Real play, the ‘Vaccine of the Century’?


Merriam-Webster’s 2020 word of the year was ‘pandemic’. Indeed, COVID-19 has shaped lives and altered workspaces for more than a year now, forcing us to stay creative in the professional arena and find intrinsic motivation for personal improvement. It has pushed us physically apart while bringing many of us closer and giving us the gift of adaptability and crisis management.

One year on, however, I can safely speak for everyone when I say that we are eager for this pandemic to be over. And it is in the vaccine, what many are viewing as the panacea to all virus-related woes, that parallels to professional coaching emerge.

For many, any vaccine technology is a grey area of obfuscation, with their levels of knowledge falling somewhere beside a layperson’s grasp of the refrigerator — something they see working daily but have a poor grasp of the mechanics of. And with the relatively new mRNA technology of both the Pfizer- BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, this confusion is magnified tenfold.

However, these scientific misunderstandings pale in comparison to the mystery that shrouds coaching today.

What do we do, really, in our tiny offices and gargantuan convention halls?
Do we sit behind desks and take furious notes, as clients bemoan their careers on therapist-esque couches?

Do we give fervent motivational speeches, all fluff and fun, behind the façade of substance?

For me, one of the primary techniques I use in coaching is that of real play.
It defines how I conduct individual and small group sessions and its interactive and innovative approach reflects how I coach.

Therefore, in the age of misinformation, I would like to demystify both mRNA vaccines and real play, by drawing on their parallel threads of similarity.


Clearly, the first question to ask of any technique would be ‘What is it?’.
Both the vaccination and coaching techniques rely on the patient or client to bring their resources to the table. Unlike traditional vaccines, where the weakened virus itself is injected into the patient, mRNA vaccines inject codes into the patient and rely on the body to do the rest.

Unlike traditional role-play in trainings, realplay allows the client to bring their specific concerns and scenarios to each session, and talk through such issues in a safe and productive space, at once non-confrontational and yet professional.


With this understanding of the underpinnings of these unique techniques, we can move to ask,‘ How do they work? ’querying the technical nitty-gritty of execution.
An mRNA vaccine is simple in theory and nuanced in practice. While the vaccine injects codes into the patient, it is the patient’s own cells that serve as the cradle and form the cure, producing the enemy even as they train the defense. It is thus against a specific enemy that the body practices and against a specific enemy that it is prepared to defend.
Similarly, real play prepares the clients to tackle a specific situation in their professional lives, enabling the coach to tackle issues the clients truly face and generate specific and apt solutions.

Through the coach acting as a superior, a colleague or a team member, the client has the opportunity to obtain feedback on his ‘plans of attack’, fine-tuning his responses and gaining the chance at redux if a certain tactic falls flat.


And of course, lastly: ‘What are the results?’.

Here is where the ties between vaccine and coaching technique unravel. mRNA vaccines have a checkered past and are largely untested in research and practical arenas, with their medical efficacy yet to be proven by the rigours of the scientific process and the tests of time.

And yet, real play is a technique that has been utilised time and time again, with palpable profit.

Perhaps the clearest, as previously noted, would be the chance to bring genuine scenarios and ideas into the coaching scene. After all, it is all well and good to practice effective team-management strategies in a sample situation, but translation into real-world events often fails miserably or falls apart entirely, as the hypothetical roleplay leaves no room for the often-fraught team dynamics the client may face on the ground.

To ensure real return on investment, it is essential that we tackle the heart of the issue, through direct real play, that gives clients a safe space to attempt new strategies apt for their own situation, and come to epiphanies apt for their situation.

However, just as a nurse trains to administer vaccines, so a coach must be prepared to implement real play into regular sessions, for in a layperson’s hands such a technique could do more harm than good.

After all, its very propensity for real-world change also results in direct, visible consequences resulting from the coach’s partnership. And so, now that I have hopefully convinced you of the relative efficacy of real play, here are some tips for ensuring its success.

