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Leon Taylor combines mentoring and high-performance experience with a passion for mental wellness to deliver sustainable high-performance built on long-term mental wellness. An elite athlete, Leon participated in three Olympic Games and won Silver at the 2004 Athens Olympics before going on to graduate from the AoEC’s Practitioner Diploma in Executive Coaching. Now working with leaders and entrepreneurs, Leon very kindly took time out to talk about his busy and hugely inspiring coaching work.
You have a stellar CV as an Olympic Silver medallist, the BBC’s voice of diving, mentor to TeamGB and ParalympicsGB athletes and executive coach. What or who introduced you to coaching and led you to enrol in the AoEC’s Practitioner Diploma programme?
My background is in sport and I don’t even remember a time where I did not have a coach. Some of my earliest memories from learning to swim are of being coached. In sports of course coaches are an important part of the tapestry and you can’t make improvements without coaching, so it’s been a part of my life for as long as I can remember.
Coaching has been so important to my development in my sporting career, that it made sense when I came out the other side for me to have that kind of input for others. I started off working with other mentors, finding people in different industries and learning from them. Then I started to mentor young athletes myself and give something back.
At that time, which was the end of my diving career and into my post-sport career, I was speaking at lots of events to teams and entire organisations around different topics - areas such as mindset, dealing with adversity and mentoring. When I was delivering speeches or workshops I would often get asked ‘Leon, do you do executive coaching?’. And I would say no, although I had been building these skills for some time.
Those questions came at a point where I’d had enough time on the other side of sport to feel that I could navigate the new corporate world, and I felt it was right to then explore this notion, being mature and having enough behind me. I feel that it’s advantageous to have lived a little in order to be able to reflect and use all of the amazing skills we have as coaches.
It was a good friend of mine who asked me if I had considered studying and he highly recommended the AoEC. I found out a little more about the structure of the course - the finer details - and to be honest as soon as I connected with the AoEC I was in.
What would be your top piece of advice for anyone thinking about doing professional coach training?
Don’t get too distracted by marketing material. Do your research, and do it with a range of real people that you know, who have been through the course and find out directly from them what their experience of it was.
My other recommendation is to start coaching right away, even before you start the course. What you learn as you are coaching is so valuable to start to exploring, to be able to refine, be able to go off and test. It comes down to practice, practice, practice.
If you can coach people (everyone loves the offer of free coaching) it is such a good opportunity to find out where your strengths are and where you are a little bit lacking. Then you can start to relate the learnings from the course to your real experience. Start coaching in a safe environment to start work on your skills and familiarise yourself with the process, then you’ll get much more out of the programme.
What personal qualities and values do you bring to your coaching work?
My approach is a combination of support and challenge. I feel you need an element of both to get the most out of someone you’re working with. A high level of accountability is something very familiar from my days of being an elite athlete, but honesty, respect, and kindness are so important too, because you’re never going to have success without those three qualities.
Also, I like coaching to be fun. My style is quite unorthodox and I’m upfront about this at the beginning of the relationship with a client so that they know to expect the unusual - I get their attention and get the result. It gives it a playful aspect, but always with a focus on what we are trying to achieve together, and how I am trying to create independence for the person I am working with.
What does your personal coaching model entail and how has this evolved since completing the diploma?
In my coaching offering I use biometrics to map stress. Stress has been defined by the World Health Organisation as global epidemic, and psychological stress is the enemy to our mental wellness. I did a lot of research for my TEDX Talk in 2018 which was specifically focussed on how to manage your mental health and how we combat stress.
I map stress by using subjective and objective measures as well as looking at the biometrics when I’m coaching. It gives a very rich, personalised data which is key when I’m working with people on their habits and behavioural change.
My model has shifted - I used to be performance focused due to my years in sport, now I’ve broadened that. Performance can only be built on a foundation of wellness. I start with a focus on wellness to give my clients the opportunity to identify their stressors, and then we do something about it. From that foundation, we can move onto performance and ultimately, resilience.
To map, I look at three elements – expectation, reaction, and attribution.
Expectation is, for example, a client preparing for a pitch – it’s ‘in the moment’ performance coaching.
Reaction relies on my years of teaching yoga and meditation, it’s about how to maintain composure under pressure or during unusual, stressful circumstances.
Attribution is how one makes meaning of your own performance, and how that fuels the next cycle as you continue onto the next endeavour.
My coaching career has been an evolution of what I learned on the diploma and how I have since been able to apply that in the real world.
Mental health issues are very close to your heart as you candidly discuss in your TEDX Talk. How are you using the link between physical movement and mental health in your coaching work?
The two big passions I have are mindset coaching, and movement. My own personal story is testament to discovering the importance of movement. When I was preparing for my TedX Talk, I was deep-diving into research and what I was sensed was that we spend too much time stuck in our heads and not enough time in our bodies.
We over-think, and thinking is often not the solution to our problems. The easiest way to get out of your head and into your body is through physical movement. There is a lot of research material now that shows that physical movement changes everything – it can boost your mood, shift your state and in the long-term, physical movement can change the shape of your brain – specifically around the hippocampus, the control centre - it reduces biological, psychological stress.
It’s not about running marathons, but it is about moving little and often. That can be all we need to disrupt stress, safeguard our mental health and improve our mental fitness. It can be just as simple as that, and the health benefits both physically and mentally, are incredible.
Who are you typically offering one-to-one coaching to?
When I look at the people I work with I can see that it’s actually quite organic in terms of how that group grows. The chemistry is so important for me because I only take on a limited number of clients. That’s the way I like to work because with a high level of accountability, there is quite a lot of contact time.
