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May 16, 2024

Clarifying the coaching confusion

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I don’t even know if I want to call myself a coach anymore. I’m a coach, yes, but not that kind of coach.

Versions of this conversation pop up in almost every coach gathering I attend.

My side of the internet is full of coaches who nerd out about the craft of coaching. We talk about the intake process, re-contracting during a session, and the art of interruption, as if we were musicologists obsessing over all the music history wrapped up in Beyoncé’s Cowboy Carter album.

There’s another, sexier side of the internet, also talking about coaching. You’ll find screenshots of five-figure bank balances paired with the intimation that you, too, could make this much money in a day. These coaches often “coach” people to “coach” other people to become “coaches.” I use quotes because the skills of coaching are rarely involved in these MLM-esque scenarios.

But guess which side of the internet comes to mind when people think of coaching?

As I watch increasingly heated conversations about coaching on social media, I want to do my best impression of the principal at the end of Mean Girls, pull the metaphorical fire alarm, and scream, “WE’RE ALL USING THE WORD COACHING, BUT WE MEAN DIFFERENT THINGS! LET’S GET ON THE SAME PAGE!”

Alas, I’m a woman who had to practice talking loudly in speech therapy last year. My vocal chords simply weren’t made to yell. So this piece will have to suffice. We’ll cover:

  • A brief history of coaching
  • What coaching means
  • How coaching differs from consulting or mentoring
  • The role of training, certification, and accreditation in coaching

The history of coaching

Thank you to the authors of this article for getting me up to speed on coaching history.

The term coach is coming up on its 200th anniversary, but I’m going to sum it up with two objects: a carriage and a tennis racket.

The noun coach first referred to a horse-drawn carriage, many of which were made in the Hungarian town of Koc. Around 1830, someone at Oxford referred to a tutor as a coach. It was a metaphor. The tutor transported the student to a new level of understanding, like a coach transported nobles from their country estates into London.

It took a few decades, but the metaphor caught on. In 1861, someone brought the idea of coaches and coaching to the athletic space. And now most of us think of a coach as a person rather than a carriage.

Fast forward another century or so, and we meet Tim Gallwey. A former Harvard tennis player, Gallwey wrote The Inner Game of Tennis. In it, he separates the external game, the athletic skills coaching traditionally focused on, from the inner game, the beliefs and behaviors that keep us from performing at our highest potential.

It didn’t take long for people to realize that coaching the inner game expanded far beyond tennis. Gallwey teamed up with Sir John Whitmore to write Coaching for Performance, which introduced hundreds of thousands of people to the GROW model, a coaching model that’s applicable in classrooms, living rooms, and boardrooms alike.

Western culture loves sports. Gallwey and Whitmore found a primal resonance by drawing parallels between coaching for athletic performance and coaching for performance in every other area of our lives.

Unfortunately, that instinctual resonance is also where the confusion lies. Now we’ve got one word for coaching and two games people are coaching, the inner game and the external game.

Coaching those games requires very different skillsets. When you’re coaching the outer game, you’re observing and instructing.

For a tennis player, it sounds like, “Try lengthening your arm as you swing.”

For a business owner, coaching the outer game is more like, “Add this question to the beginning of your sales calls so they flow better.”

Coaching the inner game is less directive but equally pointed. You’re active listening to a degree that makes you realize how shallow your listening is in the rest of your life and asking questions so powerful the coachee can’t help but experience a perspective shift.

If we want to clear up the internet’s confusion about coaching, we need more terms and a few mutually agreed upon definitions. (Why yes, I am the daughter of an English teacher. Thanks for asking.)

Let’s start by defining coaching.

What is coaching?

First, let’s agree to set athletic coaching aside as its own separate skillset. That’s not what I’m talking about here.

I’m talking about the coaching you can do without a field or a net in sight.

We met Sir John Whitmore earlier in our whirlwind tour of coaching history. People love to quote his definition of coaching. Read this with a soft British accent.  

“[Coaching is] unlocking people’s potential to maximise their own performance. It is helping them to learn rather than teaching them.”

Here’s the International Coaching Federation’s (ICF) take:

[Coaching is] partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.

If we were in a coaching session right now, I’d ask you what stood out to you about those two definitions.

Maybe you’re surprised the emphasis is on the client, not the coach. Both definitions use the word maximize. And there’s an underlying current of possibility.

Neither definition positions the coach as the expert. Whitmore tells us we’re not teaching when we’re coaching. We’re partnering, says the ICF.

I don’t want to spend too much time in the semantic weeds. Practice wins out over theory in my book. The concept clicked for me when I compared coaching to consulting and mentoring.

How is coaching different from consulting or mentoring?

Let me be clear. I have nothing against being a mentor or a consultant. I hold both roles in my life as well. Pointing out the differences doesn’t mean I’m creating a hierarchy.

Different doesn’t mean better or worse. Different means different.

In coaching, the client is the expert. As Co-Active, one of the OG coach certification programs, likes to say, “People are naturally creative, resourceful, and whole.” A coach’s job is to unlock the brilliance that already exists within the client.

