I recently read an article in the New Yorker about the value of professional coaching. Written by a surgeon who wondered why more people in his profession didn’t employ coaches to help them keep honing their skills, he described two discrete attitudes about training: one found in sports, another in music. We expect athletes to have coaches because the understanding is that to sustain high athletic performance, you need someone who keeps you at your best. On the other hand, here’s what the author, Atul Gawande, says about how musicians train:
“The coaching model is different from the traditional conception of pedagogy, where there’s a presumption that, after a certain point, the student no longer needs instruction. You graduate. You’re done. You can go the rest of the way yourself. This is how élite musicians are taught. Barbara Lourie Sand’s book “Teaching Genius” describes the methods of the legendary Juilliard violin instructor Dorothy DeLay. DeLay was a Perkins-like figure who trained an amazing roster of late-twentieth-century virtuosos, including Itzhak Perlman, Nigel Kennedy, Midori, and Sarah Chang. They came to the Juilliard School at a young age—usually after they’d demonstrated talent but reached the limits of what local teachers could offer. They studied with DeLay for a number of years, and then they graduated, launched like ships leaving drydock. She saw her role as preparing them to make their way without her.”
Now, as a writer, I see the benefits of coaching every day. Not only do I rely on a small group of colleagues to help me “hear myself” better, but there is of course my wonderful editor, who offers another great model of professional coaching. But what this article actually made me think of first was parenting, and whether it’s more of a coaching-style role, or, as with musicians, a launching effort, where you get in all the training you can for a precious few years, and then your little birds fly.
It seems to me that American society has a prejudice toward the musician style of training for parents. I’m always reading one article or another about kids who fail to launch, with some vague sense of blame for their overindulgent parents. But as I prepare for the wedding of my son this summer, I’ve been thinking about this question – what is the role of a parent of adults?
My parents were definitely coaches. Though my father died ten years ago, I still think of some of the best advice he gave me, long after I was married and raising kids of my own. It still works. As for my mother, who lives close by, I’ll refer to her here as the Wise Admiral, because she’s wise, obviously, but also because she’s always known how to run a tight ship. She continues to be a font of very practical coaching for me as a parent and as a human being. The crucial thing about good coaching is, you know when to step back. As my editor said to me recently – in the end, it’s your story.
In the end, each person writes his or her own story. But that doesn’t mean that when you hit eighteen, or go off to college, or graduate, or get married, it has to just be: well kid, it’s been swell. Goodbye and good luck.
We can all benefit from a couple good coaches in our lives.