Coaching Styles, Part 4 – The Mentor

Any child of the 80’s will recall “The Karate Kid.” It’s a campy movie about a young boy named Daniel who befriends his apartment’s maintenance man, Mr. Miyagi. Daniel is a novice practitioner of karate who is regularly bullied by a group of thugs who also practice the sport. After witnessing Miyagi’s expertise in martial arts, Daniel pleads with him to become his trainer and help him prepare for an upcoming tournament.

In many ways, the film does a great job of exploring the relationship between a student and the teacher. Daniel often becomes frustrated with Miyagi’s techniques and his own perceived lack of progress. Miyagi, on the other hand, utilizes a very specific plan to impart his wisdom and ensure the knowledge transfer is both effective and long-term.

Even if you haven’t seen the film, you’ve probably heard someone quoting Miyagi’s instructions to “wax on, wax off.” In order to build muscle memory for the basic karate moves, Miyagi has Daniel perform a series of chores around his house. He starts by having him wax the car, or rather, a fleet of cars using a specific set of movements with his right and left hands. Once that chore is complete, he has Daniel stain his fence, wax the floor, and paint his house – each time requiring a particular set of motions to accomplish the task.

While Daniel assumes he’s being used as a pawn to complete Miyagi’s dirty work, he’s actually using the power of repetition to ingrain very basic movements into his subconscious memory. Miyagi has broken complex sets of movements into their most basic elements to help Daniel perfect each one in isolation. Each time, Miyagi models the correct movement, observes Daniel for a time and corrects him until he performs each move as desired. He then leaves him to practice the learned behavior – with enough repetition to ensure it’s not easily forgotten.

Eventually, Daniel reaches the end of his patience. He confronts Miyagi, accusing him of reneging on his promise to teach him karate. In one of the movie’s most iconic moments, Miyagi attacks Daniel. Suddenly, all of the movements come to the surface as Daniel reflexively defends against each attack by his mentor. Daniel suddenly realizes that he has actually been learning all along. Miyagi tells him “Tomorrow, we begin training.” The rest of the move follows the pair as they work to combine the core skills into complex sequences that ultimately result in Daniel’s victory at the tournament.

An effective Mentor uses these same techniques during coaching. Skill drills are used to build understanding and perfection of core skills. The Mentor models the desired behavior and then observes as the employee practices, making adjustments to help them perfect their technique. Eventually, core skills are combined into sequences and practiced through role plays – full-blown practice sessions designed to prepare the employee for the real show, on-the-job performance.

Think about the skills and behaviors your team members need to master in order to be effective. What are the core competencies underlying those skills? Are your coaching methods adequate enough to help them achieve mastery? It’s your move Coach – time to channel your inner Miyagi.

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