Coaching is a new topic in medicine. I first heard about coaching several years ago and met the term with skepticism. I was unsure how coaching was different than mentoring or advising and I wondered about its usefulness. However, the reason that I even started to learn about coaching was because I was struggling. I had finally arrived in my career, I had my dream job with two healthy kids, a perfect house, and good marriage. I kept hearing the refrain in my head: “Is this all there is?” I had this arrival fallacy that after all this striving and straining that I would finally be content. I felt unfulfilled and was dissatisfied with where I was that was affecting all parts of my life.
As I was wrestling with these thoughts, I had an opportunity to become a coach to residents around the country through the. I discussed with them what fills them up, what gets them down, how to set goals, and what their goals were for the year, as well as imposter syndrome. Impostor syndrome is defined as a pattern in which an individual doubts their accomplishments or talents and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud.” Despite external evidence of their competence, those experiencing this phenomenon remain convinced that they are fooling everyone around them and do not deserve all they have achieved. Individuals incorrectly attribute their success to luck or interpret it as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent than they perceive themselves to be. Imposter syndrome is prevalent and deep in medicine. As perfectionists, we are especially vulnerable to imposter syndrome as we set unrealistic ideals for ourselves. When we fail to reach these ideals, we feel like frauds, setting up this cycle of self-doubt that is toxic. When we feel that we can’t achieve the goals that we are striving for we will always find ourselves lacking. There is a slow, insidious erosion of self over the years. Imposter syndrome is well documented in medicine and is even felt as early as medical school.1,2
When I began coaching these residents the most profound thing that came out of these sessions was that my life was getting better – I knew what filled me up, what got me down, what my goals were for the year, and how I still deal with imposter syndrome. Coaching gave me a framework for helping determine what I wanted for the rest of my life. As I began coaching, I started learning all the ways in which I could figure out my values, my personal and professional goals, and perhaps most importantly, my relationships with myself and others.
Another perspective on coaching is to look at a professional athlete such as Tom Brady, one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. He has a quarterback coach. No coach is going to be a better quarterback than Tom Brady. A coach for him is to be there as an advocate, break his fundamentals down technically, and help him improve upon what he already knows. A coach also identifies strengths and weaknesses, and helps him capitalize on both by bringing awareness, reflection, accountability, and support. If world-class athletes still want and benefit from coaching in a sport they have already mastered, coaching for physicians is just another tool to help us improve our abilities in and out of medicine.
Coaching is more encompassing than advising or mentoring. It is about examining deeply held beliefs to see if they are really serving us, if they are in line with our values and how we want to live our lives.
Coaching has also been validated in medicine in several papers. Inby Dyrbye et al. in JAMA Internal Medicine, measures of emotional exhaustion and burnout decreased in physicians who were coached and increased in those who were not.3 In another study from this year by McGonagle et al., a randomized, controlled trial showed that primary care physicians who had sessions (as short as 6 weeks) to address burnout, psychological capital, and job satisfaction experienced an improvement in measures which persisted for 6 months after intervention.4 Numerous other articles in medicine also exist to demonstrate the effect of coaching on mitigating burnout at an institutional level.
Physicians are inherently driven by their love of learning. As physicians, we love getting to the root cause of any problem and coming up with creative solutions. Any challenge we have, or just wanting to improve the quality of our lives, can be addressed with coaching. As perpetual students we can use coaching to truly master ourselves.
Dr. Shah is associate professor of surgery, Rush University Medical Center, Chicago. Instagram: ami.shahmdcoaching.
1. Gottlieb M et al..
2. Villwock JA et al..
3. Dyrbye LN et al..
4. McGonagle AK et al. J Occup Health Psychol. 2020 Apr 16. doi: 10.1037/ocp0000180.