The difference between teaching and coaching

"A true natural servant automatically responds to any problem by listening first."

– Lyssa Adkins

As the world cup in Russia draws to an end, we’ve been reflecting on the role of coaches and their influence - both in sport, and at work.

Specifically, we’ve been considering the difference between coaching and teaching - something focused on at an Agile Coaching course that I recently attended.

Teaching is explaining something to someone. It is the natural reaction that all of us have at work - someone asks us a question and we react by giving them our answer. If we’re really on form, we feel we should teach them - “here’s the answer, and here’s how I got to it”. The person wanders off, their problem resolved and the knowledge imparted. Kind of.

Coaching differs slightly. Coaches give the individual the skills to solve the problem themselves. Coaching requires discipline and practice. Rather than digging into the issue, coaches use a range of techniques to encourage the individual to think deeply and creatively in order to resolve the issue themselves. This solves the issue at hand AND builds skills and confidence to make better decisions from that point forwards.

Learning-by-doing beats theoretical teaching every day. Practical experience of solving an issue brings true development. In the teaching example, the person will come back to the teacher with similar problems in the future. The skill of the coach is to develop the individual or team to handle any situation, making the right decisions independently.

NFL and football (soccer!)

To illustrate the difference between coaching and teaching, consider two sports; NFL (american football) and football (soccer).

NFL vs Soccer

In the NFL, plays last a few seconds. Every player is given strict instructions on what they must do for those few seconds. Before the game, they practice each play over and over to ensure it’s well rehearsed, who will run where and which passes will be made. During the game, the “coach” decides which plays will happen right before they are carried out. Here, teaching is the appropriate paradigm, as the players are taught to repeat actions with little freedom of thought or individual creativity. Though they are called coaches, in NFL they are teaching - explaining the solutions to be carried out. Coaching is unnecessary - the decisions are already made.

In contrast, consider football. Each half lasts 45 minutes. Players must make decisions based on the context they are put in. The preparation before the game is in order to best improve players’ decision making, so when they come across a unique situation, they can flourish. The coach doesn’t shout out instructions to every player at every moment - it’s impossible, just as it is impossible for a CEO to direct all the actions of their employees. This is coaching - ensuring individuals develop the right skill, judgement and creativity in preparation - and then letting the team come up with the answers.

How does this relate to us?

Agile delivery requires self-organising teams - individuals making decisions based on the context they find themselves in. If we don’t coach, people will continue to fall back to the traditional command and control approach which is incompatible with agile delivery.

Though we know the payoff isn’t immediate, we know that coaching our people will result in high-performing, agile teams, meaning we deliver better value, with less risk, and more quality.

Teaching is good, but coaching truly empowers teams and individuals. Great coaching, leads to great performance, ask Didier Deschamps, his players seem pretty pleased with him.

France russia 2018


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For further reading on this topic, seeLyssa Adkins’ book on coaching agile teams.

Phil Dexter

Phil DexterSenior Project Manager