From dancer to personal development coach: MATZ SKOOG

Coaching is about taking a functioning person to excellence

He had a successful career as a principal dancer in English National Ballet, then as artistic director of Royal New Zealand Ballet, artistic director of English National Ballet, as well as a teacher, internationally in demand – Matz Skoog explains why he has become a personal development coach.

Tell me what a life coach is.

I tend to use the term personal or professional development coach because life coach has taken on rather lightweight connotations.  It’s a saturated market out there, so you need to define yourself, exactly what sort of coach you are and what kind of people you work with, in order to attract the clientele. I’m still working on it – defining my message. People don’t come to buy coaching, they come to solve a problem. No one needs coaching, it’s something you want because you have an issue or a vision. If someone asks me what I do, I say I work with successful, ambitious people who want to move ahead faster in an area of their life that really matters to them. People who have got stuck and need to move on, in their life or in their career.

What was it that inspired you to change your career path?

Well, I started dancing when I was 8, in full-time training in Stockholm.  I was basically institutionalised. By the time I was 12, there was never any doubt that I was going to become a dancer. I moved directly from the school into Royal Swedish Ballet and by the age of 22, had already been quite successful. Then I came to London and did about 12 years with London Festival Ballet/English National Ballet (ENB), then I was freelance. By the time I stopped dancing I’d been on stage for almost 30 years. It’s an insular lifestyle, because the profession demands a narrow focus. It’s a very self-absorbing way of life. Then I got interested in leadership. From about 28, I aspired to become an artistic director. I looked at other people in those positions and thought, this can be done better. By the time I had reached the age of 49, I had been a director for about 10 years and I’d got there without any preparation at all. I don’t think I necessarily showed any aptitude for directing. At the time, many people had become directors because they had had successful dance careers, not because they were good leaders. So at the end of it all, I had had some success and some failures, made mistakes, not because I’m a bad person, but because I’d had no training for management. I learnt on the job. There are 5 or 6 leadership styles and mine was definitely democratic. It worked very well in New Zealand but not in the UK because they expected an authoritarian leadership, which didn’t come naturally to me.

Matz Skoog in Maurice Béjart’s “Boléro”, Photo private archive

At the end of my time at ENB I was seriously looking into leadership development and I thought that if I could help others to do a little better than I have, then that’s the right direction. I was looking for avenues, and it was about 2006 that I found a basic course in life coaching. I got a certificate and although I didn’t immediately become ‘a coach’ – I did start using my coaching skills in my capacity as a dance teacher. I changed the way I worked. I changed my language in class, how I corrected and tried to enable people to improve their technique rather than telling them what to do.

For the next 10 years, coaching was part of my life, then about 3 years ago, I decided to acquire a proper, formal certification in Executive Coaching and Mentoring accredited by The City and Guilds of London Institute and the Institute of Leadership and Management.

Clearly it is helpful, particularly in dance, to have early coaching rather than leaving it to the end and thinking, ‘Oh f**k, what do I do now?’ In my opinion, most dancers are intelligent people because I don’t think you become successful in anything unless you have a brain.

So, a young dancer embarking on a career, who comes to you – how are they going to benefit?

Throughout my years as a teacher and artistic director, I have seen a lot of young dancers come into a company, often very talented, but they lose their way. They might have lovely pirouettes or batterie and trained hard for 10 years, but they haven’t acquired the life skills to become a professional. They might lose their sense of purpose or put on weight or lose confidence. It’s especially so with classical ballet dancers rather than contemporary, it’s the nature of the life. Contemporary dancers engage with the work in a different way. Classical ballet is, unfortunately, still very much governed by command and control. They’re told what to do, when to do it, how to do it. Suddenly you have to make your own decisions. Also, someone has been paid money for them to receive a service. Then overnight, if they’re lucky enough to get a contract, they become the service provider. That’s a huge shift of life perspective, which we don’t prepare for. It’s very blinkered, partly because of the demands of the profession, but also because of the culture of dance training. It doesn’t necessarily encourage any initiative, any self-management. So I think there is a role for coaching in the transition from school to company.

Matz Skoog in Christopher Bruce’s “Land” with Janette Mulligan and Craig Randolph, Photo private archive
Matz Skoog in Maurice Béjart’s “Boléro”, Photo private archive

I think everyone should have access to a coach all the time.  It’s someone who you can work with independently, who has a vested interest in you, emotionally, not just in your success. It’s a completely objective relationship. The company isn’t involved, or the parents. It’s just you. It can help with everything from personal development, to project management, planning, strategising. It can be very practical – there’s transactional coaching, about practical issues, setting goals and then there is transitional, which is about personal change, change of attitudes, change of behaviours and habits.

It is not to be confused with therapy?

It’s not, no – the distinction being that therapy is about taking a person from being dysfunctional to being functional. Coaching is about taking a functioning person to excellence. So it’s about taking someone who is already well-functioning, who aspires to something greater.

 And how do you measure success with your clients?

That’s a really good question!  It’s very difficult to quantify the success of coaching. The questions I always ask a new client is how will they measure the success of coaching; how will they know if it’s working for them. It’s about the client defining what they deem as being a successful outcome.

Matz Skoog as The Moon in Christopher Bruce’s “Cruel Garden” Photo private archive

One of the things about coaching is that you enable the client to feel good about things, positive. You help them to become proactive in their own success. Coaching also comes on a continuum of completely non-directive to very directive. The purists will always say you shouldn’t direct in any way – you should only ask open-ended questions. But if you have a piece of advice that would be useful to that person, it would be pointless withholding it. It’s very important to deliver it in such a way that the person will take it on board. The natural way to respond is to reject it. If it’s too direct, it’s a form of attack and chemically, the amygdala in the brain will react with the fight or flight response.

Don’t you think that dancers are trained to just do what they’re told?

They are trained – so then you need to ‘untrain’ them! Help them to make their own decisions. Dancers are not keen to do that because it’s easier to be told what to do.

What about offering a service to a company – someone coming back from a long injury, having a baby?

Yes, absolutely.  A company might approach me about these scenarios or if they’re coming to the end of their career. It’s about guidance. Then it becomes a three way relationship between the organisation, the coach and the coachee which is how a lot of executive coaching works anyway. The company becomes the client, but what happens between the coach and the coachee remains completely confidential.

Private archive

Dancing is ritualistic, habitual, and I think dancers, when they change careers, go through a lot of grieving. They don’t necessarily know it – they might want to stop dancing, but it’s about changing your existence. A lot of dancers don’t fully understand what kind of lives they live – they take it for granted. It’s a great life and a privilege, but although it does teach you a lot of skills, you don’t necessarily know how to apply them in another area.  A lot of people I work with are perfectionists. I tell them not to worry about being perfect, try to be excellent because excellence is something you can choose. It’s achievable!

Deborah Weiss

The interview was taken by Deborah Weiss in Summer 2019