Becoming a Coach: A Roadmap to Training

by Jim Gavin, PhD and Madeleine McBrearty, PhD (candidate) on May 27, 2008

Weigh all the relevant factors before choosing a coach training program.

The new field of personal or life coaching represents a rich avenue for career development for fitness and wellness professionals. At national and international industry conferences, coaching sessions are on the rise, and significant numbers of instructors and trainers are expanding their careers with coaching services. What is this new field (see the sidebar “What Is Coaching?” for a succinct definition), and what do you need to know to be an informed consumer of coach training programs?

In this article we will explore the apparent forces that are driving growth in the coaching field. Our next task will be to identify factors that distinguish existing coach training programs in North America. Following this, we will look at coach training options from the consumer’s perspective. Finally, we will offer some general impressions of what will help you along the path of a coaching career.

Why Coaching Now?

Coaching has been on the professional landscape for approximately 15 years, though its roots extend back to at least the mid 20th century. Management consultants, psychologists, motivational speakers and various New Age gurus claim to have laid the cornerstones of the burgeoning coaching field. In fact the field represents a hybrid of all these approaches. What is most evident is that from 1995, when the International Coach Federation (ICF) was founded, to the present day, expansion of the coaching profession has been exponential.

Coaching has capitalized on major changes in society over the past couple decades, notably the technology revolution and the highly unpredictable though demanding nature of modern careers. Coaches connect with clients (or coachees, as they are sometimes called) over the phone, via the Internet or in person. Scheduling is flexible and well-suited to a mobile society. Moreover, coaches tend to focus on practical agendas, such as exercising daily or getting a job, rather than on complex and deep-seated issues like personality change.

Why do people need coaches? There isn’t a simple answer, but one reason reflected in coaching texts (Whitworth et al. 2007) is that many people feel stuck in some pattern or behavior and need help moving on. Why don’t they seek counseling or therapy? Perhaps they want to avoid the stigma attached to therapy’s reliance on the “medical model,” which implies that clients are sick. More likely, however, coaching’s popularity comes from the fact that it gets results (Greene & Grant 2003). It stresses action rather than analysis and understanding. Clients can concretely point to positive changes and accomplishments, often achieved in a short period of time.

Everybody’s a Coach!

The explosion of coaching has unintentionally fostered a belief that everyone’s a coach—or at least that everyone has the potential to be a coach. In a most general sense, this idea has merit, but it undermines the professionalism of the new field. What is unequivocally true is that anyone can call themselves a coach—and that spells trouble!

Even though organizations like the ICF have made headway toward professionalizing the field, coaching faces the same challenges that the fitness industry has confronted over the last half century with regard to certification and licensing. For potential coaches looking for a reputable program leading to certification, the options appear unlimited—and difficult to evaluate.

Foundational Knowledge

The ICF ( has meticulously detailed 11 core competencies widely accepted within the coaching profession. Anyone intending to become a coach is expected to demonstrate mastery of these abilities. A coach must know how to


  • meet ethical guidelines and professional standards
  • develop a clear and detailed coaching agreement
  • be open, flexible and present with the client
  • establish trust and intimacy with the client
  • be an active listener
  • ask powerful questions
  • communicate directly
  • foster awareness in the client
  • design learning opportunities and results-oriented actions
  • plan effectively and set client-centered goals
  • manage progress and accountability


With the depth and complexity of subject matter essential to effective coaching, it is perplexing that training programs are typically very short (see “Length and Cost of Training”). Of course, there are substantially longer programs, too. However, what is rarely expressed in advertisements for coaching schools is that coaches who succeed usually come to their practice with impressive resumés of prior professional experience in related fields of work. Coaching requires an extensive background in working with people, in addition to professional training. The proposition that taking a coach certification course will make you a coach is misleading.

Training Options: Key Distinguishing Factors

We have identified a number of key factors distinguishing the various training options. It will be helpful to become acquainted with these.

