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Psychological coaching is a process that aims to help clients achieve concrete goals, identify and overcome obstacles to well-being and performance, and build skills that may be interfering with their success. Coaching is specific, goal-oriented, and can be conducted one-on-one or in a group. Like sports coaching, psychological coaching concentrates on individual or group strengths and abilities and how they might be used in new and different ways to enhance performance, feel better about the self, ensure smooth life transitions, strengthen relationships, deal with challenges, achieve goals, become more successful, or improve the overall quality of one’s personal and professional life.

In general, coaching does not deal extensively with the negative, irrational, or pathological aspects of life; it also tends to be present- and future-oriented, rather than dwelling on the past. In these ways and others, coaching is distinct from therapy, as therapists are trained to directly address mental health concerns and may explore a patient’s emotions, childhood, or other past experiences in a way a coach would not. Therapy is also much more strictly regulated than coaching and coaches may not have the same academic or professional credentials that therapists hold. However, some practitioners who call themselves coaches may also be licensed psychologists, and coaches and therapists may at times help clients work through very similar challenges.

Coaching can be effective for certain individuals or organizations, and some studies and meta-analyses have concluded that it tends to have an overall positive effect in areas like performance, well-being, coping skills, attitudes toward work, and goal-directed self-regulation. However, because the term “coaching” is loosely defined and the industry is largely unregulated, it may not be a positive experience for everyone. It’s important that clients take the time to vet potential coaches and identify one who is experienced and knowledgeable about their particular concerns.

When It's Used

There are several different types of coaches, including executive or career coaches, health coaches, and personal life coaches, who aim to help clients overcome day-to-day issues that may be interfering with their career, relationships, or general happiness. Life coaching, in particular, has grown in popularity in recent years; this is thought to be in part due to the ongoing shortage of therapists and lingering stigma surrounding mental health care. While many life coaches take a broad approach and then tailor their practice to each client’s specific needs, others specialize in one particular area, like relationships or self-esteem, that is especially likely to cause individuals stress.

Coaching can be used in schools, business organizations, performance venues, and individual counseling programs. A health coach at a worksite wellness program, for instance, may provide individual and group weight control counseling to employees or provide them with the skills and motivation they need to improve their health and set goals to maintain a healthier lifestyle. A career coach, on the other hand, may work with clients one-on-one to help them identify fulfilling career paths, strengthen their resume or interviewing skills, and take any other steps needed to secure a job in their chosen field. Career coaches usually aim to make use of positive resources, such as hope, resilience, and optimism, all of which can help clients improve job satisfaction, performance, and dedication in the workplace.

In general, coaching should not be used to treat diagnosable mental health conditions, as coaches are not required to have training in these areas and are not subject to the same ethical codes or medical privacy laws that therapists are. However, many coaches do assist clients who struggle with subclinical anxiety or depression; others may offer sobriety support to someone who has already been treated for substance abuse and is in recovery.

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What to Expect

Most coaching is short-term and consists of straightforward, supportive, solution-based counseling. Depending on the client’s specific needs, the coach and client may explore techniques to alleviate stress, cope with specific challenges, successfully navigate upcoming transitions, and make more positive choices in the client’s personal or professional life.

Coaching is largely client-directed; often, the client will come in with specific issues or concerns they wish to address, and the coach will guide them toward identifying possible solutions and developing strategies to attain them. Coaches may also encourage clients to practice visualization, mindfulness, or other calming techniques to help promote positive emotions as the client works toward his or her goals.

Coaching styles may vary, depending on the type of coaching required or whether the client is involved in private or group coaching. For instance, a worksite coaching program may include both individual counseling and group activities that emphasize the needs of the organization as well as those of the individual within the group.

Coaches may meet with their clients in person, on the phone, or via video chat platforms such as Skype or Zoom. Because U.S.-based coaches are not subject to state licensing like therapists are, they can meet virtually with clients anywhere in the country. Sessions usually occur on a regular schedule over a set period of time, though some individual practitioners may take a more informal or open-ended approach.

How It Works

Coaching is based on fairly straightforward principles—notably, that many people need help overcoming common obstacles to personal and professional success, and getting support from a third party who has expertise in a particular area can be helpful toward that end. Many coaches, no matter their specialty, aim to identify and bolster a client’s inherent strengths in order to help them lead a more authentic, motivated, and successful life.

A systematic review of studies, published in the International Coaching Psychology Review, identified five key factors that help determine the effectiveness of a positive coaching relationship. These include:

  1. Establishing and maintaining trust
  2. The coach’s understanding and ability to manage a client’s emotional responses and problems with empathy
  3. Two-way communication
  4. The coach’s ability to facilitate and help the client’s learning and development to reach goals
  5. A clear contract and transparent process
What to Look For in a Coach

Because coaching is an unregulated field—meaning there are no official minimum requirements to become a coach and no certification or licensing requirements—anyone can use the title and practice coaching. Some people who call themselves coaches but have no specific training or degrees base their practice and advice largely on their own personal experience or past experiences assisting others.

At the same time, many licensed therapists, clinical social workers, and licensed professional counselors are now involved in executive coaching, health coaching, performance coaching, and life coaching, as well as in training other mental health professionals through various methods to become coaches in specific fields. A trained mental health professional has the advantage of an education in, and broad understanding of, human behavior as well as the clinical experience required by the profession.

Coaches with various educational and experiential backgrounds may be certified at the associate, professional, and master levels by the International Coaching Federation. Coaches may also be licensed by the American Counseling Association. Some clients feel more comfortable working with coaches who have attained such certifications, but they are not required.

Coaching works best when the client feels heard, understood, and as if they can be their authentic self. Thus, as with a therapist, in addition to finding someone with the credentials and experience relevant to your needs, it is important to find someone who provides a counseling environment in which you feel safe and comfortable.

Tim Theeboom, Bianca Beersma & Annelies E.M. van Vianen (2014) Does coaching work? A meta-analysis on the effects of coaching on individual level outcomes in an organizational context, The Journal of Positive Psychology, 9:1, 1-18, DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2013.837499
Lai Y-L and McDowall A. A systematic review (SR) of coaching psychology: focusing on the attributes of effective coaching psychologists. International Coaching Psychology Review. September 2014.    
Clark MM, Bradley KL, Jenkins SM, et al. Improvements in health behaviors, eating self-efficacy, and goal-setting following participation in wellness coaching. American Journal of Health Promotion. 25 August 2015.
International Coach Federation
Avey JB, Richard RJ, Luthans F, Mhatre KH. Meta-analysis of the impact of positive psychological capital on employee attitudes, behaviors, and performance. 10 June 2011;22(2):127-152.
DeAngelis, T. First Class Coaching. American Psychological Association Monitor on Psychology. November 2010;41(10):48.
Govindji R, Linley PA, Strengths use, self-concordance and well-being: implications for strengths coaching and coaching psychologists. International Coaching Psychology Review. 2 July 2007;2(2)
Last updated: 07/27/2022