The Risk of Playing it Safe

As college success coaches, most of us continue to play it as safe as possible in the execution of our coaching.  The irony is, the safer we stay, the greater the risk for our students.

Here’s what I mean; in playing within the confines of asking students; “Where are you now?” “Where do you want to be?” and “How are you going to get there?” and even spending time in the territory of “What is your personal why?” (thank you Simon Sinek), you miss asking the most important question coaching of all.

Stay with me (the most important question is coming...).

Then, you dole out advice: you share critical resources, cheerlead and teach students how to navigate online platforms and fill out a FAFSA, just to name a few.  You impart important deadlines and encourage students by letting them know just how much you believe in them. Sound familiar?

And, all importantly, you build wonderfully trusting relationships.  

This last one is especially huge.  

You’re so good at this that if you were not, I would never encourage you to ask the “most important coaching question of all”.  Seriously, you’re ready.

When we’re not pushing the parameters of our coaching, we’re not fully coaching. And, more importantly, students are not fully benefiting.  

To drive more substantive student impact, coaches must ask their students the question…

“Who do you know yourself to be?”  

What?  How awkward is that?   Again, stay with me….

Coaching must include shifting how students know themselves in the face of invariable challenges. We need to stray from asking just the “where”, “how” and “why” questions and trust more fully in our coaching ability to navigate the “who” questions.  The most impactful coaching leverages students’ personal capacity so that they’re more adept at moving in the direction of their goals (starting with the goal of graduation), by knowing themselves more fully and believing in themselves more deeply. This starts by actively asking students questions that inquire into the best of themselves - both when things are going well, and particularly when they’re not.  

Dreams become reality when we identify, develop and exercise more personal qualities like; belief in ourselves, resiliency in the face of adversity, self-advocacy, grit, growth-mindset and leadership. These are just some of what are called “non-cognitive” skills. Over the course of a decade in higher education, I have learned that most coaches are not confident in their ability to do this well. Or even at all.


Many want to, but don’t know the route, while others feel it’s just outside of their comfort zones. They share that they don’t want to sound like a counselor, and they certainly don’t want to push students beyond their comfort zones.

As a coach and trainer, this poses both a problem and a challenge desperately in need of a solution.  

With proper training, skilled coaches will not get “too personal” - they will keep their eye on the prize, facilitating conversations with purpose and professionalism while collaborating to build the kind of “non-cognitive development” students urgently need to reach the finish line in pursuit of meaningful, gainful employment.  With proper training and a sound approach, coaches will learn to hear the invitation from their students, recognize the cues and seize the opportunities to ask “who” questions with confidence and conviction.

So coaches, prepare to embrace what was formerly considered “outside your comfort zone” - and prepare to grow.  Learning how to coach really well is certainly not easy.  But, learning to inquire into the best of who students know themselves to be is the most potent defense against many of the reasons students drop-out or stop-out, like;

  • A lack of personal belief
  • Inflexibility in the face of adversity
  • Lack of confidence and sense of belongingness
  • Feelings of inadequacy
  • Fixed Mindset
  • Feelings of powerlessness and stuckness

Moving out of your comfort zone is the first step in supporting students to do the same. Take a moment to consider what’s at stake when you don’t.