Why we need as many words for ‘coaching’ as the Sámi have for ‘snow’

As the snow fell recently while walking on Exmoor, I was taken back briefly to the many winter months spent training in Norway’s Arctic Circle. It is the most challenging, yet most rewarding environment I have worked in. Such harsh conditions demand the very best of you and those around you.

It also necessitates clarity of purpose and language to ensure what is said is understood and acted on appropriately. Lives depend upon it, and it is why the Sámi people, of northern Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia, have more than 180 words related to snow and ice.

The nuances of a word provide greater contextual insight and help deeper understanding, rather than remaining simply as ‘snow’.

But how has this got anything to do with coaching?

The word ‘coaching’, like snow, on its own, has a wide meaning and is open to personal interpretation. We need to be clearer on the purpose of coaching and how we describe it, because the deeper our understanding the more powerful it becomes in helping us, like the Sámi, live and work more effectively.

The Cambridge Dictionary’s definition of coaching is short and simple: “the job or activity of providing training for people or helping to prepare them for something”. Yet such simplicity means people often confuse coaching with  mentoring, counselling, therapy, training, consultancy, teaching, or just plain good leadership.

Business coaching is invariably defined as a ‘process used to take a business from where it is now to where the business owner wants to be’ or ‘a process that enhances a client’s behaviour and performance within the context of business.

Organisational coaching aims at ‘fostering positive, systemic transformation within organisations’ or ‘to develop businesses through their people, focusing on the human dynamics, with the aim of working together to increase productivity and create a happier workforce’.

Sports coaching – which was the precursor to business coaching in the 1970s – can be defined as the process of motivating, guiding, and training an individual in preparation for any sporting event, which in itself begins to confuse coaching with training and guiding. It also places an absolute intention on performance, yet coaching is about so much more than this.

Then there are different definitions for life coaching, and confusion as to when a teacher is a coach when a coach is a consultant, as well as the well-used phrase ‘the leader as coach’.

While these limited descriptions of ‘coaching’ make it easy to pick a product off the shelf, they tend to be narrow inputs rather than tailored solutions to meet a personal or business need. This hardly helps organisations looking to create a coaching culture, to use coaching for support empowerment, or coaching to enable transformation.

For me, in whatever guise, coaching is about creating a better tomorrow whether that be through sports, business or wellbeing, merely improving insight on an issue, becoming happy with oneself or a situation, or about the performance of an individual or organisation.

So, until we have 180+ words for coaching, as the Sámi have for snow, we need to think carefully about the purpose of coaching. And a good coach can help you do that. Only then can it be tailored to create a better tomorrow.

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