I Failed At Coaching A 15 Year Old Student. This Is What I Learned

We are surrounded of multiple types of personalities. If you look at your friends, you family, your colleagues; all of them are different, behave differently and have is different drivers.

If I think about how I am, there is something I clearly put as a priority: helping others.
I am not sure if this is because I was raised that way, or if it’s just how I am as a person. The reality is that since I was a child, I always had this tendency to help other people. From opening the door to others to let them pass first, to offer carrying supermarket bags to senior people or be the first one to offer help when someone didn’t know their way in my town, so I could help them by giving some directions.

I like to help others. Fact.

When I started working in sales (too many :-)) years ago, it wasn’t easy. Selling enciclopedias to people at their homes, with the negative connotation about sales in the society in general, and about selling books in particular; it wasn’t a nice feeling. I wasn’t proud of what I was doing.

Over the years, working on different industries and environments, I found a way to see that what I was selling, did help my customers to solve a problem. I found a purpose on what I was doing. I was giving people tools to overcome some of their challenges. At a later stage, I started managing people and surprisingly enough (not at all), what I liked the most about leading people was that I was able to help them being successful. I was able to coach people so they could perform better and find a purpose on what they were doing too.

But yes, it all business and at the end, there was always a monetary transaction behind driving it. In order to find even a bigger purpose, I started to do some volunteering work. I asked myself the following question: “how I can use my communication and coaching skills for a different purpose than selling or helping others to sell a product or service”.

For some years in a row now, I participate in a program called The World in Your Classroom. This is a project where internationals living in The Hague, volunteer their time to give lectures to Dutch high school students, teaching them about various aspects of their home countries such as culture, economy, current affairs, history and geography. This program help students not only with English (or other languages) but also to learn things from a different perspective in a nice and interactive way.

The lectures I give, focus mostly on Diversity. Having Spain as an example of a very diverse country, the purpose of my lessons is to let students know things about my place that they don’t know about, but especially, why I believe diversity is a great thing to have that we should embrace to be able to be richer as a society.

Bringing it one step further

That’s going well, usually students like my lectures and show a lot of interest and engagement. But I wanted to go one step further. I wanted to help those young adults to overcome their potential challenges too. That was when I found an organization called Plusgroep that focuses on helping young students with some problems especially affecting their education. Those could be anything at school or at home that it is impacting their performance at school. I became a coach thanks to that organization.

Again, this is all volunteering work, not payment involved, just the feeling of helping those kids with your experience and skills.

Let’s do this

We found a match. A 15 year old boy struggling to perform well at school. Not focused enough, with poor performance and a bit lost; but with a clear goal of finishing his studies and willing to accept a coach to help him achieve that objective.

We had our intake meeting. His mentor at school, the coordinator from Plusgroep and myself. A bit shy, but he was keen to start and really saw value on being part of this program. Cool. Couldn’t wait to start.

The initial arrangement was that the boy and myself would meet once a week to talk about stuff.  Look at his biggest challenges in terms of subjects, see how I could help him with his homework and basically, teaching him how to understand those topics and retain more information in a more efficient way.

We started those chats. I noticed from the beginning that he was very short on his answers or didn’t explain things too in detail. He was a bit shy I thought. I tried not to make it a questioner, asking some questions but also trying to share some personal stories when I had similar challenges in the past.

My first goal was to gain  his trust. If someone doesn’t trust you, there is no way they can be coached. Some weeks passed by and I would say he did trust me, at least enough, but his answers were short, not sharing too much and I had the feeling that he didn’t want to get too involved with me. Usually and as a part of the process, you do some sessions at their place, meet their parents or family and discuss things with them too. He always avoided that just by saying that his mother went home pretty late and ti wasn’t possible to meet. His father lives in a different country and for him, he doesn’t really exist anymore.

Tried different ways, many times

I tried several things, like teaching him how to study in a more efficient way by summarizing and outlining information on paper, with the purpose of helping him to retain information easily. That worked for me in the past, hoped it would work for him too.

