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The inside story on using mind coaching to unlock people’s potential

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Prison cells

Clare McGregor has overwhelming evidence that coaching can radically change lives in any environment, from a sport setting to the prison system. As Managing Director of charity Coaching Inside and Out (CIAO), she has 25 years’ experience working with people who are severely socially excluded. Mind coaching, she says, is all about helping other people think for themselves to solve their own problems. And here is her inspirational story.

  • Employing mind coaching’s psychological principles can have a transformative effect, helping people get to the root of their problems.
  • The key to mind coaching is to question people’s answers rather than answer people’s questions.
  • Use the BALL acronym (Believe, Ask, Listen, Learn) as a useful framework to support people to change and unlock their potential.

Modern sports coaches operate under an increasingly diverse remit, providing a spectrum of services that benefit physical well-being, mental well-being, individual development, social and community development and economic development – the much publicised five Government outcomes for sport and physical activity.

The skill-sets coaches possess are equally extensive, meaning there is huge potential for them to move between sectors to make full use of their transferrable talents.

In the 21st century, we live in a global world where people hop from country to country with the utmost ease. Wouldn’t it be great if sports coaches operated in similar fashion, using their breadth of knowledge to help people in a range of settings outside their regular sphere of interest?

In her keynote speech at the inaugural UK Coaching Applied Coaching Research Conference in Manchester, Clare explored the overlaps that exist between the coaching worlds.

And she is hoping the prolonged success of using mind coaching to help marginalised people in society can inspire sports coaches to take this leap of faith and reach out ‘beyond the usual suspects’.

‘I want to increase the number of coaches who work with people who are socially excluded,’ she said. ‘All coaches could be using their skills in slightly different settings and that includes taking mind coaching into the physical coaching arena as well.’

Helping people help themselves

Mind coaching is a term Clare uses to refer to the psychology behind who we are, and which is integral to everything we do. And it is the central concept on which Coaching Inside and Out was founded.

‘Coaching is all about thinking, about helping other people think for themselves to solve their own problems,’ said Clare, expanding on the definition. ‘People are in control of their own lives. They have the answers, not us.

‘Mind coaching helps people realise that life is not always a downwards spiral. We really can change our own lives.’

Employing the soft skill principles of mind coaching (positive attitude, communication skills, emotional intelligence, motivational and interpersonal skills) to engage deeply with those under your charge can have a transformative effect. It can work any time, any place, anywhere and help anyone, including the most vulnerable members of our society.

Clare quoted several testimonials from mind coaching beneficiaries who powerfully articulate its effectiveness as a criminal justice intervention method.

One former inmate said: ‘If I’d had coaching earlier I think it would have stopped me coming to prison. I think it would have saved my life – it has saved my life.’

Another former client added: ‘People do things because of the hand they were dealt… now I’m putting my cards back in the pack and giving them a good shuffle.’

Clare McGregor

Breaking the vicious cycle

Clare’s experiences serve as a valuable lesson to those working in the sport and physical activity sector of the benefits of blending their own techniques used to develop life skills with mind coaching methods to help radically alter people’s behaviour and perspective on life.

‘Mind coaching allows someone to step back and consider their whole life, so that they can make the most of their time on this planet whether they’re on a sports pitch, in a boardroom or locked in a cell,’ she said.

For anyone who feels they have been sentenced to a life of inequality or hardship, it holds the key to a better life and a way out of the vicious cycle that has consumed them.

Coaches can help people understand that they are the ones holding the key that unlocks the door to a bright new world. As their coach you are there to support them, not direct them, through the mental maze that leads to this gateway to a better life.

‘Coaches help clients move forwards, getting to the root of their problems, beliefs and hopes by asking questions rather than answering them’, said Clare. ‘It is a non-directive role, as we don’t know anyone else’s life better than they do.’

The key to unlocking our potential

Clare’s book Coaching Behind Bars: Facing Challenges and Creating Hope in a Women’s Prison, details her experiences working with inmates of some of Her Majesty’s establishments, primarily Styal Prison, near Manchester.

In her presentation she summarised some of the chapters to delegates, beginning by pondering the question, why do we end up where we are in life? She said luck plays a pivotal part and that we are, in many respects, a victim of circumstance.

Clare attended boarding school in near Reading before going on to study at Newnham College – University of Cambridge. Regarding her privileged upbringing, she freely acknowledges she had ‘one of the best educations in the world’.

But she also reasons that, if you have been born into privilege, it is in no way reflective of who you are as a person.

‘We are all given our share of gifts, whether that’s academic ability or sporting prowess through nature and nurture, but it’s the less obvious gifts, such as our determination, our ability to keep going under adversity, our desire to improve, that are shaped by people, opportunities and events,’ she said.

‘So the people you meet along the way – the trainer and the coach who shout encouragements, even the strangers we bump into in the street or on the train – can all change our lives for the better.’

Essential advice for coaches: Ask don’t tell

It was while working as a volunteer at a homeless shelter in Cambridge during her student days that she realised she wanted to help people on a full-time career basis.

What she did not fully appreciate until she was 30 was that giving advice to people in need was not the best way to go about helping them.

‘People use the phrase walk in someone else’s shoes. But you can’t be someone else; you haven’t lived their life or experienced their unthinkable pain. So to judge someone else without living their life, well, we are really missing a trick.’

That coaches must be hyper-careful not to judge is one of the most indispensable lessons she has learnt during her years working with people in crisis – which, besides those convicted of an offence and at risk of offending, have included those working on or sleeping on the streets, long-term unemployed people and those with poor physical and mental health.

And her experiences have led her to believe, with ever-increasing conviction, that: ‘There is more potential in any one prison than there is in any Oxbridge college, and it’s high time we unlocked that potential.’

Clare McGregor

Clare answers delegates' questions at the UK Coaching Research Conference alongside fellow panel members, UK Coaching CEO Mark Gannon, left, and Leeds Beckett University Professor Ben Jones

Grab the BALL by the horns

Clare encourages coaches to use the acronym BALL as a model for supporting people to change and unlock their potential.

It can be used as a simple framework for working out who the individual in front of you is and to inform the type of questions that will best help them change what they want:

  • Believe other people have their own answers, and that you do not know better than they do what their life is like.
  • Ask questions in a way that helps people realise their own solutions, helping slowly build their confidence and competence.
  • Listen; really listen to what others have to say, ‘from every bone in their body’.
  • Learn about others and yourselves.

‘It can take just six seconds to ask a great question that shatters someone’s illusions for life,’ said Clare.

Clare hopes her story, and the stories told by those she has encountered on her journey, might cause a ripple of interest among the sports coaching community, persuading some to expand their repertoire of skills and expand the range of people they help with their coaching.

For those who can swallow the urge to share the benefit of their great coaching wisdom, and can make a habit of questioning people’s answers rather than answering people’s questions, the results can be life-changing.

As Clare concluded: ‘Our clients gain self-belief and hope, take responsibility, reduce the harm they do to themselves and others, take up education, get clean, get fit, get jobs, start their own businesses and look for more ways to help others, including becoming coaches themselves. And all that happens without us giving any advice whatsoever.’

Further reading

To read more about the ‘mind coaching’ strategies used by Clare, read the article Personal Reflections of Coaching Behind Bars in UK Coaching’s Applied Coaching Research Journal (Pages 44-49)

If you are interested in coaching in the prison system, you can find more information on the Clinks website.

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