The Art of Coaching Improvisationally

“The five minutes before the coaching conversation begins are the most important five minutes of the whole encounter.”

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I remember hearing this in coach training and feeling surprised. Surely the wrap-up is most critical, I thought to myself, in which actions steps are articulated and clarified. Or, the initial check-in, which sets the stage for everything that is to come. As a coach, I now see the wisdom of this instruction. If I come into the appointment distracted and scattered, I cannot be of service. In my pre-conversation time, I try to center myself, prepare to listen deeply without agenda, and most of all, trust the process and my role in it. There’s always a bit of nervous excitement, too, because I have no idea what will happen and where we’ll end up at the conclusion of our conversation.

Interestingly, that anticipatory energy is exactly what I feel when preparing to walk out on a stage to do improv comedy.

READ THE REST at Coaching World, the blog of the International Coach Federation (ICF).

When the World is Overwhelming

Greetings from St. Louis and the Presbyterian Church’s General Assembly, a biennial meeting of pastors, elders, young adults, advisory delegates and more, who will deliberate and make decisions about the church, its mission and its future. I’m here on behalf of NEXT Church, talking up our coaching initiative, and offering free coaching sessions for people throughout the week. Some people are feeling stuck in their lives or ministries; others just want to debrief the events of this week. It’s always a holy task, this ministry of deep listening and asking important questions. 

The decisions made at GA include plenty of picayune insider stuff about the Presbyterian Church’s governance and structure. But we will also take stands and make statements addressing a number of issues facing our world, hopefully in ways that lift up justice and liberation. Yesterday we marched en masse to the St. Louis City Justice Center, carrying $47,000 to bail some 36 people out of jail. These are folks who are simply awaiting trial, but because they are too poor to afford bail, they are languishing in jail. 


It was inspiring to put faith into action, and to do something public and specific to set captives free. 
It also feels like not nearly enough. 

It’s surreal to observe committee meetings and have conversations in hotel lobbies and a fancy convention center, knowing there are children along our southern border who have no idea when or whether they will see their parents again. News broke just last night of so-called “tender age” shelters for infants and toddlers. It is projected that some 30,000 children could fall victim to the family separation policy before the end of the summer. There are various proposals floating around Congress to end the practice, and as I write this, there are reports that the president will be signing a statement to that effect. Time will tell.

Immigration is a tough, tangled issue, befuddling countless presidential administrations, both Republican and Democrat. But as a Christian, this one isn’t hard. Jesus said in Matthew 25, “that which you did to the least of these, you did to me.” And he didn’t stutter. 

Many people I talk to are numb right now—the onslaught of news feels relentless, and it’s hard to even figure out what’s accurate, let alone what to do about it. And the actions of an informed citizen—writing a letter, casting a vote—feel so paltry in the wake of political forces that are much bigger than all of us. 

In the midst of this numbness, I keep thinking about an interview I heard with Lin-Manuel Miranda and Thomas Kail, the creative team behind the musical Hamilton. They were reflecting on the early days of working on Hamilton—writing, editing, and refining it—and how overwhelming it seemed. They adopted a motto, co-opted from Jerome Robbins when Fiddler on the Roof was in previews in Detroit. Things were not going well for the fledgling production. Kail says:

There’s this moment when Fiddler is really struggling, and Austin Pendleton, a young actor at this point, said, “What are we doing to do?” and Robbins said, “Ten things a day.” 

Just do the thing. Do the stuff that’s in front of you: “What can we accomplish today?” So we would come in after a show, and Lin and I would talk to each other… and we’d say OK, what can we accomplish at this time. And you just start chipping away.



In my experience as a coach, many clients know where they want to go, but they’re paralyzed with the tremendous size of the task. So we work together on the principle of “ten things a day”—small, bite-sized pieces that slowly but surely move us forward. It's a way of staying present to today's work instead of tomorrow's results, which we can never control.

We live in chaotic, perilous times. Regardless of your particular convictions and beliefs, numbing out is a luxury we cannot afford. No one can do everything, but everyone can do something. At times, the “something” is to pull back and rest—but always in the service of a deeper engagement, one small act at a time.

