they want to go consistently and competently. They first need to be relaxed, and have a certain competence, before they even try to do anything more difficult. They have to be able to paddle forwards somehow before they can improve upon it.

In fact, they are incapable of taking on any more information until they get past the fears and annoyances they are experiencing right now. 

Introducing something new

When I was a very new coach we used the acronym IDEAS

  • Introduction
  • Demonstration
  • Explanation
  • Activity
  • Summary

I think these points are pretty obvious, with the possible exception of explanation, which briefly touches on the why.

Of these Activity dwarfs the others. My big fault when I was new to coaching was talking too much. You need to show what needs to be done in small enough pieces and then get them to show you what it is they thought you said by doing it. That’s the process, not talking. Demonstrating, doing, not talking. Watching them in action and knowing the common stumbling places to help them overcome them, not talking. The summary is also extremely important because it helps the good behaviour become fixed.

Finding a coaching opportunity

There are two kinds of opportunity:

  1. Catching people doing it right – reinforcement
  2. Catching people in need of correction or direction – tuning

Notice I was very careful not to say doing it wrong. If you see a behaviour you don’t want you must work out where it came from and then correct it. If someone is doing it wrong, it’s your fault for not explaining or demonstrating well enough, or they just weren’t ready for the finer points the first time you showed them.

It’s not a problem, just show it again. As long as they are paying attention and trying their best there’s nothing to get worked up about.


The worst word you can use is but, particularly with male participants. Everything positive you said before the but is lost. Because of our school system and the way we’re wired, we listen for the negative, so criticism and correction have to be couched very carefully. It’s best, in fact, to ask a question to try and draw out the reasons for the problem. It’s best to let people discover the right answer themselves. A coach is a guide, an instructor instructs – be careful to be the former. A coach creates a safe place for people to learn.


No matter how keen somebody is to learn something once they get tired they will start to find it hard. Try something else or just bring the session to a close. If you start to flag then the same is true.

Bad habits

It’s important to inculcate good habits. For example, one of the worst things you can do when surfing or using support strokes is to lean back. When you are a beginner on flat water you discover that it lowers your centre of gravity and makes things easier. On moving water it creates vulnerability and also locks your hips, making control and recovery much harder. So I teach leaning forward and encourage it, but it doesn’t always go in.

So, in coaching people to be better coders recognise the bad habits – rushing in hacking instead of thinking, pasting in whatever comes out of google without understanding it, having a cynical attitudes that damage team productivity or a default position of blaming others – which usually comes from not listening carefully and checking assumptions.

This also links with tiredness and stress; when you are tired you fall back on the original habits you had because they were the first thing you learned. They are the default position, so cultivate good habits from the beginning. I know from my own experience that this is far harder than it sounds.

Beginner’s mind

The beginner doesn’t know what they don’t know. So in fact they are capable of discovering new things that the coach can’t see because of their preconceptions. It’s always good to engage with the beginner, that’s how you keep yourself fresh. It also means that beginners aren’t necessarily wrong, and the questions they ask can be really useful and stimulating. It saddens me that our awful educational culture means that people often don’t ask these useful, gem like questions, because they’re afraid of looking silly or standing out. I’ve built my career on a playful, constructive silliness.

Beginners also need simple rules to help them – rules that an expert knows are more like guidelines. Simple rules can get you from zero to 80%, and they are always worth sharing if you have some. But just be careful they don’t become the dead hand of bureaucracy and start choking everybody. Rules are a what and very powerful, but an expert knows the why and when to bend or break them. Beginners need to lay in the good habits, so don’t confuse them, and stay quiet until they start to hit the limitations of the rules, then they can learn.

Humble mind

Part of going where people are means you must leave your ego at the door. Part of respecting the beginner’s mind means that you must also listen to what beginners have to say. If you don’t listen you are no use. You can’t go where someone is if your arrogance means you can’t see the map they provide you. This is why I often feel doubtful at self-appointed coaches, and why I don’t get on with the macho culture you often find in software teams.


If your participants aren’t enjoying the experience they won’t learn anything except they don’t like it. If you aren’t enjoying it you won’t be able to share what you have to share. So always look for fun and interest in what you do.