How I Got Into Coaching - By Accident!


I had a challenging home life growing up, experienced bullying as a result of a weight problem (and being a weird kid in general), and subsequently spent most of my teens trying desperately to fit in and manage my need to self destruct. I was kicked out of 2 schools and had to leave a third for my own safety after some friends and I were attacked and robbed. I spent years using drugs and alcohol and causing trouble around the city with my friends (picture lord of the flies with less adult supervision and you’ll get the idea) until I finally heard the beacon in my head which told me to get out of where I was; so my solution was to join The Royal Navy at 16 years old (because I never do anything half hearted - of course).

Once in, I became a helicopter technician and began a new quest to make life for myself as difficult as I could. I didn’t mesh well with the other recruits and found it hard to make friends and to conform to the discipline of the military. I was often in trouble and attracted some unwanted attention from higher ranking bullies who made many failed attempts to dampen my spirit. Whatever happened I just became more determined to overcome it, always looking for a solution and committing to it 100% (noticing a theme?).

It wasn’t until I was promoted at age 20 (for showing some leadership ability) and successfully graduated from The Royal Naval Leadership Academy that I realized I didn’t want to make a life in the Navy, or if I did, it certainly wasn’t as an engineer (I really never liked getting dirty, and engineering diagrams never looked right to me, no matter which way up they were!). With the encouragement of a new friend (who is now my wife! - shout out to Jessica!) I walked into my course officer’s office as calm as could be and declined the promotion. He asked me what I intended to do instead and I explained that I was going to go back to my old rank and return to my old unit and begin studying for my bachelors degree in psychology and leave the service when I was finished. What happened next was quite surprising and makes for a good twist in the story! He sat me down and said “you’re clearly bright and in the wrong job, would you like to stay here and go through selection to become a commissioned officer?” Now just to give you an idea i’d just declined a 1 rank promotion, and he was now offering a 7-9 rank jump! I asked him if there was a job I could do that was more in line with my interests, and the answer was unfortunately no. So I said thank you and no thank you, and off I went.

I did as I said and continued my education both on land and while deployed on operations. Many of my peers and bosses criticized me for what I did calling me stupid for passing up those opportunities, and those around me were regularly promoted above me. I felt resolute with my decision in knowing what I didn’t want, however still didn’t know what I did want with any certainty, other than to better understand what makes people do what they do.

My studies were transformative for me as I now felt I had a lens through which to understand not only my own behavior, but that of those around me. While deployed on an aircraft carrier I wrote a paper for my course on organizational culture using my department as the case study. I scored 98% dropping the 2 points for missing the time of access on a website reference (devastated!). The paper I wrote was then used by the department’s commanding officer to effect real change, which made me feel valued and more importantly, smart.

One day on a deployment I was offered the opportunity to attend a coaching workshop for senior rates (which I was not) and I jumped at the chance! By the end of the first day it was clear where my passions lay and my psychological knowledge played in perfectly! After connecting with the instructor, I started to assist him in delivering the courses and was later authorized to continue to teach my own coaching workshops at the base I moved on to after leaving the ship, which I did in my spare time.

At this point, i’d entered a dangerous place in which I’ve tasted what it’s like to really enjoy doing something, to feel good at something, and to connect with a room of people who are enjoying what you have to say, and how it now felt to go from that, back to my normal job; painful to say the least. I was becoming increasingly frustrated and my mood was suffering as a result. I knew something had to change, and felt frustrated by my situation.

One day I attended a coaching conference at a neighboring base and I met someone who changed my life forever. Lt Iain Lightfoot was the officer in charge of the Coaching Learning & Development Team at my base which, happened to be the largest military training establishment in the U.K - HMS Sultan. He and I talked and decided to keep in touch and over time developed a mentoring relationship. He was an excellent coach and recognized I had the potential to be one too, which was encouraging. I was finding my tribe!

Before long and to my complete surprise he had arranged to have me released from my job working with aircraft and assigned to him as the lead coach & behavioral trainer. I became a member of a team of Lieutenants who taught various educational courses at the base, and was treated as their equal despite having no rank at all. Just to give you an idea of how unusual this was, we actually believe it has never happened before, and the firsts continued! I became the lowest ranking person to complete the defense train the trainer course, lowest ranking person to ever teach the defense train the trainer course, lowest ranking person to write a defense course (which is still being taught today), and first person of my rank to be awarded an instructor award in recognition of my commitment to my students success. I designed and taught all kinds of courses and workshops in leadership, emotional intelligence, learning and exam techniques, and coached anyone who needed help long into the evenings. I had never been happier.

Today I’ve been fortunate enough to have been trained and mentored by some of the best, and as a coach i’m privileged to work with people who continue to amaze me with the live’s they are capable of creating. If I can literally breakthrough the rank structure in the oldest navy in the world, anything is possible!

I challenge you to say no to ‘an opportunity’ in favor of ‘the right opportunity’. You may have no idea where it will take you, and it could take you to somewhere you didn’t even know existed! Know what you want & go for it with little or no expectation as to how will turn out! I did and never looked back.

Thanks for reading!

James Segal