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Business, Engagement Edition The Helmsman Project: Taking Coaching to a New Level


By: Dr Michael Cavanagh •  4 years ago •  

Dr Michael Cavanagh is both a Coaching and Clinical Psychologist. He holds a BA (Hons) in Psychology from the University of Sydney, and a PhD and Masters of Clinical Psychology from Macquarie University. Michael is currently the Deputy Director of the Coaching Psychology Unit at the University of Sydney, where he has co-developed the world’s first degree programme in coaching.

Michael contributes his expertise as a volunteer for The Helmsman Project and has played an integral role in the program’s design and research evaluation. Michael has coached several groups of young people through the program and is a member of The Helmsman Project’s advisory committee. To find out about coaching on The Helmsman Project, visit:

The Helmsman Project: Taking coaching to a new level

The Helmsman Project represents a new approach to coaching, and one that is taking both coaches and clients to new levels. So what is it all about?

The Helmsman Project is an innovative blend of developmental coaching and adventure education targeted toward Year 9 students who are at danger of not fulfilling their potential. The program is not aimed at either the best kids, or the worst. We are looking to help the invisible kids – those who are most likely to simply fall between the cracks. These students are drawn from schools located in communities affected by disadvantage. At its essence, the program seeks to help the students take bigger perspectives on themselves, others and the world. By doing this we help them build hope, self-regulation and resilience.

So why approach it this way? When you think about the people who have made the most difference in your life, usually they are the people who have seen you in a bigger way than you see yourself. They are not the people who set goals for you or monitored your progress. They are the ones who have helped you see yourself, others and the challenges you face in a bigger, more complex way. As a volunteer for The Helmsman Project, I have witnessed the extraordinary impact a broadened perspective can have on young people

The adventure education component is a core part of the programme. It involves hands-on activities such as hiking, camping and sailing – experiences that can be both physically and mentally demanding. It helps the participants experience themselves in a way that is different to their everyday life and enables them to see themselves as capable of setting and achieving stretching goals. This perspective is a prerequisite for hope and self-regulation. Resilience also comes from the understanding that one can experience failure and setbacks and still keep striving. It is this bigger, more expansive, perspective on themselves and the world that is so necessary to navigate life’s challenges.

The program runs for one school year. Participants are challenged to set personal goals for themselves and, as a team, to develop and implement a community project. This adds another element critical to achieving one’s potential – the ability to work with others on something that is bigger than themselves. In working toward these goals, participants’ perspectives begin to include others and consider the impact their actions can have on the world.

But it is not just the long-term goals that are important in the program. Participants have to work in the here and now, learn to adapt and consider the consequences of their choices. For example, when participants are hiking in the bush, they need to quickly learn how to navigate, how to resolve disputes about which direction the team should go, and how to push through exhaustion to get to the campsite before dark. The feedback from their efforts is immediate and they have to adapt based on the consequences of their actions.

However, just placing people in a novel and challenging situation is not enough. We know this from our work with corporate clients. This is where the coaching comes in. For these experiences to have long-term impact, it is important that coaches take part in the adventure education and support the participants to make meaning of their experiences. This allows them to experience the lessons on offer in the adventure education, and generalise them back to their day to day lives.

The challenges of adventure education provide great opportunities for reflection and help young people experience themselves in a new way, achieving things they never imagined possible. Importantly, the developmental coaching also helps the students notice and make sense of patterns in their thoughts and responses and in the way they interact with each other and the challenges. The reflective process used in the coaching scaffolds a new understanding that opens up a wider range of choices for responding, which is aided by coaches and involves understanding what happened and making meaning of that by bringing in wider perspectives. From here, participants are challenged to consider what the implications of this may be. As a coach, I find this invaluable for the development process.

It’s not just young people who benefit from a mix of adventure education and developmental coaching. We have used similar processes with teams of executives and found them to be effective. This approach works for adults for the same reasons that it works for young people. Putting people in situations that are outside their comfort zones and that place new demands on them helps them to see the world in a different way. It also highlights dynamics that exist within teams, which can be particularly important when coaching in workplaces.

