Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Promises and Limits of Coaching: Lessons From College Counseling

In my recent post on how much coaching is enough to produce change, I summarized research from the dose-effect research literature. One problem with this is that the literature is primarily oriented to clinical populations: those with diagnosable disorders. Fortunately, there is one setting for applied psychology that focuses more on normal, developmental problems than clinical ones: college counseling centers.

Having worked at a college counseling center at Cornell University and then directed a student counseling service at SUNY Upstate Medical University, I can attest to the similarities between work with students in higher education and coaching of professionals in trading and other fields. In my work at Syracuse, fully two-thirds of the people seeking assistance were looking for help with such normal concerns as relationship problems, career issues, and performance-related stress. Interestingly, these are also among the most common issues that traders discuss with me. Many of the same cognitive, behavioral, and solution-focused methods that are helpful in work with students are also relevant and useful for traders.

So what can college counseling teach us about the coaching of traders? A very interesting research study conducted in 2000 summarized college counseling work with almost 1700 students across over 40 campuses. This provides a broad cross-section of schools and students. The study found that over 1000 of the students--about 60% of the sample--only attended 3 or fewer counseling visits. This is not unusual: other studies of utilization of helping services have found that the modal number of visits to a psychologist or counselor is one.

The low number of visits does not necessarily mean that the services were not helpful. Rather, the study found that almost 30% of the students reported significant improvement by the end of one session and nearly 40% by the end of the third visit. Among those who attended 10 sessions, 54.5 % reported significant improvement. The study authors suggest that this shows a dose-effect relationship among the college students: more visits produce better results. It also suggests that about half of all people in the college setting--which I believe is the best mirror for coaching settings--can benefit from short-term help. Indeed, they often vote with their feet and only attend several helping meetings.

Still, the data suggest that many people do not benefit from short-term help. On college campuses, this can include people with ongoing problems with anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and substance abuse. Similar problems can be found among traders. Of the people who attended 10 sessions, 9.1% actually deteriorated over time and 36.4% reported no change. This is a finding that is not frequently discussed among psychologists and counselors, and certainly not among coaches: some people get worse, despite best efforts at helping. This may be due to a lack of skill among helpers; a poor personality fit between helper and client; or an unusual problem that is not detected by the counselor.

My experience is that the latter is most often the case. I have met with traders who have received prior coaching (and sometimes therapy), only to find that they have a diagnosable problem that went unrecognized. Sometimes the problem is depression; sometimes it is a form of anxiety; sometimes it is an eating disorder; and sometimes it is a purely medical problem that manifests itself as emotional distress (e.g., a thyroid disorder). It is also sometimes the case that a problem is longstanding and severe and simply needs more than 10 sessions of assistance. One research study, for example, found that individuals with severe emotional disorders continue to show therapeutic responses for 25 sessions of therapy and more.

So what can we conclude from this research? Simple performance problems--especially those that are relatively recent and not severe--often require only short-term assistance. In such cases, coaching can be targeted and brief. Longer-standing problems and those that are affecting multiple areas of life--not just trading--often take more than a brief course of assistance. Generally they require a comprehensive assessment from a trained professional. Coaching holds much promise for many people, but extrapolations from the college counseling research suggest that about half of all people will not benefit from it. That's something you won't hear from helpers eager to collect your fees, but it's important for you to know if you're contemplating help.


Coaching Yourself for Profitable Trading

What Works in Coaching