What An Australian Cartoon Taught Me About Coaching

I’ve found myself doing some unusual things during quarantine.

I’ve picked up my guitar and have been practicing religiously. I went for a 3 mile run over the weekend. I’m day drinking more often.

And since the playground in my neighborhood still isn’t open (come ON, HOA) and Chuck E. Cheese has about as good a chance of reopening as I do of becoming a vegan, I’ve found myself watching more cartoons with my kid.

One that Disney Junior has been running very often is called “Bluey” which is about a family with a Mom, Dad and two kids. The family happens to be dogs. Dogs with Australian accents. I can watch this shit all day.

A recent episode had the Dad taking the two kids along with a couple of cousins (cocker spaniels, no less) to the park for the afternoon. The episode center’s around Bluey trying to learn to ride his bike and really struggling with it. He comes to his Dad, who is relaxing on a park bench – as Dad’s tend to do – to complain about it.

When he gets to his Dad they both observe that each of the other family members are also struggling with something they are trying to accomplish. One dog can’t quite figure out the monkey bars. One dog is spinning in a circle trying to get her second backpack strap on. One dog is too small to both push the button on the water fountain and get a drink.

Bluey, being a sweet dog, wants to go help. And that is very kind and exactly what would happen in an American version of the same cartoon. Bluey saves the day. Everyone talks about how helpful Bluey is. Role credits.

But just as foreign films tend to be more artsy and have deeper meanings (at least that’s what people tell me), apparently foreign cartoons are a bit more nuanced as well. Because Bluey’s Dad encourages him to wait and see what happens.

For the next 5 minutes we cut to each dog in the midst of a struggle. The one dog keeps jumping for the monkey bars and falling into the sand pit below. The backpack dog is flipping every which way trying to get that darn second strap on. The last dog is stretching her body trying to press the button and get a drink.

The Dad and Bluey keep a watchful eye on all of them. The entire time the Dad telling Bluey to give them all space. To see what happens. To let them figure it out.

And after a few rounds of failure with the Dad and Bluey shouting encouragement from the comfort of the park bench, they all eventually get it. The one spaniel learns that if she lays on her back she can slide right into her backpack. Shimming up the pole next to the monkey bars gets the one dog just high enough to grab the first ring. The final dog holds down the button until the water basin fills up and overflows, allowing her to drink the water as it spills over the sides.

Witnessing this stick-to-it attitude inspires Bluey to get back on his bike and give it another try.

By the time the episode was over, my kid was in the kitchen looking for a snack while I found myself captivated by what I just saw. You can read your John Wooden books and watch Remember The Titans all day long, but in this short 8 minutes these cartoonists just delivered a master class in coaching.

As coaches we want to give everyone the answers. It makes us feel smart and helpful. It delivers value. It makes clients feel like they need us and keeps them coming back for more. But a great coach, like Bluey’s Dad, understands the value of letting the client figure it out on their own. To give them some slack. To be supportive but not overbearing. And that experience will yield more permanent results and confidence than shouting out 7 different cues about bar path or foot pressure or whatever.

There is huge (HUGE!) value in having a coach. OF training around other people. Of having that guide your experience. We preach those values every chance we get.

But while “teaching a man to fish” still involves teaching, it is he who ultimately has to throw in the line. And while it seems counterintuitive, clients will value you more if you make them part of the process.

As for me, I’m not sure what else this “new normal” will bring. But I do find myself willing to explore playing new musical styles and trying new fitness modalities. And, while I’m not actually day drinking, I’ve finally gotten to the point where I down an entire can of cider without immediately having to lay down.

And I didn’t even need a Australian cartoon dog to help me figure that out.