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Finding the Right Mentor for You

08/11/2017, 12:00pm CDT
By Sam Callan, USA Fencing Senior Manager, Coaching Education

I recently read John Wooden’s book A Game Plan for Life about the people he considered mentors and the people he mentored. John Wooden, for those who do not know, is considered one of the greatest coaches ever. Wooden has become world renowned both for his wins as a college basketball coach, including ten NCAA titles in twelve years at UCLA, and for his impact on coaches and leaders in other fields. I am not sure any coach has had more books written about him or his approach.

Coach Wooden points out that we can have mentors in our personal and professional lives. A personal mentor helps us stay focused on the aspects of life that truly matter. A professional mentor guides us in effective work habits or ethical business (or coaching) practices or other areas of our professional lives. A few people probably mentor us in both areas.

Your mentor could be your first fencing coach or the coach who worked with you the longest or was instrumental in you achieving your best results. A mentor might be a coach who taught you how to be a gracious winner and gracious loser. You might have a fellow club member, perhaps an older fencer, who mentored you and taught you the nuances of the sport or the club culture. A mentor might be someone who helped you develop a successful club.

Wooden also points out that mentors differ from heroes. We idolize heroes, but respect mentors. A hero amazes us while a mentor earns our confidence. A hero takes our breath away; a mentor is given our trust. A mentor seeks not to create a new person, but to help someone become a better person. Mentors are about teaching and inspiring. It should be noted that Coach Wooden was a high school English teacher before gaining fame as a college basketball coach and always considered himself a teacher.

Many times, a mentor enters our life quite haphazardly. You just happened to be assigned to a group at work or you joined a club because it is nearby and found a mentor. You also can be more proactive and choose a mentor, but before doing so, some of the following steps might help.

  1. Determine what you need.
    Assess where your strengths and weaknesses lie. Then choose an area you want to work on. It is probably a good idea to select just one at a time to focus your energy on it. Choosing too many diffuses focus and splits your energy.
  2. See who you know who is strong in that area.
    Does the person have the skills you are trying to develop? For instance, you want to open a fencing club, but you are not sure about running a club. You feel confident in instructing and giving lessons, but you are not sure about marketing or running the business side of the club. Finding another successful club owner in your area to mentor you would be ideal, but another club owner might not want to help a potential competitor. Other options for mentoring would be to find a similar business such as the owner of a martial arts studio or someone from SCORE. SCORE is a free program offered in many areas to help small businesses or people starting small businesses.
  3. Choose a mentor whose values align with yours.
    In choosing a mentor, choose someone whose values align with your values. Choosing a mentor is different than going to another fencing instructor to see how that coach teaches a class. A mentor is someone you are going to have a long-term relationship with and are likely going to work on more involved issues than how to teach a tactic.
  4. Consider whether your prospective mentor is a good listener.
    This person should not only be able to hear your needs and concerns, but he or she should understand what you want to gain from the relationship. The prospective mentor should also be someone who is going to be honest with you and challenge you. Your goal is to improve and that often requires feedback that may be difficult to hear. Just as improving as a fencer requires challenging a fencer to stretch, improving in your capacity as a coach (or club owner) requires you to be challenged. Ideally this challenge comes with support!

Determining what you want out of a mentor is a big step and will help when you approach a mentor. Having a clear plan will set a good tone for the relationship. Next week’s blog will offer suggestions on approaching a potential mentor.

The following resources were used in writing this blog:

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