When I asked him about if he was studying that way he always said “yes”. When I asked him if he thought that was valuable, he also said “yes”. But he never showed me any example, and I didn’t want to push him too much. Didn’t want to be another teacher for him, but just a buddy that wanted to help.

I was very impressed

The thing that impressed me the most was that even if he was only 15 years old, he had a clear idea about what he wanted to do after his studies. He wanted to be a Game Designer. Nothing else, that’s what he wanted and that’s what he will do. Wow! I was really impressed by that. I didn’t know what I wanted to do even when I was 18. That was very good. I put a lot of energy in showing him that his determination was a great skill he had. That could help him in achieving anything he would want to achieve in the future.

An idea that I though it would work

After he told me “I want to be a Game Designer”, I thought to myself: ”How I can help him to become one? How I can find a relation between what he needed to study now but has challenges with, and the skills you need to develop to become a good game designer.

A friend of mine is working at a gaming company called Social Point in Barcelona and they are always hiring. I remembered that I saw a vacancy he posted on LinkedIn looking specifically for a game designer. I looked it up, found it, clicked on it, printed their job description, requirements and skills needed and started to analise it. I found some elements that were required for that job, that you could clearly relate to some skills and knowledge you can start to develop at high school.

I presented the vacancy to him, asked him to read it and realise what companies are looking for in a game designer. Then I explained and gave a couple of examples on how the way he needs to study but also some subjects, would help him in the future to get that job. At the end, I asked him if he thought what we were doing was valuable and this time, also asked him to do the same exercise, look for another vacancy and discuss it with me in our next session.

He never did, as it happened with other little tasks that we talked about.

He would tell me his results were better now on those subjects. When I asked him how he thought I could help him, he never had an answer. Basically, everything was going ok and our sessions were helping…but nothing too specific.

Challenged him

At some point and after trying different ways to engage with him, to help, and to get real information about his situation; I decided to challenge him a bit. I had the feeling I wasn’t able to help, besides what he was telling me. Also, I noticed he was progressively avoiding our meetings. In one of them, I told him that I was willing to help him, that we could keep seeing each other every week but also, that if he thought this wasn’t valuable at all, we would better stop with the whole coaching thing.

Obviously, I was a bit frustrated. When you are investing your time and you feel like it is not working, then you reach a point where you need to say: “I tried, it didn’t work, I stop”.

But guess what? He said it was ok and he thought I was helping him.
At that time, he was going to start an internship for a few weeks, working at a company. I tried to meet him one of those days after work but he avoided it by saying that they were long days and he didn’t have time for it. After a couple of tries to meet, at the end I called his mentor to explain the situation and asked him to have a chat with the boy to see if he would share more information with him than with me.

His mentor got back to me after that chat saying that the boy saw this year as lost already and he didn’t think the coaching was going to help him anymore.

When I contacted the kid again to tell him that we should stop, he said that it was good to stop because he was doing well already and he didn’t need any coaching anymore.

Two complete different stories.

What I learned from this experience

Obviously, I failed at coaching this boy. Tried many ways of helping him, asked him many times how could I help him, if what I was doing was useful or not. Got little feedback but positive. He thought I was helping him and he wanted to continue our chats.

Looking back now, I clearly see the reason why I failed. He wasn’t open to be coached. This was an initiative from his mother, who thought it was a good thing for him. He didn’t think the same way, but he had to do it because his mother asked him to.

It doesn’t matter whether it is in the volunteering or the business world, if the person is not open to be coached, you have little chance to succeed and achieve results together.

What I would do different next time?

Always be qualifying. That’s what I say in sales. Better to disqualify on time than being engaged with the wrong person wasting your time. Next time, I will focus more on evaluating if the person is truly ready and open to be coached. I will spend more time qualifying and will only move forward if there is a clear commitment from that person to be open to accept coaching. It won’t be easy though, so if you have some suggestions or comments, I am open to be coached by you 🙂


Have you encountered those situations where you had to coach someone but it didn’t work? Please share some insights here so we could learn form that experience.

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