What might be today’s “ten things” to help bring about the world for which you hope?
Five things?
One thing?


This reflection was sent to my email newsletter; subscribe to receive articles such as this, twice a month, right in your inbox.

Ten for Tuesday



My friend Bobby Williamson has a book coming out in August--Forgotten Books of the Bible. I can't wait to read it. Here's a teaser--the introduction is available online. Pre-order from Amazon here.


Second, my ludicrously talented friend Alan H. Green just collaborated a bunch of other musicians to record this sweeeeeet cover of Luther Vandross's "Never Too Much":



Next, three stories about luminous empathy:

While out for a jog, she discovered a baby buried alive. Twenty years later, they reunite.

Woman becomes best friends with a bee she rescued. (Video)

Dog rescues his pooch friend from drowning in a pool. (Video)



Instagram, Snapchat, Fortnite: The distractions are endless. Here’s how to help kids cope. (WaPo)

The Fun Scale (REI) Three types of fun. What do you think?



Two articles that came to me this week--both resonated:

How to Survive Your 40s (NYT)

The Midlife Unraveling (Brene Brown) This is stellar.




If Planet Earth can still be a work in progress, maybe each of us can be too. 



We're running a selfie contest through this Friday! Take a picture of yourself with a copy of God, Improv, and the Art of Living, then post it to social media, tagging me and/or using the hashtag #improvliving. You'll get entered into a contest to win a signed copy of the book for yourself or a friend.  

Aaaaaaaand, for runners, or people who'd like to be: I'm running a fall race special and have a few slots left:


Streak with Us!

What would it take for this holiday season to be the best one yet? Chances are, your answer to that question has nothing to do with receiving the perfect gift, or hosting the best cookie exchange, or writing the world’s bragging-est Christmas letter.

If you’re like us, a good holiday season is one that is mindful, joyous, and brimming with simple pleasures. And if we’re honest, it would be nice to get to January 1 and not be exhausted, frazzled, and crashing from too much holiday indulgence.

That’s where the Healthy Holiday Streak comes in.

To “streak” in running means to run at least a mile a day, every day. (You may have heard another definition for “streaking”—hey, what people wear to run that mile is up to them 😉)

Many runners choose to streak as a way of staying accountable to moving at least a little bit each day. This holiday season, between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, we’re creating our own twist on the streak. We'd love to have you join us.

How It Works:

You decide what your streak will be. Here are some suggestions:

  • Take part in some kind of exercise each day
  • Set a nutrition goal that allows you to enjoy the holidays while still making healthy choices
  • Spend at least a few minutes each day outside in the fresh air
  • Try to get a certain amount of sleep each night
  • Intentionally drink water throughout the day
  • Make contact with a friend each day
  • Let go of one task each day that drains you

Maybe your goal is more general—to be present and enjoy this often hectic season. Or maybe you mix it up and focus on a different goal each week. There’s no right or wrong way to streak! The ultimate goal is not deprivation, but a deeper sense of enjoyment—caring for oneself in body, mind and spirit.

Each morning from Monday, November 20 though New Year’s Day, streakers will receive a short email in their inbox, containing a brief reflection and a question to ponder. These reflections are designed to keep your streak on track with inspiration, tips, and suggestions.

The reflections are written by MaryAnn McKibben Dana of ZOOM! Coaching and Melissa Kennedy of Everyday Balance Health Coaching. We’ll be streaking too, so in addition to offering our best wisdom, we’ll be sharing our own successes and struggles along with you.

How Do I Sign Up?

Register here through MailChimp. Note: If you are signed up for MaryAnn's Blue Room emails, you will NOT automatically be subscribed; you must opt in. Use the link to do this.

How Much Does It Cost?

Not a thing. Feel free to share the emails with others, and it’s easy to unsubscribe if it turns out not to be quite what you’re looking for.

What If I “Fail” at My Streak?

Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Life happens, and sometimes the exercise just doesn’t happen, or that second (or third) cookie is just too tantalizing to ignore. Don’t stress about it. Melissa and MaryAnn believe that health and wellness come in the midst of baby steps, setbacks, recommitment, accountability, and grace. Let your goals and intentions be a North Star that guides you, not a destination you either succeed or fail to reach.

We look forward to streaking with you!

About Us

Melissa Kennedy is a physician, coach, and owner of Everyday Balance Health Coaching. She helps clients learn the lifestyle habits which maximize health and well-being, using a small-steps, habit-based approach. She lives in Albuquerque with her husband, daughter, and two crazy cats, and she loves hiking, cycling, cooking, reading, and playing the violin.


MaryAnn McKibben Dana is a writer, speaker, and owner of ZOOM! Coaching, which focuses on personal/professional coaching and running coaching. She is author of the forthcoming God, Improv, and the Art of Living, and numerous other works. She lives in the DC suburbs with her husband and three children, and also has two crazy cats. She is a muffin-maker, a haphazard knitter, and an occasional marathoner.




Image is from George Deputee on Flickr and used via Creative Commons Modify Non-Endorse License.

Put Me In, Coach!

The following was sent to my email newsletter. If you’d like to get posts like this delivered right to your inbox a couple times a month, subscribe. ---

I was an avid fan of the television show Friday Night Lights a few years back. I loved the affectionate yet realistic portrayal of Texas, my home state, and its near-pathological love of high school football. The characters are all well-drawn and authentic, but the nerve center of the show is Coach Tim Taylor, who led two different football teams to be the very best they could be. Fans of the show know his signature mantra, which offers wisdom for on the field and off:

Coach Taylor has been on my mind recently, as I work on my certification as a personal and professional coach through the International Coach Federation. I’ve attended sixty hours of training, will soon start a stint with a mentor coach, and am accumulating hours coaching clients. When the process is completed, I will be an Associate Certified Coach (ACC).

The kind of coaching I do is different from Coach Taylor in some important ways. An athletic coach is directive, calling the plays and demanding results. A personal or professional coach’s job is to help a client identify goals and develop a strategy for meeting those goals. Coaches draw out the wisdom, creativity, and resourcefulness of their clients, helping them break through resistance and map a way forward.

As a pastor in a new church several years ago, I worked with a ministry coach for several months. This person helped me figure out a plan for managing my new role, and kept me accountable to the hard work that we often find every excuse not to do. I was much more likely to do a tough task because I knew “Coach B” would ask about it when we met!

My job as a coach is to listen deeply, ask good questions, and help clients learn to manage the stuff that’s getting in the way of meeting a goal, whether that goal is to become more effective on the job, find better work-life balance, parent with greater intention, etc. Here’s an article about what coaching does.

In today’s newsletter, I am practicing what Amanda Palmer calls “the art of asking.” Most of us love to help others, and find it much harder to ask for help ourselves. And yet doesn’t it feel good to help someone? Why would we deprive others of that satisfaction?

In that humble spirit, here are my modest “asks”: 1. I invite you to like my Facebook page, ZOOM! Coaching, where you will receive periodic links, wisdom, announcements and challenges. 2. If you’re interested in receiving coaching—or you want to learn more about it—I invite you to schedule a trial appointment. Coaching appointments take place by phone or video conference and are usually 45-50 minutes. I offer the first one for free--this way, we get to know one another, try out the coaching relationship, and see if it's a good fit. No obligation. If the client wishes to continue, we then talk about number of sessions, fees, etc. You can access my calendar at or email me at 3. If you know someone who might be interested in or benefit from coaching, I invite you to forward this message to them and have them get in touch me.

I am excited to add “coach” to my roles as writer, author, and speaker. And as always, I thank you for being on the path with me.

Peace, joy and Yes, MaryAnn

P.S. Bonus links!

  1. I'm on the aijcast podcast this week, talking art, inspiration and justice with Marthame Sanders. Was an honor to be on his show!
  2. This blog post about body image and my own athletic journey got a big response.
  3. My latest Ten for Tuesday: an assortment of links, videos and other goodies.