General vs. Targeted Coaching. Some training programs claim to prepare you for any agenda a client might bring you; others deal with only a specific kind of issue (for instance, career transitions).

Expert vs. Nonexpert Coaching. Expert, or directive, coaching entails directing the client toward certain actions; nonexpert, or nondirective, coaching is a process of “walking alongside” the client as he or she makes choices and decisions. Expert coaching can be highly prescriptive, while nonexpert coaching is strongly collaborative and co-creative in its processes.

Short-Term vs. Long-Term Focus. In some cases, especially when coaching is targeted to a specific issue, training may be brief. In other cases, typically when coaching is viewed as an ongoing process that moves from one agenda to the next, training is likely to be longer and wider in scope.

Theory-Based vs. Pragmatic Approach. Some coaching schools adhere strongly to a particular theory; many are more pragmatic, borrowing a wide variety of ideas and practices without particular concern for their theoretical roots.

Reliance on Tests and Diagnostics vs. Optional Testing. Whether or not a school is theory-based does not dictate whether it recommends using diagnostic questionnaires or tests with clients. Some schools publish manuals with hundreds of questionnaires that coaches can use or not, as they wish. Other schools advocate specific diagnostic measures and processes.

Teleclass vs. Face-to-Face vs. Online vs. Self-Study Delivery. The dominant mode of coach training has been by phone, through teleconference classes. In-person residential programs are also available—usually at higher cost. Online courses are another option. A fourth training model is self-study, where students are assigned a text and may also use DVDs and CDs to aid comprehension.

University-Based Program vs. Private Institute. In the early years of coaching, almost all training programs were offered by private, for-profit institutions. Now there are also university-based programs, some of which offer certificates, while others award academic degrees.

Practicum vs. No Practicum. Some programs require students to do “practice coaching” with a limited number of clients; others have no such requirement. When a practicum is included, students are typically expected to find their own clients and to offer their services for about 2–3 months.

Supervision vs. Self-Monitoring. Schools may provide supervision of in-class coaching exercises; clinic sessions where students discuss their outside coaching relations; or one-on-one supervision of students’ coaching practice. Personal supervision is commonly referred to as “mentor coaching.” Self-monitoring essentially means that students are on their own in practical applications.

Recommended vs. Required Personal Coaching. Most schools encourage students to undertake personal coaching themselves, but few require it for certification.

Accredited vs. Nonaccredited School. Professional coach organizations, including the ICF, set standards for and evaluate schools that offer coaching programs. When hiring, some companies look for coaches who have either been certified by a professional coach organization or have attended a school accredited by one of these organizations.

Which Training Is Right for You?

All this information is a lot to consider. Let’s condense it to the major issues you will want to think about when deciding which training is right for you. We will do this by clustering the characteristics described above.

Coaching Style

Classic texts in the coaching field (Coach U 2005; Gavin 2005; Whitworth et al. 2007) drill into the novice’s awareness the principle that clients are in charge of the agenda and have the necessary answers within themselves. The coach may ask “powerful questions” and “foster awareness,” but telling a client what to do is almost taboo. This perspective is not universally shared, however. In the expert coaching model, the coach gathers extensive information about each client and comes up with a plan. To a significant degree, the coach assesses and directs.

Is there a right approach? The answer is tricky. Consider any kind of coaching around issues where there is a well-established body of scientific knowledge pertaining to the subject the client wishes to address—like nutrition or exercise. The client is unlikely to have the answers about specific program details or technical matters. It would be unethical for a coach to allow a client to choose an unhealthy diet or a potentially damaging exercise program. In this regard, the coach needs to take on the role of expert—but only with regard to this topic. After all, the client is the expert about the client. Effective coaches drop the expert role when working on motivation, commitment, strategy and implementation.

For virtually all forms of coaching, a nonexpert style is necessary. Fitness professionals are typically trained in expert guidance, so learning how to work with clients in a nondirective manner can be a long journey. In truth, this approach develops over years, not weeks or months, and no coaching school can guarantee its development in the short term. In choosing a coaching program, you should pay attention to whether the school relies on formulas or cookbook approaches rather than building core competencies that prepare coaches to work flexibly, drawing on both directive and nondirective strategies as needed.

