What Doris Day Taught Me About Coaching

Do you have to be a star performer to be a great coach?

When I was a high school drama student, one of our assignments was to read a biography of a famous actor or actress and write a report about it.  I waited until the last minute; the only book left in the drama library was an old paper biography about Doris Day.  I had no idea the profound impact it would have on my business career.

For those too young to know, Doris Day was a famous singer and actress, a perky blonde whose upbeat films were a mainstay of the 50s and 60s.  For me, they were the old movies, and I always found her charming. What I didn’t know until I read her biography was that Day started as a dancer, until a horrible car accident injured her legs.

So how does that relate to coaching?

After Day turned to acting, and her career was on the rise, she was in a movie that required her to dance up and down a large staircase.  She was scared.  She hadn’t danced in years.  One false move, one ankle turn in her high heels, and she would have gone tumbling down the staircase.

But Day had a great dance coach.  Over the course of several weeks during rehearsals Day’s coach demonstrated the moves.  Slowly but surely, Day was able to master the complex choreography, and by the time of filming she was elegantly twirling and whirling up and down stairs in heels and a gown.

When the movie premiered, Day thanked her dance coach profusely saying she could never have done it without her. It was only then the coach revealed what had actually happened.  She said, “Doris, you never realized this, but I never did those moves on the stairs.  I showed you how to do them.  I couldn’t actually do that complex choreography on stairs, but I knew you could.”

I never forgot the story.  The coach couldn’t do the moves herself, but she knew how to coach someone else to excellence.

People often reject coaching when it doesn’t come from a perfect source.  This is a big mistake.

A great editor doesn’t have to be a great writer.  A great marriage counselor doesn’t need to have perfect relationships.  A great sales coach doesn’t need to be the top seller.

Great coaches need to understand the venue.  But they don’t have to be a top performer.  Look at professional sports.  Many of the best coaches were never superstar players, while many great players have bombed as coaches.

That’s because the skills are totally different.  Coaches watch and provide feedback.  Players perform. Superstar players are often such naturals they can’t codify their behavior and translate it to others.  They don’t know why they’re good, so they can’t provide specific coaching to someone who is not a natural.

Coaching is what enables an organization to scale.  Doris Day’s dance coach can improve the performance of hundreds of stars.  But Doris Day is only going to make a few movies a year.

What I learned from Doris Day was ­–– great coaching comes in a lot of forms.  The person does not have to be perfect to provide you with excellent feedback.  If you want to be a star, find good coaches and listen to them.