A Coaching Approach Enhances Performance and Safety

The Fleet Air Arm is the air force of the United Kingdom’s Royal Navy. It provides the Royal Navy with a multi-role airborne combat capability able to operate independently at short notice, in all environments, day and night, over the sea and land. Every year, the Fleet Air Arm entered a competition team in the Royal Tournament, a prestigious showcase of British military power and prowess, held at Earls Court in London.

The highlight of the tournament, the Field Gun Race has been described as “the world’s most dangerous sport” and “the toughest team competition in the world”. It required immense strength, fitness, precision and teamwork for 16 men to swing very heavy military equipment over a chasm and drag it through an obstacle course. It usually resulted in many injuries in the 9 week training period – a very short time to learn a complex and dangerous skill.

Joe Gough, trainer for the Fleet Air Arm’s competition team, came to train in coaching skills with Performance Consultants. On the coaching course, Gough was sceptical but saw the potential benefits of using coaching in place of the usual military command and control method. It is estimated that 15,000 men of the Royal Navy have taken part in the competition. For the first time in the 100 years of the competition, Gough’s team of 16 men not only won all five cups but they did so with almost no injuries during training and the competition, something that had been unheard of before.

A BBC documentary of the last Field Gun Race in 1999, the final year of the Royal Tournament, shows how arduous and dangerous it was to train for and compete in the race:

About Coaching and Safety

Not unexpectedly, some people hold the view that the modern person-centred coaching now being used in sport, the work place and other activities will expose the recipients to more risk than would clear instructions about acceptable actions and safe practice. In reality the opposite is true. The prescriptive militaristic approach to teaching and safety has been the norm for so long and is so widespread that it is seldom questioned. However, that view ignores the fact that our understanding of learning psychology is progressing all the time. That which was best is surpassed and becomes obsolete in time.

So how does the apparently “gentle” coaching method produce better and safer results in potentially risky situations? The primary objective of coaching is to raise the awareness (of self and others) and the responsibility (for self and others) of the recipient. Awareness increases the quality and the quantity of the immediate input received in any activity and thereby delivers greater clarity about the action and the emotional reaction to the situation. These two sources of information enable the person to manage his or her responses more appropriately and effectively.

Responsibility is derived from the capacity to make the most inclusive and appropriate choices based upon the consequences of actions, as opposed to the more common indiscriminate fear reaction. Responsibility is developed because coaches ask questions that provoke thoughts and perceptions which inform decision-making but seldom prescribe actions. People who are unaccustomed to making decisions, and who seek instructions or affirmation, need to practise decision-making, starting, of course, with inconsequential ones and building to life-saving ones in the extreme.

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