Length and Cost of Training

Some organizations certify coaches after a single day’s training, a program of self-directed study, or series of teleconferences amounting to little more than 20 hours of direct instruction. Other institutes offer intensive residential programs or stretch the training over hundreds of hours distributed across 6 months or more. Cost varies just as widely, usually paralleling the length and intensity of training.

In our opinion, the time to take short courses is after you have already completed a lengthy and comprehensive coach training program. Thinking you can grasp the theories and master the practice of coaching in a day or two is as unrealistic as trying to learn human anatomy from a 1-hour lecture. However, if you have completed a lengthy program, then a 1- or 2-day course covering a specific topic makes perfect sense.

Methods of Delivery

As noted, the training to be a coach—like coaching itself—can take place face-to-face, over the phone (through teleclasses), electronically over the Internet or through self-study. Tele­conference classes are extremely popular. As technology develops, this option may have broader appeal by including visual transmissions, but currently its major advantage is accessibility. Some organizations use a mentorship model, where training occurs in a one-to-one relationship between a mentor coach and an apprentice. Most coaching teleclasses, however, have 20 or more participants on the line. This creates a potentially uncomfortable state of anonymity, not to mention reducing the possibility of feedback.

The fact that some coaching schools advocate phone coaching for clients does not imply that the best way to deliver training for phone coaching is through teleclasses. Lectures might work well in this format, but discussions can be difficult unless the class is very small (not more than five or six participants). Another consideration is how you learn best. If you learn by listening to lectures and limited discussions, a teleclass could work for you. If you need to see the people with whom you are working, a live seminar will suit you better.

Nature of the School

We work at a university, yet we don’t think universities necessarily have the best training programs. Coach training has had a long, successful history in the private sector. Universities tend to be static in their teaching approaches, while coach training institutes have shown themselves to be innovative, flexible and rapidly evolving.

What we predict will happen in the near future is that more universities will offer certificate and degree programs that will provide greater depth and coverage than the current norm in the coaching industry. For instance, a master’s degree program might comprise 10 or more courses spanning 400 hours of education in addition to practicum supervision. Graduate-level coach education is currently available in a limited number of universities (e.g., The University of Sydney,; The Fielding Graduate University,; Royal Roads University,; The University of Texas at Dallas,

At present, private institutes and centers dominate coach training. When evaluating these organizations, it is important to know how long they have been in business, what their graduates are doing and what qualifications both faculty and program participants have. For some schools the sole selection criterion appears to be “What kind of credit card will you be using to pay for this program?” Representatives of these schools are not concerned about candidates’ backgrounds, only about “closing the deal.” And as you will discover, it makes a great difference to your education who your classmates are—and what foundational knowledge they have in entering the program.

Schools also vary according to the clients for whom they prepare coaches. Generic programs teach coaching for virtually any issue and any person who is deemed “coachable.” Other programs focus on coaching related to specific subject matter—nutrition, exercise, careers, life transitions, relationships or executive performance. As you deliberate, you might bear in mind the model of medical training, where students learn something about everything before they specialize.

Other factors to consider are the theoretical orientation and practical methodologies advocated by the schools. For example, neurolinguistic programming (NLP) underlies a number of training approaches. Both of us have studied NLP and respect its principles, yet it has some specialized methods that you might want to explore before committing.

More typically, coaching schools borrow from a wide range of theories, which seems quite appropriate. The question you will want answered is how well each school articulates the theoretical roots of its teachings. Informing apprentice coaches that their course material derives from models of self-efficacy (Bandura 1997), self-regulation (Baumeister & Heatherton 2004), appreciative inquiry (Cooperrider, Whitney & Stavros 2008) or cognitive behavior therapy (Sudak 2006) not only grounds students in a knowledge base but also allows them to read more about the topics.

