Feature Archive

Making Life a Hit -- With a Coach

Sporting a Life Coach

By Daniel DeNoon
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Gary Vogin

Jan. 22, 2002 -- If life is a game, will getting a coach help you win? Yes, say the growing number of people who promise to help you be all that you can be -- for a fee.

They call themselves coaches. Most have credentials from coach-training organizations that offer extensive training, usually by telephone or computer.

What they offer is to make your life better, says Cheryl Richardson. Richardson, a frequent guest on The Oprah Winfrey Show, is author of the best-selling book Life Makeovers. Her new book, Stand Up for Your Life, will be released in March 2002.

"The goal is for people to improve their quality of life," Richardson tells WebMD. "Some coaches primarily help with one's personal life, others focus on one's professional life. Many do both. Coaches get to know the clients' needs. They support them in finding what they want to do with their lives and in how to make it happen. The primary goal is to keep people in action."

A life coach is a lot like a personal trainer. You know you're supposed to exercise and eat right. A personal trainer helps you do this. A life coach goes even further.

"Most of us know what to do -- doing it is the problem," Richardson says. "A coach first helps clients unlock their own wisdom. Second, they provide their own wisdom and experience. Then they help you be accountable for what you do and offer ongoing support."

Psychologist Ben Dean, PhD, heads MentorCoach, in Bethesda, MD. He trains mental-health professionals to become coaches.

"Coaching is helping high-functioning people move forward and create the kind of life they want," Dean tells WebMD. "It is done with executives, housewives, people who want to write a book or start a business. It is for people with any kind of goal."

"We're a combination of nuisance, cheerleader, support team, and organizer," Atlanta-based coach Larry LaMotte tells WebMD.

What happens when you call a life coach? That depends on your goal. Many people want help being better at business -- their goal may be to become a more effective manager, to make their businesses more profitable, or simply to find a new career. Other people have dreams they would like to make real. Still others feel stifled by the hectic pace of their lives and want more satisfaction.

"When I was coaching, my process was to have clients write their life story," Richardson says. "I'd have them identify three goals for their next 90 days. Then I'd have them list 10 things draining their energy so that there would be more energy available for them to do what they needed to do."

Turning dreams into realities can have surprising results. LaMotte tells the story of one client -- a hairdresser -- whose dream was to own a health spa. As it turned out, she'd never actually been to one.

"I suggested she find a way to go to spa and talk to the owners about the issues they faced," LaMotte says. "So she took a vacation where she stayed at a spa, and learned she didn't want to do it. But then she went into business herself as a beautician, something she'd always been afraid to do. Through coaching she was able to make the decision to let go of one dream and dare to risk another. She is a very happy woman today."

Although Dean says that psychologists make outstanding coaches, he doesn't think a coach has to be a psychologist to be effective. So when do you need a therapist and when do you need a life coach?

"Generally people coming to a therapist know they are in pain. People coming to coaching aren't in pain," Dean says.

"Well-trained coaches know the difference between coaching and therapy," Richardson says. "Therapy is focused on treating mental illness, healing emotional wounds, and helping a person deal effectively with things in the past that may block them from moving forward. Coaching is all about action. It is much more strategic. Is there overlap? Yes, there is. A good coach will know when to refer a client to a psychologist."

The American Psychological Association is neutral on the subject. "We don't recognize coaching as a specialty, but we don't condemn it," APA spokeswoman Pam Willenz tells WebMD. "However, we want a licensed psychologist delivering mental-health care."

"I think if coaches stay within the area of what they can do, it's all right," psychologist and executive consultant Bob Rosenblatt, PhD, tells WebMD. "Life coaches tend to work on behaviors and that is fine. If they work on [the causes] of behavior, they may be out of their field. But if they are working on skill building and skill training, that would be best."

Psychiatrist Mark I. Levy, MD, is less sure. He says that just dealing with behavior can sometimes do more harm than good.

"In most circumstances, these helpers probably do little or no harm and may have some useful suggestions," Levy tells WebMD. "Like all efforts of these kinds, they ignore the significant role of the unconscious. People have difficulty functioning for all sorts of reasons, not just lack of information. Often they are sabotaging themselves out of unconscious guilt or conflict. To not understand this and to not have the knowledge and skills of how to help someone recognize these forces outside of awareness -- and to use them to change -- is an overly simplistic approach. Sometimes the failure to see these factors or know how to manage them can lead to increasing psychological difficulties."

With this warning in mind, how do you find a good coach? Richardson says the most important thing is to find a good match.

"It's tricky -- there are so many people calling themselves coaches," Richardson says. "You first might want to visit the International Coach Federation web site and look at those who are professionally certified. That said, you may find someone not at all credentialed who really knows what he or she is doing and who is a good match for you."

Richardson has several tips for finding a coach:

  • Interview at least three coaches.
  • Find out about a potential coach's experience.
  • Check references. "Any coach worth their weight will give references and provide names and telephone numbers," Richardson says.
  • Find a coach who has done what you want to do. "If you come to me saying, "My life is so out of balance,' you may want to ask me how balanced is my life," Richardson says. "Or if you say, 'I really want to be a freelance writer full time and publish a book,' ask whether the coach has ever done that. It is not a requirement, because you just want someone to unlock your own wisdom and hold you accountable. But you should look for someone who has walked the path you want to walk."

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