The community project aspect of the program is just as critical to life skill development as adventure education. Increased engagement and wellbeing, key goals of the program, come not just from working on your own development, you need to be involved in something bigger than yourself. Carrying out a community project provides young people with this experience, and helps them see they can have an impact on the world.

What difference does the programme make? A couple of examples can illustrate this. One group of girls we worked with initially could not see themselves as having anything useful to contribute to their school or community. By the end of the program this group of girls had produced a creative, informative science show for an audience of sick children, parents and staff at Westmead Children’s Hospital. Behind the scenes, this included putting together a project brief, budget, plan of action, and pitching for funding in front of a panel of adults. To me, this demonstrated the girls’ ability to see themselves differently and it was a clear sign of the program’s success. In another school one of our graduates went on to become school captain, while another now leads the school choir. When they started the program, these sorts of aspirations were not even a distant possibility.

Developmental coaching, from a psychological perspective, is about helping people to meet challenges that that are not possible given their current way of viewing the world. According to developmental psychologist, Jean Piaget, challenges can be dealt with in two ways. The first he called Assimilation: Here the person fits the challenge into their current view of the world – treating it as if it just another example of something they already know. This enables them move on but does not help them build a more useful, expansive view of the world.

The second way challenges can be faced is via Accommodation. This requires the person to develop a bigger, more complex, perspective on the issue in order to solve it well. By presenting young people with the challenge of developing and implementing a project that will create a positive impact on their community, The Helmsman

Project strives to facilitate accommodation.

For any type of coaching, understanding motivation is essential for helping clients work towards their goals. The Helmsman Project uses a variant of Vroom’s Expectancy Theory of motivation to help young people set and achieve goals. According to Expectancy Theory, motivation towards a goal is a function of three things:

(1) Interest in the goal

(2) The ability to picture a pathway towards that goal, and

(3) The ability to picture yourself on that path.

As a coaches we work with the participants on these three areas.

Another strategy to broaden young people’s perspective of the opportunities available to them is to foster their development of a growth mindset. Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck developed the theory of Mindsets, and it helps to explain one reason people don’t always reach their potential.

According to Dweck, there are two types of mindset: Fixed and Growth. People with a fixed mindset believe that their capacities (personality traits, intelligence and abilities) are static, and fixed by nature. They believe that people have certain talents and that these can’t be changed. As a result, people with fixed mindsets are hesitant to undertake challenges they don’t think they have the natural ability to overcome. Furthermore, they see effort and struggle as indicating they are in some way deficient. So they avoid challenges that are difficult.

On the other hand, people with a growth mindset, see their personal attributes as something that can be developed. Struggle and effort are therefore valued as necessary for development. By helping young people develop a growth mindset, the Helmsman Project is able to have a long term impact on how they respond to the challenges life holds in store for them.

Changes in mindset and perspective manifest in many different ways for the teenagers I have coached through The Helmsman Project. When I asked one boy what changed for him through the program, he told me that he hadn’t been in detention since the program started. This particular boy had previously been in detention 3 times a week, but had remained detention free for the last 5 months. Through a change in his perspective, this young man was able to see himself as worth more than misbehaving. It showed he had really developed his self-regulatory skills as a result of this new perspective.

Outcomes like this are common at The Helmsman Project and while the program is designed to help young people affected by disadvantage develop life skills (hope, self-regulation and resilience) and broaden their horizons, the manifestation of these developments is different for each young participant. The benefits might include, as we have heard from teachers and parents, increased interest in school, reduced absenteeism, improved engagement in the classroom, boosts in confidence, improved ability to work as team, as well as many other educational and personal benefits.

The coaches too do not go unchanged. We provide them with free training in developmental coaching and free supervision. Speaking personally, this coaching has been one of the most important developmental activities I have done. I know many of the coaches would (and do) say the same. We are better coaches for our involvement with The Helmsman Project.

As a coach, I am continuously inspired by these stories of change, each reminding me that broadening someone’s horizon is the single greatest impact a coach can have on someone’s life long term.

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