Another important point to consider is whether the schools are accredited by or affiliated with a recognized coaching association. In the present scenario, ICF accreditation seems to carry the most weight in the coaching world, so attending an ICF-accredited school could facilitate your professional development. The ICF website provides a list of its accredited programs.

Practical Elements Within the Program

In weighing the pros and cons of a training program, ask the following: Does it rely on specific forms of client assessment or testing? Will you be supervised in your work? Does the program require that you be coached yourself? Does it train you for long-term work with clients, or is the emphasis on brief, focused interventions?

These are weighty questions. Take the matter of assessment or diagnostic testing. Most of us have completed dozens of self-examination quizzes published by magazines or posted on the Web. We may treat the results like daily horoscope readings, and typically the assessments are pretty innocuous. However, when professionals direct tests and diagnostics, they tend to take on greater significance, even though the instruments themselves may be similar to those available in popular media. How much training will you receive in the recommended assessment methodology? More important, how valid are the tests themselves? Can the school point you to published scientific articles for verification?

Since any training program is intended to prepare you for practice, to what degree does the school evaluate your ability to coach? It’s important to determine what opportunities there are for role playing and also for reviews of client sessions that you conduct outside the classroom. In addition, what possibilities exist for mentoring sessions? Does a senior practitioner review your work and sometimes listen in as a third party to your live telephone coaching sessions? One-on-one supervision usually comes at additional cost, yet we think it constitutes one of the most important components of your training. Without direct personal supervision, what you learn remains professionally unevaluated. As human beings we all have blind spots—we often do not see what we most need to know.

While receiving coaching yourself is no substitute for mentoring, it can provide major insights into your clients’ experiences. The ICF does not require individuals to be personally coached, nor do most of the major coaching institutes. In fairness to the industry, psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers are rarely required to have had any personal therapy to do their work. Yet, in all these professions there is an implicit belief that you will function with more wisdom and compassion if you have personally traveled the path of those who entrust themselves to your care.

Last, there is the question of short- or long-term focus (Whitworth et al. 2007). Chances are that for successful outcomes, coaching will need to continue for the better part of a year. Those of you who have had personal training clients know how relationship dynamics play an increasing role the longer you work with a client. Issues of dependency, conflict, identification and friendship have to be managed carefully in long-term coaching. These subjects may receive no more than passing mention in short-term training programs (20 hours or less), and it is our experience that even in programs lasting 60 hours or more, such topics do not figure prominently. As you narrow your choices, ask how schools will prepare you for understanding and dealing with the different dynamics of short- and long-term coaching relationships.

Becoming a Coach: What Does It Take?

You will recall the 11 core competencies described by the ICF. Prospective coaches might look at this list and confidently believe they already have many of them. Experienced fitness and wellness professionals might, for example, understand what it means to be an ethical practitioner and realize that planning, setting goals and designing accountability systems are part of what they already do. Indeed, veteran fitness and wellness professionals have an edge in taking on a coaching portfolio as part of their business.

However, we would caution against assuming too much. It is easy for trainers to think they have already mastered a skill like “active listening” because friends tell them how well they listen or because they have been training clients for years. In the coaching world, this type of skill takes on a far deeper meaning. Most adults know how to use a knife effectively, but few of us qualify as cardiac surgeons.

What’s more, even the best coach training program is not enough to fully prepare you for a career in coaching. As we have already suggested, readiness for such a career is partly based in prior work and life experiences. A 25-year-old coach working with a 50-year-old man facing significant career and life transitions may simply not have the background to comprehend the complexity of this client’s agenda. This is not to say that coaches need to have lived the experiences of all their clients, but rather that they need to have a substantial database of “lived experiences.” An ICF-sponsored survey in 2006 (PricewaterhouseCoopers 2007) indicated that only 7.3% of professional coaches were under 35 years of age. A 25-year-old can still be a coach, but his or her lived experiences will bracket the range of clients and agendas that this person can effectively address.

