What is Coaching? Two Definitions You Should Know

Life coach. Business coach. Performance coach. Leadership coach. Health coach. Sports coach.

What’s the difference between all these coaches? What is the definition of coaching? How is coaching unique? What makes someone a certified or professional coach?

There is confusion in the coaching industry, and it’s completely understandable. Coaching is a broad term, and everyone uses their own definition. There are hundreds of different coaching schools and certification programs. Anyone can call themselves a coach.

Instead of providing you with numerous definitions of coaching, what I’ve chosen to do in this post is look at two of the primary ways coaching is defined. You can think of these as the two umbrellas in which most of the other definitions fall under. Then, we’ll focus on the main distinction between the two.

Two Definitions

Here’s how I would classify the two umbrellas of coaching:

1) Coaching as a verb (the dictionary definition)
2) Coaching as a distinct framework (distinct from training, consulting, or mentoring).

Coaching as a Verb

First of all, Merriam-Webster has been around a long time. They were certainly first to market on the definition of coaching.

Coach; “a private tutor”, “one who instructs or trains”

When most people hear the term “coaching,” they think of sports coaches. In this context, and by this definition, a coach is focused on strategy, problem solving, and providing tactical advice (training) to overcome external barriers in a particular situation.

Thousands of people call themselves coaches and use this definition. Business coaches. Health coaches. On and on. It’s not wrong – they’re going by the definition of coaching!

However, it’s distinctly different than the framework defined by the International Coaching Federation and many other pioneers in the professional coaching industry.

Coaching as a Distinct Framework

Many people would say the professional coaching industry was officially launched with the help of Thomas Leonard. During the 1980’s, Thomas Leonard (whom many consider to be the founder of “Life Coaching”) was credited as the first person to create a model and process known as “personal coaching.” This later became known as “life coaching,” and in 1992 he founded the very first school for professional life coaches (Coach U).

A few years later the International Coaching Federation (ICF) was founded and is now the global standard for coaching certification with over 130 chapters worldwide. In addition to the ICF framework, there are complimentary coaching frameworks, some of the most popular being found in the books “Co-Active Coaching“, and “Coaching for Performance.”

These models and types of coaching do vary, but the consensus here is that coaching is different from training, teaching, consulting, and mentoring.

Throughout the rest of this article, I will refer to the distinct framework as simply “coaching.”

The Key Distinction of Coaching

Personal coaching, life coaching, or just coaching, as described by thought leaders in the professional coaching industry, is focused on the person instead of the problem.

The essence of this can be described in two core competencies:

1) A coach holds the client as fully capable, creative, resourceful, and whole.
2) A coach holds the client’s agenda at all times.

So what do these actually mean?

Holding a client naturally creative, resourceful, and whole

Contrary to what many people think, this means the coach does not give advice to the client or insert their opinion into the conversation. A masterful coach truly believes their client already has the answer, and they are solely focused on helping them uncover it.

The funny thing is, this is exactly the opposite of what many people think coaching is. Sports coaches are instructing athletes to, “Keep your elbow straight when you swing the club,” and “Stand closer to the ball,” etc. On the same hand, consultants (who often call themselves coaches) are hired for their level of expertise and knowledge within their field. They tell you what they think is best or how you might be able to do something better.

The reason why personal coaching is so effective is because it addresses the person behind the problem. The problems people bring forward are rarely a result of a lack of information or know-how.

A client’s biggest roadblocks lie within their mind, are unique to them, and must be addressed by themselves. They literally cannot be solved outside of themselves. A coach who can help their client address these internal roadblocks through increased awareness and responsibility helps a client achieve transformational, permanent change.

Holding the client’s agenda at all times

Most of our daily conversations involve two people who are bouncing back and forth between each other’s agendas. Whether someone is coming to us with a story about their vacation, or a personal problem, we typically process their words in relation to our own experience. We reply with thoughts about our own experience or what we think they could do. We usually have an opinion on the situation that shows up in how we communicate.

In contrast, a personal coach is holding the client agenda at all times. They do not ask questions for personal reasons – they ask them for the client. They do not redirect the conversation to something they think would be more useful – they ask the client where they’d like to go, and what they’d like to focus on. They ask for clarity for the client – not themselves.

In situations where the client does need a specific and concrete answer they don’t have (such as a technical question), then the coaching is focused on how the person can find the resources to obtain the answer. In some cases, it may be the coach, but it’s only one option among many possibilities. Any advice or guidance is only given if solicited by the client, and if the client continually asks, “What would you do?”, a personal coach is bound to get curious about the reasons the client is asking. Are they stalling because they really know what they need to do? Is there a question behind the question? What’s important to them? These are all ways a coach can help clients go beyond “problem-solving” to move forward on a deeper level.

Coaching is TOUGH

You might be wondering, “How the heck do you get people to discover their own advice and take it?”

This is the art and science of masterful coaching. When people come to decisions by changing their beliefs on their own terms, this is where transformational shifts happen.

It’s also where excellent coaches distinguish themselves.

It’s MUCH easier to give people advice. Professionally trained coaches who have been coaching for 10+ years can fall trap to this. Most of us leap at the chance to give advice. It’s our default. We like to solve problems. We like to be the hero. Most of us just don’t know what else to do!

This is why coaching as a distinct framework is so powerful. The idea is not new, but the way it can be understood, taught, and applied is a recent development, thanks to many pioneers within the professional coaching industry.

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