Coaching and the benefits to physiotherapists

Physio and life coach Joanna Turner explains how coaching could help members who are unhappy in any personal or professional situation

Coach and physio Joanna Turner

As a physiotherapist of more than 20 years, and co-director of Courtyard Clinic in Gloucestershire, I have spent most of my career in MSK, with special interests in  pain-management and a movement-based approach to rehabilitation. More recently, I have trained as a life coach. Bringing the most relevant parts of coaching back to my roots as a therapist enables me to support clinicians, and be a passionate advocate for positive change with a more compassionate culture in healthcare.

Coaching can mean many different things to many different people – from training a sports team to consulting in business. Within physiotherapy, we can often recognise coaching principles in our clinical practice. In the context of this article, coaching is a process to help if you are unhappy in any personal or professional situation and are struggling to find a way through it by yourself.  

Let’s say you are looking to make a career change. You might scour job advertisements, ask friends for recommendations, maybe sign up to a course that will make you a more attractive candidate. But what about you, the actual person searching?

Are you someone with a broad skill-set, comfortable with risk who enjoys creating? Or do you like to be part of a structured system, knowing exactly where you fit because you’re clear on the things you do better than other people? What would joy at work look like? When do you feel at your best? What legacy do you want to leave?

Maybe you’ve asked yourself these questions, although perhaps not in so many words. But do you follow through with an answer? Do you challenge your first ideas which might be based on beliefs you’ve held for so long they feel like the truth? Mostly we opt for a comfortable default response, or we enter a process of rumination, never reaching a conclusion. Like being on the slow-spin cycle of a washing machine, we don’t get to the moment of action.

You could think of coaching as an intervention in this process. If you present an issue to a coach, they will often repeat your words back to you – it’s amazing how different they can sound coming from someone else’s mouth. They will ask careful questions to help you rigorously investigate your own beliefs by ‘holding up a mirror’. A coach won’t often give you answers or offer solutions, and this is a crucial difference between coaching in our world of therapy, or mentoring. Instead, they will use tools and exercises to help you uncover the things that are genuinely important and right for you in your life. 

It can be enlightening to discover patterns we didn’t even see, let alone how they might be affecting the course of your life. Once you’ve decided on a course of action, maybe just the first few steps towards a goal, your coach will hold you accountable, not like a schoolteacher ticking off tasks but to help you see where you’re stuck, because you’ve probably been stuck there before and finding your way through that resistance might be the key to  big change.

MSK physiotherapist Helen Preston, who has a particular interest in treating patients in persistent pain, has run a private multidisciplinary clinic in Peterborough since 2000. She explains why she wanted help via coaching:

“I have always been curious to learn more about myself. It’s what I help patients do to help with their pain and I am a big believer in walking the talk. During the pandemic, I had to temporarily shut my business and it led me to evaluate my life’s path in a way I never would have allowed myself before. I wanted the great pause of Covid to have a legacy that would help me feel happier juggling all my balls – personally and professionally. At times, I would feel like a martyr to it. Like many physios, I have a real tendency to over-function and I could tell this approach to life would tip me into burnout if I did not seek help through coaching. 

“The alarm bells were ringing. It is taking time to examine what makes you the human you are, and that can be uncomfortable. It is easier to stay in the fast lane, not checking the blind spot, until of course something crops up in that blind spot and an almighty crash occurs.”

Joanna adds that in healthcare, we are generally people who like to care and who went into our profession to support others. Blind spots might be things like over-giving without discretion, dismissing our own needs, finding it difficult to accept care from others, getting stuck in the qualification trap so always feeling like you’re just one more course away from feeling ‘good enough’. The crash might be a realisation that you no longer feel joy in your work, becoming overwhelmed or at worst, burned out. 

