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

Foundational Knowledge

( 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
  • 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.

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).

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

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.

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.

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.

vs. Face-to-Face vs. Online vs. Self-Study Delivery.
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

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.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SIDEBAR: What Is 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






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.

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

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

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 &

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