The power of experiential learning in coach training

20th February by Lee Robertson

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In coach training, experiential learning can be more impactful in embedding your learning. Unlike traditional classroom learning where you might learn from being told how to do something, an experiential approach to development puts the aspiring coach in real life situations to help bridge the gap between theory and practice and gets you using your new practical skills straight away.

David Kolb, a renowned educational theorist, introduced Experiential Learning Theory (ELT) in the 1970s. He created a holistic model which revolves around a four-stage learning cycle: concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptulisation and active experimentation. This cycle accentuates the importance of actively engaging with experiences, reflecting on them, conceptulising new ideas and applying newfound knowledge. Its beauty lies in its recognition that learning is a dynamic and fluid process influenced by both internal and external factors.

Experiential learning involves the active engagement of programme participants in real-world experiences, activities and practical situations to gain direct insights and skills through hands-on experience. In the context of coach training, this methodology, which we champion at the AoEC, has proven to be exceptional by fostering a deeper understanding of coaching principles and techniques.

A past graduate of the AoEC’s Advanced Practitioner Diploma, Genevieve Loaker of Mosaic Lives reflected: “One of my favourite aspects of the Advanced Practitioner Diploma was the fact there was so much emphasis on practice. Every module there were multiple opportunities to coach and be coached, to receive and give feedback as well as participate in peer supervision. This approach helped me to embed the learning. I also learnt a great deal from observing others coach – both the faculty and my peers – because every coach brings such a unique dimension to coaching.”

One of the primary advantages of experiential learning in coach training is its ability to close the distance between theory and practice. More traditional training methods have often focused on imparting theoretical knowledge, leaving novice coaches grappling with applying these concepts in real life.

Practitioner Diploma in Executive Coaching graduate Nora Hutson advised: “Look beyond the fees. Online and remote methods may be cheap but there is NOTHING like actively practising, making mistakes and learning from them, under professional supervision. I qualified prior to the pandemic, so this world will have moved on, but I am convinced it was having to practise in class and have pro bono clients which has made all the difference to my coaching. It is a bit like learning a language: you might be able to write and read and parrot, but if you are not making conversation in real time, you can’t really speak the language.”

Experiential learning on the other hand immerses them in simulated coaching sessions and enables them to navigate the challenges and nuances of coaching skills training in a safe and supportive environment. This hands-on approach not only enhances their practical skills but also boosts their confidence in trying out new skills.

Jon Hazan of Atlas Coaching and another graduate of the Practitioner Diploma shared: “Once I was at ease with this, the rest of the course was incredibly positive. I was part of an incredibly supportive cohort. We drew off each other, sharing our past experiences, successes, and challenges along the way. The course structure and teaching style ensured the learning journey was a logical one, building on the steps we were taking and reinforcing our learning along the way. I particularly enjoyed the opportunity to work with practice clients. Whilst initially quite daunting, it served as a vital form of feedback and experimentation.”

Experiential learning in coach training also encourages a reflective and iterative approach to skill development. Coaches engage in real-time coaching sessions, receive personalised feedback from peers and faculty and then have the opportunity to finesse their techniques based on these insights. This cyclical process of action, reflection and refinement can be a powerful mechanism for continuous improvement. It also allows wannabe coaches to identify their strengths, acknowledge areas for development and evolve their own coaching style in a responsible and adaptive manner.

Practitioner Diploma participant Adam MacMillan-Scott emphasised: “Experiential learning is important because you have got to experience it for yourself. That is valuable because you coach each other, and you learn to learn far better that way. You have to be honest and open to challenge.”

The experiential learning model also promotes a holistic understanding of coaching by incorporating emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills. Good, effective coaching stretches beyond just mastering a set of techniques; it requires the ability to connect with individuals on a deeper level. Experiential learning provides coach training participants with the opportunity to hone their emotional intelligence, empathy and active listening skills in a realistic context. These soft skills are often the key differentiators that elevate a coach from being proficient to truly impactful.

Moreover, an experiential learning approach brings a level of authenticity to coach training that is unmatched by traditional training methods. Course participants are not confined to hypothetical case studies and instead, engage with real practice clients or their peers to replicate the complexities of coaching conversations.

AoEC graduate Gabriela Narcue added: “The opportunity to explore the theory at a deeper level, applying it to coaching conversations, having plenty of practice in each session, getting feedback from experts and colleagues, being coached, watch other people coach, and learn from them as well. This helped me identify and address the gaps I had in my coaching practice, elevating my coaching, integrating the theory, embedding it in my practice and using it to define my coaching model moving forwards.”

This authenticity helps prepare coaches for the unpredictable and emergent nature of coaching engagements and instils a sense of responsibility whilst also heightening ethical awareness. Experiencing the challenges and dilemmas inherent in coaching equips aspiring coaches with the tools to navigate ethically ambiguous situations with integrity and professionalism.

The interactive and immersive nature of experiential learning also fosters a sense of community among fledgling coaches. Collaborative learning environments where individuals engage in shared experiences and provide feedback to one another create a supportive network which often extends beyond the training programme itself. Their sense of community is invaluable as they each embark on a professional journey which requires them to be comfortable with diverse perspectives, their own vulnerabilities and to accept support and challenge from their peers.

Peta Simey who did the AoEC’s Practitioner Diploma pointed out: “The fact that the diploma is highly experiential is both a big positive and a challenge. You learn more by taking this approach, but it is inevitably challenging stepping outside your comfort zone and stretching yourself.”

The power of experiential learning in coach training lies in its ability to transform theoretical knowledge into practical competence. By immersing aspiring coaches in live case study or practice client work and triad practice with their contemporaries enriches the overall learning experience by promoting a deeper working understanding of coaching principles, hones essential skills and helps to scope out and define who you are as a coach.