Good Coach, Bad Coach

Even if a coach is great at marketing himself, he won’t succeed if his own life hasn’t been taken care of, says’s Sandy Vilas, who’s been a coach for 19 years and who says that, while coaching may be unregulated, it has a way of righting itself.

“If people view life coaching as an opportunity to make money, it rarely works for them,” he says. “If your life is not in great shape, how can you help someone else with their life? You don’t have to be a millionaire to coach a millionaire, but you need to be making progress in your own life, every day.”

A bad coach, Stephanie Smith says, is someone who does not realize he’s treading in water he’s not qualified to navigate. “As a coach, I think you have to be fairly sophisticated to make sure that, if you see signs of pathology [in a client], you know what to do about it,” says Smith, who used to work with schizophrenics and in a psychiatric unit, and who says she feels capable of recognizing when prospective clients need more than just coaching. When she sees signs of mental health issues in clients, she refers individuals to doctors who can get them the help they need—including medication, which coaches cannot prescribe.

Before Smith decided to go to graduate school to study mental pathology and other aspects of behavioral science, she tried taking a course with one of the more prominent coach-training organizations, but didn’t feel it would help her become a better coach.

“When I first looked into coaching about 10 or 12 years ago, I went to a coaching class in California and I thought, If this is what coaching is, I don’t want to do it,” she says. “It was like: How do you get people to tell you their deepest secrets? And I’m thinking: That’s not my job, to pry. I thought, I don’t want to go through any certificate program; I want a master’s in something that’s hardcore.”

For her part, Knight believes that the best hope the industry has of continuing to thrive is to set what could eventually become universal standards and a code of ethics for the practice—a goal, she says, that Baraka and the ICF are committed to achieving. “We’re really helping shape the ethics of the industry, helping people to understand what coaching is, and more so, what coaching isn’t,” she says. “Our [certification] is pretty intense; we’re not for everyone. Some schools are online; I have serious issues with that. I mean, how in the heck can you develop your interpersonal relationships over the Internet?”

But even if the ICF does succeed in setting universal standards, how are clients to know whether being coached actually makes their lives significantly better? Such questions prompted Margaret Moore, who calls herself a founder of the “wellness coaching” movement, to co-found the Coaching and Positive Psychology Initiative at Harvard’s McLean Hospital in Boston this year. Her goal is to begin studying coaching empirically in order to “create underpinnings, provide guidance, and set agendas for coaching research”—and, potentially, to find out if coaching has proven results.
“The coaching industry has a lot of artisans and not many scientists,” says Moore. “For the field of coaching to thrive, it must be founded on solid psychological theory and evidence-based practice.”

Since life coaching involves defining what people want, setting their goals, and getting them there, she says, gathering empirical data should, in theory, be relatively easy—perhaps most simply achieved by asking clients, “Did you meet your target this month?”

It’s hard to gauge whether such measurements and regulations eventually will force uncredentialed coaches out of the industry—like the life coach whose only “qualification” is the inspiration she gained during a pilgrimage to the Burning Man festival (a true story). Then again, if such charlatans are banished from the garden, the ever-expanding marketplace of self-help will be right there to remind them that recovery is simply a matter of picking themselves up, dusting themselves off, and charging right back into the game of life again.