An Accomplished Surgeon’s Journey to Hiring a Coach “Top Athletes and Singers have Coaches. Should You?”

In October 2011 The New Yorker published a great article authored by a surgeon and his journey to understand the value of a “coach”, appropriately titled “Personal Best” and sub-tagged “Top Athletes and Singers have Coaches. Should You?”. The article is quite lengthy, but well worth the read. In the interim, we also believe his investigative approach and journey was so inspiring, we wanted to also share a “cliff notes” version.

By the time Dr. Atul Gawande penned his article, he was already an accomplished surgeon of 8 years, as well as a contributing staff writer for The New Yorker, along with several of his own New York Times bestselling published books. Dr. Gawande had performed over 2000 surgeries, many were considered highly complex – over time he diligently benchmarked his results against published national data and found his results were significantly higher than national averages. And then one day, they began to slip. This was his “moment” the doctor faced a critical decision - accept the results or figure out a way to reverse the results, and so his journey began.

Like many professionals, the doctor went through a maze of considerations:

  • Maybe it was his age, having recently turned 45. Surgery is a relatively late-peaking career - similar to that of a Fortune 500 CEO who averages 52. Maybe the performance shift is a natural part of a career’s lifecycle?
  • Maybe the underperforming averages were an anomaly? As they say, “this too will pass”.
  • Maybe because of his age, he shouldn’t expect to continue such an aggressive learning curve and improved expertise?

It was this last point of consideration, by happenstance, he had the opportunity to have an experience which proved to the contrary but not as a surgeon, but rather a tennis court. It turns out the accomplished doctor was once a very good tennis player during his high school years, but seemingly peaked at 17. The tennis team at Stanford, where he attended college, ranked No. 1 in the nation – he assumed he had no chance of being picked. However, he continued to play recreationally for the pure love of the sport. But this also meant spending the next 25 years trying to slow the steady decline of his game. His decision to accept this steady decline turned out to be a self-guided misnomer – an unintended lesson he learned through an unplanned tennis lesson while at a medical conference. (Proof once again, that life’s lessons present themselves on the most unexpected occasions.) He had paid for a lesson in order to get a little practice in between meetings. The “coach” soon came out in his newly paid partner with a recommendation on how to improve his serve – a surprising suggestion, since the doctor perceived his serve as the one skill set which had maintained significant strength – but he listened to the suggestions, and within a few minutes of tinkering he was able to add another 10 miles an hour to his serve. It was the hardest he had ever served in his life. The result was truly unexpected, yet quite exciting.

Following this lesson, he had another moment of “awareness” while watching a tennis tournament with Rafael Nadal – this all-star player, like other elite tennis players, had a coach. His next thought – “Why don’t doctors have a coach? Was it so inconceivable that a coach could help him with his surgical technique?

These questions triggered his accelerated research respective to the significance of a coach in a variety of non-surgical categories, such as Olympians, a master violinist or vocalist, an educator, and the role the coaches played to support these successful people achieve even greater success. The more the doctor explored specific examples and corresponding results, the more he begins to understand the value of adding a coach can be transferred to any category, including surgeons. The article captures a variety of these scenarios in an easy to digest and equally informative story through the eyes of Dr. Gawande. It becomes quite logical and transparent to understand why the doctor embraced the “coaching” concept to support his passionate desire to become an even better surgeon. Although highly unusual amongst his peers, Dr. Gawande may be breaking invaluable new ground that will ultimately benefit his patients and the reputation of his practice and attending hospital.

As a business and sales coach, the doctor’s story was not necessarily new insights, but to see how such an accomplished person navigated his way through his decision making has had significant value. Some may ask, do I have a business and sales coach? And the answer is an emphatic “yes” – a good coach will recognize that it’s through his coach that he can be even more effective to his clients.

Making the decision to invest in business coaching will often be wrapped in a long list of justifying reasons. Most of the reasons we’ve run across miss the most important reason in support of hiring a business coach – the pay-off has been consistently proven and significant – in both the long- and short-term. The best candidates for hiring a business coach are your successful business owners and sales people. They have the drive to achieve more, but know that with a business coach, they can do so quicker than trying on their own. Want to learn more about the value of sales coaching? Let’s schedule time to connectJack Belford, FocalPoint


I’d love to hear from you! If you have a question or comment please share it with me below and I will be in touch with you very shortly:

(* indicates required fields)