That’s not the vibe in consulting and mentoring. In those relationships, we expect the mentor or coach to come with the answers based on their knowledge and lived experience.

What happens when a coach views the client as the expert? They ask questions—simple ones, silly ones, pointed questions that make you close your eyes and tilt your head before you answer.

They listen to what you say and what you don’t say. Coaches observe and share what they’re seeing, without layering on any assumptions, so you can make connections of your own. And they hold you accountable as you move in whatever direction you set.

Questions have a role in consulting and mentoring, but the questions are there to inform their recommendation for your next steps. In coaching, the next step is for you to decide.

Let’s play this out in a scenario.

Say you’ve been in middle management for a while. You’ve tried to make the leap into senior leadership, but you keep getting passed over. You decide to reach out to a coach, a consultant, and a mentor.

The coach will ask you questions to clarify why you want to move into senior leadership, what’s getting in the way, based on your own perception, they might weave in external feedback through a 360 assessment, and work with you to move through each of those obstacles. In a session, you're just as likely to explore the belief, “I’ll never move up in my career” as you are to co-create strategies for the parts of interviews that get you so nervous you forget how sentences work.

A consultant who specializes in preparing people for senior leadership roles will be more directive. They might give line-by-line resume edits, tell you what positions suit you best, based on a skills assessment, direct you on how to answer interview questions, or even audit your wardrobe.

A mentor will hear your concerns and tell you about how they, or someone in their network, dealt with something similar. They might also give you a peek into the thought process of the person doing the hiring. A mentor’s been there. They’ve learned things the hard way, and they’re generous in sharing their experience, so you can have it easier than they did.

I’m painting with really broad brush strokes here, but hopefully you’re seeing that these skills are all useful.

Remember: none is better or worse. Just different.

When we understand the distinctions, we can speak with more clarity and stop talking past each other on the internet.

Personally, I’d love to see people more Instagram bios that say consultant or advisor instead of coach.

The Sagittarius sun, Enneagram 4 wing in me also wants you to know that you can wear multiple hats. It may come as a surprise because I’ve spent *checks notes* over 1,000 words parsing out the differences between coaching, mentoring, and consulting.

But I move in and out of those roles, especially when I’m working with business owners.

I always lead with coaching. And I try to build awareness or ask permission before I shift into another mode. I normally ask a question like, “Is it fine if I shift into consultant mode for a second?”

I learned that trick from my coach training, which leads me to the last question I want to address.

Does coaching certification (and accreditation) matter?

The more I sit with this question, the more I see both certification and accreditation as a proxy.

When I say that I went through a Level 2 ICF-approved coach training, I’m saying that I went through:

  • 211 hours of training
  • 1:1 and group mentoring with more tenured coaches
  • 75 hours of practice coaching clients
  • 6 coaching sessions where a mentor coach observed me coaching
  • A test with multiple choice and several long answers

Referencing my training is a shorthand way to say that I put in the work to develop the skill of coaching.

And that feels important because coaching is unregulated in the United States. Not-so-theoretically, someone who read a book or watched a 20 minute YouTube video could say that they’re a coach.

Training and certification are one way to show my commitment to the craft of coaching. It’s a proxy for skill mastery, and I’ll be the first to admit it’s an imperfect proxy.

There are people who can’t afford thousands of dollars for a certification but will spend hundreds of hours on their own to develop their coaching skills. There are also people in every profession who have put in the hours to pass the bar or the board exam or the coaching certification and…are still bad at their jobs.

Even though it’s imperfect, I recommend that clients looking for a coach—not a consultant or a mentor—ask about the coach’s training, if it isn’t on their website.

If certification is a proxy for skill mastery, accreditation is a commitment to ongoing skill development. When you get certified through an International Coaching Federation (ICF) approved training, you can choose to take an extra step and get accredited by the ICF. This involves:

  • Showing that you’ve done a minimum of 100 hours of client coaching
  • Taking another standardized test
  • Having a video of a coaching session reviewed to make sure it meets ICF standards
  • Committing to follow a code of ethics
  • Completing a set amount of continuing education with each renewal cycle

The last two bullet points stand out to me most. As an ICF-accredited coach, I’m obligated to think about conflicts of interest in my coaching business and to refer clients to a therapist if it’s clear the support they need is beyond the scope of what I can offer. You can report an ICF-accredited coach who’s acting outside of the code of ethics, which adds a layer of external accountability that isn’t often seen in the online business world.

Beyond the code of ethics, I’m also required to keep growing as a coach. Which, if you know me, isn’t really a struggle I have. I can’t help but learn! Still, I appreciate the structure that the continuous education requirement offers me.

Do I think the extra step of ICF-accreditation for coaches is a dealbreaker? Not really, but I think it’s valuable for everyone to know what the terms certification and accreditation mean.

That’s the point of this entire piece, really. I just want us to know what terms mean so we can use them with intention and make informed decisions.

If you’re a coach, consultant, or mentor, I invite you to use the term that best represents the work you do with clients.

If you’re a potential client, I hope you have a better sense of how to vet coaches.

Most of all, I hope this piece brought you some clarity!

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