Life Coaches are the latest, newest thing. But are you ready for a life coach? Do you know what a life coach is and how a life coach differs from a therapist?

Kate sought the services of a life coach after she tried to make changes in her life without much success. Kate was working long hours on her job and when she finished her day she started the second shift at home. She was overworked, overwrought and going nowhere fast. Her primary goal was to write a book and she had a burning desire to get published since she graduated high school. But as Kate tells it, she just couldn’t find the time.

Kate hired a life coach to help her realize her dream. She was ready because she felt she hit bottom and she was turning 30 soon. She had in mind, that if she didn’t finish the book by age 30, then it would never happen. Kate’s premise was not too far from the truth. The longer you repeat certain behavior patterns, the more entrenched they become and the more likely you are to remain stuck in them.

Kate hired a life coach to help her get on track towards her goal. She felt she wasted too many years trying to make something happen and the more she wanted it the farther it seemed to move away from her. She was like a lot of people seeking coaching as a remedy: at the end of her rope. Life coaching is not the same as psychotherapy. They may appear to be similar to the untrained observer but they are very different in the focus.

Life Coaching v. Psychotherapy

Life coaching as an occupation does not require specific training or certification, but certification is available to those coaches who seek it through the International Coach Federation and other organizations. To practice psychotherapy, you must have a degree, pass written and oral examinations and obtain a state issued license. The two occupations may appear similar but they are different and must remain distinct.

Psychotherapy is primarily a form of treatment for a psychological, mental, emotional or personality disorder. Its focus is on past events that may have led to the disorder and it seeks to alleviate or ameliorate the pain or suffering associated with the disorder. It follows the medical model in that it seeks to assess and diagnose a mental health disorder and utilizes approaches that have been evaluated through research using the scientific method. Treatment involves specific interventions that have been tested and proved to be valuable in achieving treatment goals.

Coaching is not treatment. It is not focused on a specific disorder and seeks to provide a focus on the present with a heavy emphasis on the future. It is designed to help otherwise healthy individuals obtain goals and objectives that they are having difficulty achieving on their own. Coaching as an approach is skill based and action oriented and is not based on research or the scientific method. It is a field that is largely unstructured in its practices and it leaves the naïve participant in a vulnerable position unless you learn the following.

Coaching can be very helpful when applied appropriately to the right person. The right person is someone who is seeking to accomplish a specific goal. The lack of achievement of the specific goal is not due to a diagnosable disorder, but is probably due to lack of organization, knowledge or direction. The coach should have specialty experience in the subject area that you are seeking to change. For example, if you are seeking to start a new business and lack expertise and you are a novice, your coach should have personal and successful experience in that subject area. Do not hire a coach who claims to be skilled in all subject areas. Coaches should specialize as all professionals do. You would not seek therapy from a social worker or counselor who claimed to be expert in all diagnosable conditions or a physician who claimed to specialize in all organ systems. What would you think of a football coach who didn’t know anything about the game of football?

Kate’s Coaching Experience

Kate described her problems to her coach: “I work as a successful manager for a retail shop. It involves long hours and I am on my feet all day. I like the work and I get paid very well to do it. The problem is that it is not my dream. My dream is to have a published novel. I have great ideas and I won awards for writing in high school and college. I starting working in retail because it gave me some flexibility in my hours, but now that I am a manager, the hours are more demanding. When I get home at night, I am exhausted. I just don’t have the energy to do anything else. I really don’t mind what I am doing for income, but I will be very disappointed in myself if I don’t try.”

Kate’s coach started with an emphasis on clarification of her specific goals and her values. She completed questionnaires and had ongoing discussions with her coach that helped Kate to see that her values: working hard and getting ahead were getting in the way of her dream—being the creative writer she wanted to be. Kate’s coach had her complete homework inquiries about her life, her behavior and her choices. Kate’s heightened level of self awareness made her realize something very important. She had a major obstacle to her dream: she was avoiding writing.

Kate was more afraid of failing at her dream than “trying” to make her dream happen. Her attempts were occasional handwritten paragraphs on a napkin or ideas written on torn sheets of paper that never coalesced into a real story. Kate and her coach together set an agenda of action steps she would take to make her attempts become real work on a novel. She had to report into her coach on a weekly basis and deliver 5 written pages on her novel. Kate was able to get going again and as she wrote her fear of failure dissipated. She developed more confidence in her ability to get published as she wrote page after page of an interesting story that kept her friends riveted.

How To Find the Right Coach

The right coach has to be evaluated on several levels. The first level is interpersonal. Do you feel a connection with the person who is coaching you? Coaches need to motivate and inspire. If you find yourself disinterested, confused or unsure about your coaches’ ability to help you towards your goal, then it is not a good match. Second, obtain your coaches’ background experience. In what areas does the coach specialize? Does the coach have personal experience in the area you are seeking to be coached? Can the coach provide you with references or testimonials to ensure his or her expertise? Your coach should have training in a behavior change model. This means they need an educational and experiential background in how people change behavior. The model can be from the field of psychology: Maslow’s theory of motivation, behavior modification or Client Centered model of Carl Rogers are a few examples. Or, the coaches model of CAAACS:  Connection, assessment, articulation, action, commitment and support.

Are You Ready for Coaching?

Are you right for coaching? Not all individuals are right for coaching. You have to be ready to make change and know that what you are lacking is a push in the right direction. People who seek emotional support and someone to listen to their problems and issues are probably not ready for coaching. They want a sympathetic ear and not someone who will push them outside of their comfort zone to do more than what they would have done in the past.

If you are ready for coaching you will be able to be totally honest about your shortcomings and weaknesses. You will be disciplined to report to your coach on regular basis and be prepared to exercise your time and energy towards your coaching goals. If you are ready to be coached you will be eager to get started and keep your momentum going despite any discomfort you are feeling along the way. You will be future oriented and not hung up on the past.  You will be healthy enough to adopt new behaviors and allow some things in your life to fall by the wayside as you bring new experiences in. As in all things of life, it is a question of balance.

Kate was very satisfied with her coaching experience. She was able to get halfway through her novel when she felt she was well on her way to successful completion she terminated her coaching. She agreed to check in with her coach one more time when the novel was complete.

Kate describes the outcome:  “I finally got on track. I don’t think I would have disciplined myself to get my novel done on my own. In fact, I am sure I would not have. I needed someone to help me past my own obstacles. I believed that my job was the obstacle, but that’s not true. I am working the job because I chose to work my retail job. You learn that you are making choices and your choices reflect who you are. By not working on my novel, I was expressing that part of myself that was afraid of the outcome. Now I can’t wait to get an agent and to see my novel on the bookshelves.”

If you decide that a coach is right for you, you can find coaches listed on the International Coach Federation website:

Dr. Vanessa Gourdine is a psychologist, executive and life coach and Director of Specialized Therapy Associates, LLC and Life Work Strategies, LLC. She can be reached She has a behavioral health column in BC Magazine and is a regular contributor to lifestyle publications. She has developed a coaching model based on using strategies to influence growth and change for successful living. She can be reached at 201-224-5200.