Founder & Managing Director Matt Somers - Coaching Skills Training Ltd
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How to apply inner game coaching principles

The ability to perform to our full potential is often blocked by mental, rather than external, barriers. Below, Matt Somers provides an example of how the ‘inner game’ can hinder people’s progress and shares the coaching principles that can be used to conquer it.

17th Mar 2020
Founder & Managing Director Matt Somers - Coaching Skills Training Ltd
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Man playing tennis
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“I discovered the opponent in one’s own head is more formidable than the one the other side of the net.” wrote Tim Gallwey in the Inner Game of Tennis and in so doing set the foundations for much of modern coaching practice. 

Although Gallwey’s ideas were quickly picked up by the corporate world (particularly when the late Sir John Whitmore used them as the basis of his performance coaching work), they are perhaps bedevilled by their early associations with sport and sometimes considered a little lightweight when set against other, more academic, influences on the coaching field.

My intention in this article is to show that inner game coaching principles can make a real difference in a work situation by setting out what happened when I used them to improve performance in one of my client’s organisations.

It was clear though that more training was not what was needed and may in fact make things worse.

In the beginning

Our client was a government-funded business development agency tasked, in part, with awarding grants to start-up and fledgling businesses to help with sales growth, IT usage, staff development and so on. The business advisors had individual targets around the numbers of clients to be seen and the level of service take-up. Things were not going well and at the time I was first consulted, that quarter’s targets were likely to be missed.

Early discussions with some of these advisors revealed that they had no problem securing appointments with prospective clients, but that too few of those appointments resulted in a sign-up for the service.

Training had been provided, but it was perceived as reheated sales training that didn’t really fit the circumstances, although the advisors did feel that they had picked up some new tools, techniques and approaches.

It was clear though that more training was not what was needed and may in fact make things worse.

My first step was to see whether inner game principles could explain what was going on.

Performance = potential – interference

This is Gallwey’s simple formula for defining the inner game and it neatly captured what was happening to the business development advisors. Between their potential to achieve results and the actual results they were posting, there was interference. 

The advisors all had the potential to achieve what was needed – of this there was no doubt. They had all been recruited on the back of a well-constructed assessment centre, had appropriate backgrounds and experience, and had been given the necessary training.

The problem lay not in increasing potential but in reducing interference.

At a workshop we asked the advisors to consider two sources of interference – external and internal – and to list examples of each. Amongst other things, they came up with:

External

Internal

  • Poor management

  • Poor relationships

  • Policy & procedures

  • Trying too hard

  • Negative thoughts

  • Self-doubt

 

We recognised that the external factors would need attention over the longer term and knew that senior management were already aware of some of these issues. The ‘quick wins’ seemed to be available if I could turn the advisors’ minds away from the sources of internal interference and have them focus on something far more useful instead.

Critical variables

A variable is anything that changes during or between activities. A critical variable is one which can impact on the outcome. The weather might vary over the course of a day in which an advisor makes four client visits, but that's unlikely to make much difference to their success rate. The level of interest shown by the client might equally vary between appointments and this could have a massive impact on the chances of success.

An inner game approach to coaching has coach and coachee working together to find the critical variables in a given situation and then to choose one to focus upon. Gallwey’s findings on the tennis court and in the workplace were that if people were able to simply focus, notice and concentrate on the critical variables – the things that made a difference – performance improvement would take care of itself. This is because a mind that is focused on the right things is too occupied to pay attention to the self-doubt and negative beliefs that otherwise vie for its attention.

Real and lasting change came as a result of simply replacing interference with an appropriate point of focus.

By now my task was becoming clear. I had to work with the group to find one critical variable in their work to focus on first, then trust in their potential to be great business development advisors and leave them to get on with it. I also knew that I needed to keep their managers off their backs because they were proving to be a source of interference rather than a means of focus.

The managers were scared that the targets were not going to be reached and of the consequences if that happened. Their fear was driving them to micro-manage the advisors and command that they ‘try harder’. Unfortunately trying harder rarely produces a sustainable result, it just creates more anxiety, frustration and exhaustion – more internal interference in other words.

The need for awareness, responsibility and trust

I had to teach the managers some basic coaching skills and insist that they allow their advisors to experience three things:

  • Awareness: If the advisors could become more present in client interviews, just simply more aware of how the client was responding, they would naturally find useful things to focus upon

  • Responsibility: The advisors needed to know that whatever aspect of their own performance they wanted to change, it was their own choice to do so. They were responsible for the outcome. If the managers had dictated what they thought needed changing, the advisors would have been simply following instructions and there would have been no motivation or empowerment.

  • Trust: The advisors needed to be believed in. They needed reassurance that their managers saw their potential and would trust them to figure out a way to solve the problem.

Playing the inner game

After some discussion we decided to split the advisor group in two. The first group (which we wanted to use for control) were asked to carry on as normal. They would have their usual targets and be asked to do what they’d always done.

The second (experimental) group were told that for one week they would have no conversion targets at all. That instead, we wanted them to find out as much as they could about how clients show interest. (Because how clients show interest had been identified by the advisors as the most important critical variable.)

Only people can achieve targets and they need to be allowed to learn their own effective ways for doing so. 

Freed from the interference of worrying about targets and trying really hard, the advisors began to really tune into their clients and the ways they showed interest. As they learnt more about this they could spot when they were over explaining a point, or getting too technical.

Armed with this awareness they quickly and automatically changed tack and became more client focused: asking more questions and listening more attentively. Real and lasting change that came as a result of simply replacing interference with an appropriate point of focus.

In the end

During the week there was a marked take up in the services the advisors offered, so much so that the following week the control group were asked to take part in the experiment too. The quarterly target was achieved with ease and customer feedback improved dramatically too. 

Of course, the targets were always there, they had never gone away. What changed was the realisation that only people can achieve targets and that they need to be allowed to learn their own effective ways for doing so. 

Coaching this way

Tim Gallwey has yet to write a coaching manual but his ideas can be found within most models and coaching approaches. Coaching people to master their inner games requires us to give up the need for control and move away from an overly directive, instructional communication style.

Instead we need to develop the ability to ask provocative coaching questions that create a climate of awareness, responsibility and trust. In such climates the critical variables in any situation become plainly apparent and we can then focus on them and make natural changes and improvements… just ask those business advisors!

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