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 to 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.

The Two Definitions of Coaching

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

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

The Dictionary Definition

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 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 (ICF) 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 vary, but the consensus here is that coaching is distinct from training, teaching, consulting, and mentoring.

Throughout the rest of this article, I will refer to this 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. That is, a person’s thoughts, beliefs, and feelings that drive their behavior in any given situation.

The effectiveness of this approach relies on two critical 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 look like in practice?

Holding a client naturally creative, resourceful, and whole

Contrary to what many people think about coaching, 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. Of course, there are certain exceptions to this rule, but it’s important to keep them in the category of exceptions.

This is obviously a very different approach than many coaches take. Sports coaches are instructing athletes to, “Keep your elbow straight when you swing the club,” and “Stand closer to the ball,” etc. Consultants (who may be referred to as 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 that it increases the internal awareness of the client. The source of problems is rarely a result of a lack of information or expertise, but the surface-level problems people present can easily convince us otherwise.

Example problem presented by a client:

My team doesn’t listen to me. They complain amongst each other and unnecessarily involve other departments. Issues get escalated before they give me a chance to offer support or a solution. I promote an open-door policy, but they don’t seem to want to come to me and work on a solution together.  

On the surface, it may seem like this manager needs advice on how to create a supportive environment in which employees are willing to discuss issues.

However, that would not have addressed the source of the problem. Through coaching, the manager began to understand the ways in which he was contributing to the angst among employees. When he outlined some of his expectations for the team, I asked what he meant. When he gave another vague response, I asked, “How would one know when the issue was urgent enough to escalate?”

Through our conversation, it became clear there was a lack of clarity in operating procedures. Once he understood this, the solution was obvious.

Personal coaching can help individuals overcome these internal roadblocks (this manager thought the expectations were clear until he was asked to explain them) by helping them increase both their awareness and responsibility.

Holding the client’s agenda at all times

Most of our daily conversations involve two people bouncing back and forth between each others’ 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 might empathize, but most of us will reply with thoughts about our own experience or what we think they could do. Our opinion on the situation shows up in how we communicate.

In contrast, a personal coach is trained to hold the client’s 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 or what they’d like to focus on. They ask for clarity in service to 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 the motives are clear. A client may ask, “What would you do?” for a number of reasons outside of actually wanting advice on what to do. They could be seeking approval, avoiding having to make a decision, or genuinely interested in the best approach. A coach will seek to understand the true source of any issue in order to help the client go beyond “problem-solving” and move forward on a deeper level.

A client’s biggest roadblocks lie within their mind, are unique to them, and must be addressed through their own volition.

The Biggest Challenge in Coaching

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 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, and that’s OK. We’re humans and our default mode is trying to solve the problem. 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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