For me, it’s about how the coachee shows up, and I really get a feel for that in the initial meeting. They’re all people who want to ‘go after it’ and there are certain common qualities and attributes amongst them. It could be a business owner, or a leader who needs someone to challenge them. Often, as an athlete I would find that I would be advised by a lot of different people, it could be lonely and I sometimes felt that no-one understood me. It’s easy to fall into patterns which are not serving you, and you need someone brave next to you who has permission to call you out on things. I think that is my role as a coach.
Some of the people I’m working with who are in that leadership position might ask for feedback from their team, but the people around them will say ‘yes, you are doing great boss!’ because of the dynamic. They need someone to say ‘here is the mirror, are you OK with that?’.
What are some of the issues you coach clients around?
The real stuff! People often come to me with an idea of what they want to achieve by way of performance, career progression or expansion but we start at the foundation of wellness – what is getting in your way, what are your stressors, what are the things which are serving and not serving you? We look at mental health and fitness, and movement plays an important part in my coaching.
People are mostly interested to get a steer on both mindset coaching and movement. I am also a qualified personal trainer and yoga teacher, so my coaching will always feature helpful habits around movement, meditation and breathing. I offer practical and precise evidence-based skills to improve wellness and if you improve that, you can improve your performance.
I also help with public speaking, which can be key to unlocking someone’s potential and helping them to level up. Interpersonal relationships is another one – finding ways of working with people you might not like, at all different levels.
Other common themes are habit change and sleep. Sleep is so important and massively overlooked. It is more in the spotlight now, but improving the quality of our sleep is fundamental to improving our wellness, and ultimately our performance. The biometrics I use give me a window into the quality of sleep and recovery for those that I coach (and myself).
Whilst respecting confidentiality, can you tell us about a coaching situation that had an impact on you?
I was surprised at how this particular relationship developed. I was asked to coach the head of a team – I was told he was struggling a bit and the decision makers felt that my performance coaching would really resonate with him. The situation turned out to be very different to how I could have predicted.
When we had our first conversation, I discovered that he was not just struggling, but that he was really suffering. For the past ten years he had been under the treatment of a psychiatrist for bipolar disorder and initially, I questioned how I would engage with this situation.
The medication he was taking was negatively affecting his mood, and he had also gained weight. This was fuelling a pattern of increasing tendency to be depressed and then manic. He was getting frustrated and the psychiatrist was looking to increase his medication - he was very resistant, his work was being affected and he was struggling at home.
The way we approached it was to look at a series of interventions, but the one that made the biggest difference was the conversation around movement. He told me that when he was younger, he used to love to run and I asked him to tell me about it. We gently started to focus on running - if it had worked for him in the past, then it would be great to bring it into his routine now - what would that look like?
Over the six months that we worked together he built up his habit of running regularly. He joined a local running club and ultimately, under my guidance he was entering half marathons and had his wife and children cheering him on from the side-lines.
With regularity of physical movement he saw so many benefits – his weight dropped and he was able under the care of his psychiatrist to reduce his medication, which further boosted his mood. When he was moving well and moving with joy, everything started to improve for him. He became much more mentally healthy and it was a joy to see him thrive.
During the COVID-19 crisis you have been running Mindset and Movement with Leon. Can you tell us a little more about what that involves and the kind of results you are seeing?
Everything I had scheduled and was looking forward to, like the Olympic Games in Tokyo for example, was postponed or cancelled, and honestly, I went into a tail spin. First of all I was angry, then I was in denial and then I went into a state of sadness where I was not sleeping well. I was waking up with a pit of anxiety in my stomach and I knew that my mental health was really suffering.
I shifted towards acceptance with a nudge from a few coaches in my network, and then a quote jumped out at me - ‘What has happened is uncontrollable, what you do now changes everything’. I was not OK with the situation, far from it, because I recognised how utterly devastating it was for so many people, but I came to accept my own, fortunate circumstances.
I thought about what I could do to help other people who would definitely be feeling like I was. What would happen if I brought my two passions of mindset and movement together and shared them online? I didn’t know where to start or even how to use Zoom, but that quote spurred me on - I wanted to contribute to peoples’ health, happiness, and performance.
So, I designed a workout for the mind and body. It is a beautiful combination of a practical mindset coaching tool that can be immediately used as part of a routine to navigate stress, and some movements to get the body going. Then I use yoga for integration, and finally a guided relaxation. The intention is to allow people to finish the session even more resourceful.
It has been truly wonderful, because it has given me a huge focus, a massive sense of purpose and the intrinsic reward I get from the connection keeps a spring in my step during these very challenging times.
What has coaching taught you about yourself and other people?
Coaching is such a rewarding relationship and I suppose it has taught me that you never really know what is going on for someone else.
The ability to have a coaching conversation takes you deeper, to really find out how you can support and challenge someone. I think everyone needs a coach, especially coaches! I think we are doing a great job in the UK to make sure people understand the benefits of coaching, and that it does not need to be remedial. It has pushed me to learn about myself and increase my self-awareness of my own patterns. When you’re coaching someone, you bump up against your own stuff all the time and I am always curious to learn about where my own edges are and the areas of resistance I am coming up against. I am inspired to work in an industry where I can contribute to people’s wellness and performance and it’s something that provides me with a lot of joy.
What do you find most challenging and most rewarding about your work as a coach?
The most challenging thing is staying out of my own way, as a coach with a default behaviour of trying to fix things – that’s something I constantly remind myself - that I am not here to advise or to tell people what to do.
Being part of someone else’s adventure is the most rewarding thing. The feeling when they progress, succeed and step forward into their potential is definitely the best bit.
Our deepest thanks to Leon for sharing his experience of coach training and personal journey.
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