Looking at Agile Coaching and Sports Coaching

Photo by Greg Goebel

Photo by Greg Goebel

It’s common for agile coaches to be compared to sports coaches. Coaches fill a well-recognized role in sports, and many people have had some real experience on a sports team with a coach. In fact, I often see Scrum Masters or Agile Coaches being represented in diagrams as the person with a hat and a whistle, suggesting the sports coach metaphor. It’s a great comparison to explain how a Scrum Master or Agile Coach is typically outside the “software development game”—just as a sports coach is not scoring the points, this agile role is not hands-on in creating the product.

As I think about my experience on a sports team as a kid, I remember my softball coach showing me how to hold a bat, how to position my feet, and how to swing the bat in order to hit a ball. It was awkward and mechanical at first. And that’s where the metaphor of a sports coach starts to bother me. We could spend a lot of time teaching a team the mechanics of every agile event or artifact--it would be overwhelming for the team to absorb and apply. One aspect of agile coaching is teaching. There’s also mentoring, facilitating, and coaching. Many people say that an agile coach initially teaches the team, and as they mature, the coach moves into more of a facilitating or coaching stance. That is one way a coach can work. It’s possible to facilitate or coach much earlier in a team’s agile adoption without all of the upfront mechanics lessons. Sir John Whitmore illustrates the differences between coaching and instruction in a video about tennis.

Rather than spend more time upfront teaching and explaining how something is to be done step-by-step, a coach can help a team explore their experience of doing something. The coach deepens the team’s awareness of what they’re doing and how to do it differently. In doing so, the team owns the way something is done from the beginning, learns to recognize what is working and what is not, and is engaged in thinking of options to improve. The team is doing and learning from doing. The inspect and adapt cycle that we encourage in teams is introduced from the beginning. Imagine how a team might embrace agile then!

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.