Burnout is a term we unfortunately hear with increasing frequency in relation to healthcare, even before Covid-19. But it should not be an expected outcome of working in a modern healthcare system. Many are calling for a shift in the culture of our professions, looking beyond degrees, courses, and job titles for validation. Making it okay to talk about mental and emotional health. Coaching can be a helpful process in facilitating conversation about these issues and finding new ways of thinking. It is easy to feel that we are just small parts in a large immoveable system, but I’m reminded of a phrase I heard recently from a medical colleague – “there is no system, only what we agree to”. 

How do I know when to seek coaching? 

This is a question I often hear and perhaps there is a sub-text of ‘do I deserve coaching?’ and ‘isn’t it all a bit self-indulgent?’

You shouldn’t think of coaching only when there is a problem. Perhaps you have a new idea, or you’re on the brink of an exciting life change. It is fair to say that as health professionals we often have very active inner critics holding us to impossibly high standards, that niggling voice that tells you ‘maybe it’s better not to try, just in case things don’t work out perfectly’. Coaching can help you identify the talents that make you an amazing clinician, but also ticks that get in the way of your success and your joy.

It’s easier to stay in the fast lane , not checking the blind spot, until of course something crops up in that blind spot and an almighty crash occurs.

And to the matter of self-indulgence. To indulge is ‘to allow oneself to enjoy the pleasure of. Are you allowed that? I think we often struggle with the notion of permission. We coach our patients in rehabilitation and lifestyle management with the aim of reducing pain and increasing pleasure in life, yet we find it difficult to extend that compassion to ourselves.

Physiotherapist Ed Voss sought coaching to explore what his own objectives and drivers were, and to ensure he was looking after some of his own interests. He graduated from Birmingham in 2009 and worked in the NHS and private practice both in the UK and New Zealand. As well as continuing to work in two clinics, he is now looking to branch out to provide his own services both in person and online. 

He said: “As a therapist my main focus is always on what I can do to help others, and this definitely extends to life outside of work. The profession is a giving one and it can feel a little alien to turn the focus on yourself, it may even seem a little self-centred. 

“Taking time to reflect on myself has allowed me to see the bigger picture as far as my career is concerned, it has given me some perspective on areas of my practice that previously had been a source of a certain amount of anxiety, and has helped me start to develop into a better therapist for both myself and my patients.”

Joanna says that by accepting that altruism is part of the reward we derive from our work, that our levels of empathy, decision-making, and our modelling of wellbeing will all be improved if we are truly well ourselves.

What if self-care was taught at colleges and universities and became the expectation, something to be proud of and championed? What if a coaching style of support was available from leaders and between peers, from student days to retirement? We could strive for more open communication about our professional practices and for respectful debate – we had a collective intention for happiness. What if coaching, alongside mentoring and training, could be the missing piece of the clinician development jigsaw that focuses exclusively on the person behind the uniform?

How to find a coach

If coaching is something you’d like to investigate for yourself, here are a few pointers. With so many coaches advertising their wares it can be hard to work out who is credible and the right person for you. 

  • Make sure they are thoroughly trained and certified. Check whether their training course is certified by either the International Coaching Federation (ICF) for a life coach, or the Institute of Leadership and Management for executive or business coaches
  • Most coaches will offer you a free consultation call. This is a great way to ask them about their approach, the tools they use, costs, and to decide if you think you’ll be able to work well together. Rapport is extremely important in a coaching relationship
  • Ask if they have coached people in your field or with the same needs as you and you could ask to speak with someone who has been coached by them

    The CSP’s mentoring scheme, which has been available to members since 2017, matches mentors and mentees based on job sectors and interests. Following a review of the platform, a series of changes will be made ahead of a re-launch this spring.

    Key features will include:

    • Expanding the offer to final year students, to help support their transition into gradate employment
    • Updating matching criteria to reflect contemporary practice
    • Liaising with the diversity networks to ensure it reflects the needs of the whole membership

    We are seeking new mentors ahead of the re-launch, please watch this space for further information and visit 'the CSP mentoring platform'.

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