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|| News Item: Posted 2007-11-07

If Athletes Can Have Coaches, Photographers Can Have Mentors
Jim McNay says photographers should turn to mentors for regular career advice.

By Jim McNay

Photo by Brad Mangin

Photo by Brad Mangin

San Francisco 49ers coach Bill Walsh talks to his star pupil, quarterback Joe Montana on the sidelines during a game against the St. Louis Cardinals at Candlestick Park in 1986. Walsh mentored Montana and helped mold the Hall of Famer's career.
Ever wonder what a coach has to do with achieving excellence?

When covering sports assignments, photographers may notice how often excellent athletes have personal coaches. It's common in tennis, ice skating, track and field. Even ballet dancers, another type of athlete, get up and go to class regularly, even when their professional credentials are well-established.

What are these folks seeing, what are they doing, that we're not? To make it easy, let's keep this discussion in the realm of sports. We can then map the sports example onto our lives and see where it fits.

First these athletes are in what might be called a Coaching Conversation. That is, when one of the persons in the relationship is acknowledged as having a certain understanding, the ability to see things, an ability to talk about performance in a way that will make a difference. The other person is there to get the coaching, to listen to what the coach sees that the athlete cannot see from his or her perspective on the field.

The coach brings value because inside the Coaching Conversation the assumption is the coach understands what the athlete wants to accomplish. Coaches can speak in a way that allows the athlete to emerge from the discussion with access to new abilities.

Understanding the role of each participant is important to the coach-athlete relationship. It is understood the coach's job is to speak, not to skate or hit the ball. The athlete's job is to take what the coach says and have it show up on the ice, on the court.

Assigned tasks and homework are often part of the deal. The coach often gives assignments to be done above and beyond the time the coach and athlete spend together. In the sports analogy, this might be weight training, dietary instructions, or running workouts for endurance or speed. There's little debate about this: It's just part of the coaching relationship.

A key part of a solid coaching relationship is: When the coach speaks, the athlete carries out the instruction. Questions to clarify the instructions are allowed. Questions about whether the instructions are good ones are not.

Photo by Brad Mangin

Photo by Brad Mangin

Fresno State basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian acted as a mentor to many wayward basketball players during his career as a college coach in Long Beach, Las Vegas and Fresno.
Clearly this tests the trust between coach and athlete. If the athlete finds he or she cannot trust the coach or the coaching, that pretty much ends the coaching relationship in this instance. Trusting the coach means empowering them, giving something over to them for their insight and understanding.

With the homework assignments done on the athlete's own time, the relationship is essentially the same. The athlete often makes a series of promises about what they will do, what they will accomplish with the homework. Then it is up to the athlete to keep those promises.

Failing to deliver on those promises is often another test of the coaching relationship. Coaches often only take on a few candidates. They want athletes who will make the most of the time spent in the coaching relationship. Doing the promised homework is crucial to this process. If the assignments are not met, the coach may find it appropriate to "fire" the athlete as the coach's student. Coaches want results. They have little time for athletes who won't perform assigned homework.

Choosing a coach requires some care, but is not impossible. It's been said the key is to find someone to whom the athlete will simply not lie about what they will produce in the way of results and by when they will be produced. Smart athletes will find coaches who will take no B.S. from them, who will not let them off the hook or go easy on them. The best coach has been said to be the person who most reminds us of our fathers-or our mothers.

A key to finding a coach is to find someone interested in being in the coaching relationship. It helps if the person understands this process or perhaps has some experience at this from some aspect of life. Managers in the business world often get this training.

In journalism someone who is a good photographer or good editor may or may not want to be in a one-on-one teaching or coaching relationship. It takes time and energy. Not everyone good at his or her day job wants to do this above and beyond.

In seeking a coach talk to potential candidates and explore their understanding of the process and their interest, if any, in participating in it.

Photo by Brad Mangin

Photo by Brad Mangin

San Francisco 49ers coach Mike Nolan has not been very successful so far in his pro career mentoring a winning club at Candlestick Park.
In athletics coaches are paid. Good ones are paid a lot. Outside of sports, good coaches can be found who will work for free. Some will not. If the athlete or journalist seeking coaching does not have a major investment of some kind in the relationship, that only encourages them to blow off the coaching, skip the homework, continue to slide back into old patterns. It's just not effective.

That may mean paying the coach. It may mean the recipient of the coaching takes the coaching more seriously that way. Some would argue the old saw about getting what you pay for is relevant here.

The great tennis coach Vic Braden realized not everyone would want to adopt his strategies for playing effective doubles tennis, especially mixed doubles with male-female teams. Of his method, he imagined one of the team partners saying, "That's silly. Who wants to play like that?"

His answer: Winners want to play like that. He knew the impact of his coaching on players who followed his approach.

Having a coach is not for everyone. Certainly athletes see the value. Business leaders often have mentors to whom they turn for career advice regularly. If high-powered people like these see some value in coaching relationships, maybe they are on to something photographers can steal for themselves.

Bottom Line: If you don't want to do the homework, it might be a sign this is the perfect homework for you at this point in your career.

Jim McNay teaches and writes about photojournalism---while fantasizing about running a charter fishing business in Key West. Please send ideas for future columns to McNay through his member page:

Questions about getting started in photojournalism that might be answered in future columns are also welcome.

Related Links:
McNay's member page

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