If you are interested in a coaching career, you need to be concerned about the professionalism of the industry you intend to enter. Beyond life experience, an ongoing commitment to personal and professional learning is essential. In general, the more coaching courses you take, the more prepared you will be. Even so, some important topics are not included in coaching programs, and with the limited duration of most trainings, many fundamental principles and practices are only superficially referenced. Be prepared to fill in the gaps by taking classes at your local community college or university. Take a course on adult development that will ground you in an appreciation of the phases and stages of life. Enroll in courses on communication, human relations and psychology to further your knowledge of human behavior. And read. Go beyond the self-help section of bookstores to more fundamental discussions of who we are and how we function. Biographies, great novels and classic texts on motivation, human interaction and personality can all be profoundly helpful.

Get competent supervision. Peer supervision will become increasingly important in your career, but as a novice you need the input of experts. At the beginning, you need someone who appreciates coaching issues in ways you have not yet begun to grasp. And you need someone to supportively challenge you. If you are strongly drawn to coaching as a career, plan to invest time, effort and money in your training. Many mentor coaches have reduced rates for novices, and even so they are costly. Don’t skimp on this part of your professional preparation.

Entering the coaching field at this point in history places you among the pioneers who may likely be your teachers. Choose wisely from all that is open to you. Build a resumé that in a decade’s time will allow you to feel justly proud. Challenge yourself to “walk the talk.” That will be your gift to clients.

SIDEBAR: What Is Coaching?

Coaching takes place in a professional relationship wherein the coach fosters collaborative dialogue directed toward clients’ abilities to achieve and sustain higher levels of personal and professional functioning. Coaching harnesses clients’ strengths, skills and resources in clarifying, focusing and implementing goal-directed strategies. An empowering coaching relationship nourishes insight, challenges limits, increases self-confidence, generates commitment and inspires excellence. Coaching is guided by the scope of the clients’ visions and their readiness for action.

SIDEBAR: Important Coach Accreditation Organizations


  • International Coach Federation,
  • International Association of Coaching,
  • Certified Coaches Alliance,


Useful Websites




Jim Gavin, PhD, IDEA contributing editor, is a professor of applied human sciences and co-director of the Personal and Professional Coach Certification program at Concordia University in Montreal. He has authored eight books and over 150 professional publications, including the landmark Lifestyle Fitness Coaching.

Madeleine Mcbrearty, PhD (candidate), is co-director of Concordia University’s Personal and Professional Coach Certification program in Montreal and a professional coach. She is completing her doctoral degree on how women achieve self-efficacy in weight management.


Bandura, A. 1997. Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: W. H. Freeman.

Baumeister, R.F., & Heatherton, T.F. 2004. Self-regulation failure: An overview. In R.M. Kowalski & M.R. Leary (Eds.), The Interface of Social and Clinical Psychology: Key Readings (pp. 51–69). New York: Psychology Press.

Coach U. 2005. Coach U’s Essential Coaching Tools: Your Complete Practice Resource. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons Inc.

Cooperrider, D., Whitney, & Stavros, J. 2008. The Appreciative Inquiry Handbook (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Gavin, J. 2005. Lifestyle Fitness Coaching. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics Publishers.

Greene, J., & Grant, A.M. 2003. Solution-focused Coaching: Managing People in a Complex World. UK: Pearson Professional Education.

PricewaterhouseCoopers. 2007. International Coach Federation Global Study.

Sudak, D.M. 2006. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Clinicians. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.

Whitworth, L., et al. 2007. Co-Active Coaching (2nd ed.). Palo Alto, CA: Davies-Black Publishing.

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About the Authors

Jim Gavin, PhD

Jim Gavin, PhD IDEA Author/Presenter

Jim Gavin, PhD, is a professor of applied human sciences at Concordia University and has been involved in the practice of counseling and health promotion over the past 35 years.

Madeleine McBrearty, PhD (candidate)

Madeleine McBrearty, PhD (candidate) IDEA Author/Presenter