A Coaching Playbook For The Pandemic

How to shrug off the bruises and soldier on. To recover, pick yourself up, get past this moment. By Priya Ramani.

U.S. women’s soccer team coach Jill Ellis, right, during the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup. (Photograph: FIFAWWC/Twitter)
U.S. women’s soccer team coach Jill Ellis, right, during the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup. (Photograph: FIFAWWC/Twitter)

A member of a somnolent WhatsApp group of three friends checked in recently to ensure we were okay. “Well…,” came the reply. “Negative, alive, (still) married.” In life coach speak, this response would classify as a key strategy to survive the pandemic: manage your expectations.

In the year that decimated livelihoods, sharpened inequalities, and obliterated everyday physical contact (remember the hug?), it’s a lesson we’ve hopefully mastered. But look on the bright side; things will get better?

A Coaching Playbook For The Pandemic

“I’m not into the positive thinking movement. It’s bogus, it doesn't work,” says life coach Arfeen Khan, a man after my own heart. “Look at the reality of the situation, what is true and what is not true. I tell people to look at the possibilities rather than tell them to be strong. By looking at things as they are, not better or worse, it makes your mind take action about it. Even if you can’t do something about it, you’re at peace because you looked at it properly.”

Khan says he’s been alarmed by the increase in domestic violence and substance abuse during the pandemic. In the next couple of years, he wants to train thousands of life coaches who will fan out across the country and help Indians fight their emotional battles. “The effects of coronavirus have not happened yet. They are going to happen in ways that are unimaginable. I’m just so scared,” he says.

I must admit I’ve never had an extended conversation with a life coach before; I’ve always been drawn to the imperfect, worn wisdom of poetry. Besides, by the time you get to my age you’ve already figured out a few things the hard way. For example, being kind to yourself is easier said than done; there’s something around every corner; things are cyclical; there’s no substitute for girlfriends; baking is not for everyone; always speak up; a country can’t thrive on hate; ignore the detractors; always use the stairs; don’t type that nasty response; a woman must have her own money; your kids are always watching you; it’s okay to have a daily nightcap.

Yet, as the fog of Covid-19 lingers, I’m feeling the need to hear what coaches have to say about shrugging off the bruises and soldiering on. About recovery, picking yourself up, getting past this moment.

My favourite type of coach is the sporting coach so I was thrilled when a friend told me about Playbook, the new five-episode docu-series on Netflix. Each episode is dedicated to a famous coach who shares their tried-and-tested survival rules. It took me back to the time when I was 10 and my exasperated athletics coach Nazneen Irani would yell “Breast the tape!” because I always slowed down in the last split seconds of a sprint. Irani’s advice is reminiscent of the broader mantra legendary basketball coach Doc Rivers, who is featured in the series, learned from his father: Finish the race.

In Playbook, each rule is accompanied by the story that shaped it. Since these are some of the biggest coaches around, many of the stories are linked to sporting moments you're bound to remember. Like Jill Ellis’ ‘If you want to be heard, make a statement’ rule about the U.S. women’s football team’s ongoing fight with the U.S. Soccer Federation for equal pay.

Jill Ellis, then coach of the U.S. women’s soccer team, led the side to  back-to-back World Cup successes. (Photograph: AP/PTI)
Jill Ellis, then coach of the U.S. women’s soccer team, led the side to back-to-back World Cup successes. (Photograph: AP/PTI)

Ellis, who coached the team to two consecutive FIFA Women’s World Cup victories recalls how her team became the “touchstone to stand up and articulate what you want and why you want it”, empowering women across the world. The U.S. team’s battle continues even as Brazil recently rectified this historic mismatch.

Football coach José Mourinho’s rule—if you are prepared for the worst, you are prepared—seems tailor-made for 2020.

It’s from the time he convinced his Porto players that it would be great if they had to begin the 2003/4 UEFA cup by playing top-ranked Manchester United. The draw was being conducted live on TV, the players were watching it together and Mourinho kept repeating how great it would be if they got to start with the best team.

When the worst eventually did happen, his team was prepared. “Because I made that decision, we were tremendous,” he says. “The team was aggressive, the team really wanted to beat the opponent.” Porto won that game.

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Rivers spends time talking about how the Clippers embraced the Ubuntu philosophy popularised by Nelson Mandela, about community and growing together. In Rivers’ words, “The better you are, the better I am.”

India’s ruling politicians need an urgent, intravenous dose of Ubuntu to restore their humanity.

Ellis and Serena Williams’ coach Patrick Mouratoglou share intimate stories from their past. While Ellis’ ‘Be true to yourself’ comes from the time she finally told her team she was a lesbian, Mouratoglou’s rule—Your greatest weakness can become your greatest strength—is from his childhood, a time when he had “zero self-confidence”. He visited a psychologist every week for one year without saying a word.

But during this time, he observed people, paying attention to their expressions, and eventually developed the ability to read body language, a trait he considers his biggest strength as a coach. “We live in a world when people are faking all day long and as a coach you need to know what people really think,” he says.

Patrick Mouratoglou with Serena Williams. (Image: Patrick Mouratoglou social media)
Patrick Mouratoglou with Serena Williams. (Image: Patrick Mouratoglou social media)

In the real world, life coaches had to revise their playbooks dramatically in the pandemic. “Overnight our work changed from unlock your potential and what is your five-year plan to how are you going to survive this year,” says psychologist Lushoo Kapoor, who partners with many companies to coach employees. She’s working with women in senior leadership roles who suddenly find themselves back in the role of domestic goddess, juggling homeschooling and household chores.

Kapoor says it’s important to build in time for a digital detox; she also advises clients to try and pinpoint any anxiety they might be experiencing. “If you’re uncomfortable or anxious, understand that it’s your belief system acting up,” she says. “We have these life scripts...I must make everyone happy, I must deliver all my work on time. These are great things to have but when we start operating from these spaces as if they are gospel truths of life and in a time when we don't know what tomorrow looks like, it creates low-grade, continuous stress.”

Success coach Anand Chulani says it’s time to acknowledge that the pandemic isn’t going anywhere. “It’s going to be part of life for a while so we need to move our focus from when will it be over to how do I grow myself.”

“Use this time to invest in your inner game,” he tells his clients.

In March, Chulani’s business, which was largely dependent on him travelling to places and speaking to people, dried up overnight. Like many entrepreneurs, he began working on ways to offer his services online. These past few months, he says, his company has recorded the highest growth in 15 years.

“This pandemic is not here to make you weaker, sicker, more anxious, more depressed. It’s there to make you stronger, fitter, more courageous, more creative, more innovative,” he says.

As for me, I’m going to read more poetry.

Priya Ramani is a Bengaluru-based journalist and is on the editorial board of

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.