1. Be ready to act in any role and any capacity

Many proponents of real play believe the coach’s role should be reserved for that of an employer or superior, to capitalise on the intrinsic power dynamic of coaching and fast-track the client’s progress towards an appropriate response to an individual of higher status. However, I would disagree. Often, it is in team management that clients seeking real play find challenges — not the difficulty of justifying one’s decisions to a superior, but the intricate social networks that govern how their teams act and react.

It would be naïve to dismiss these concerns as unimportant or to refuse to act in such a capacity if the client so requests. There is no problem too insignificant, no issue too trivial, for any concern that the client brings to the table is likely to have been weighing on their mind and sure to cause a butterfly effect once lifted.

2. Avoid personal attacks and provide mature and professional feedback

Realplay inevitably touches on issues of personal relationships and the repeated retackling of a situation is likely to lead to significant frustration. Avoid getting involved in such issues unless you feel comfortable and equipped to handle them. Rather, direct the conversation towards actionable items, focusing on how the client could affect change instead of how unfair a superior is being, or how uncooperative a teammate is.
By concentrating on the objective over the subjective, a sense of weight and legitimacy is lent to the coaching session, preventing it from devolving into a series of ad hominem attacks.

3. Do not hesitate to stop and redirect if the client does not seem ready for real play

When clients begin trying to craft their fantasy scenarios instead of tackling grim reality, when they start to overdirect and cast aside all inclinations towards professionalism and reality itself, when they begin to break down over the insistent authenticity realplay provides. All are signs that the client may not be ready for such a technique and would not benefit from repeated attempts at real play. Instead, I would recommend you redirect and re-engage. Talk through the heart of the issue before working towards resolution, untangle complex feelings before using real play to iron out the practical kinks. Realplay is not a one-size-fits-all solution for all situations, all clients, or all companies. Rather, it is merely one tool in an arsenal, one that is effective only if used for its intended purpose.

Today, as countries around the world roll out numerous mRNA vaccines, it is my hope that coaches around the world will also equip themselves with innovative and novel coaching techniques, whether realplay or otherwise. Let’s not wait for a coaching epidemic before we begin to inoculate ourselves against complacency in the profession. And let’s demystify what we do, moving beyond vague ideas of psychoanalysis and roleplay and into real, concrete practice.

Thanks to coaching, people from around the world have been able to surpass their limitations and achieve their personal and professional goals. Get ready to be inspired by true stories of profound change at

The International Coaching Federation (ICF) is the world’s largest organisationleading the global advancement of the coaching profession and fostering coaching’s role as an integral part of a thriving society. Founded in 1995, its 35,000plus members located in more than 140 countries and territories work toward common goals of enhancing awareness of coaching and upholding the integrity of the profession through lifelong learning, maintaining the highest ethical standards. Through the work of its six unique family organisations, ICF empowers professional coaches, coaching clients, organisations, communities and the world through coaching. Visit for more information.

In India, ICF is represented by six vibrant chapters, all led by volunteers — ICF Bengaluru, ICF Chennai, ICF Delhi, ICF Mumbai, ICF Pune and ICF Hyderabad.

The author, Mira Ma is an accredited Executive Coach for aspiring high potentials, senior leaders and C- suites for the Fortune 500s and technology startups. To date, she has over 30 years of business experience. Mira facilitates learning on interpersonal dynamics, conscious leadership, digital transformation and strategic experimentation. She is appreciated for her eclectic and practical approach, along with her energising presence. Mira has an MBA, is an ICF Master Certified Coach (MCC) and an EMCC Coach/Mentor Supervisor. Born in Singapore, she divides her time between Amsterdam, London, Nice and Singapore for work and residence.

The author, Karis Ma is an up-and-coming young author, with published works in anthologies including Eye on the World: Tomorrow’s Cover and Thinking Minds, Writing Worlds. She delights in social commentary through unorthodox means, whether they be an incisive short story or a wryly- phrased non-fiction article, and holds particular interest in marrying the Science and Humanities in her pieces, as well as in exploring unique interpersonal relationships. Based in Singapore, she hopes to expand her work on the international stage.

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