Newsletter #410 – Coaching and Psychology

The field of life-coaching is mushrooming but it tends to be discounted by licensed mental health professionals, some of whom see it as pop-psychology or psychology-lite. An article in Monitor on Psychology (November 2010) argues instead that “the coaching field is a terrific fit for psychologists who have the expertise and skills to enhance the field’s credibility.”  The article gives a concise overview of coaching and urges readers to “learn the territory,” “get training,” “develop a niche,” and consider non-practitioner roles including research on coaching effectiveness, teaching coaching, or writing coaching newsletters. Now there’s a creative idea!

Experienced coaches will find familiar ideas in the article along with potentially controversial conclusions like these:

  • Psychologists and other trained mental health professionals “have the most training of any profession in understanding human motivation, behavior, learning and change. If they’ve done clinical work, they have a depth of one-on-one experience far greater that that of people who aren’t mental health professionals.”
  • Even so, coaching differs from therapy in many ways. The skill set is different and, contrary to some counselors and therapists, psychological training does not qualify one to be a coach.
  • Coaching is an unregulated industry. This means that anyone, including those without any training in behavioral science, can become a life coach.
  • “The weakest aspect of life coaching is its lack of empirical backing…. With their strong research focus and training, psychologists are key people,” to do the research and give the field credibility beyond personal anecdotes. “Coaching psychologists” in Australia and the UK are taking the lead in this pioneering research work.
  • Whereas the International Coach Federation works to upgrade coaching effectiveness, perhaps more academic institutions should offer degree programs that combine core coaching competencies with graduate level training in behavioral science including an understanding of intrinsic motivation, behavior regulation, individual differences, research methodology and basics psychological dysfunction.
  • And here is the suggestion that may be the most controversial: We should “differentiate coaching performed by qualified psychologists from coaching conducted by those without advanced degrees in human behavior.” Psychologists should work to develop psychologically informed training, practice, credentialing and continuing education in coaching.

Please give your reaction.


  1. Gary,
    Thanks for this post. I am of the opinion that coaching does need to develop into a professional discipline supported by a body of research. One group here in the US that is working toward that goal is the Graduate School Alliance of Executive Coaching which is made up of Institutions with academic programs in coaching. I personally attended Fielding Graduate Universities Evidence Based Coaching Program, which offers a 12 credit graduate certificate that also meets ICF training standards. This program dovetailed nicely with my background as a Master’s level counselor.


    1. Thanks for pointing me to gsaec. I agree that graduate schools can be ideal settings for coach training. But why is gsaec limited to executive coaching? What about leadership coaching (I saw one mention of this on the website?) And isn’t there value in life coaching being taught in graduate schools? Seems to me that the organization could have a broader focus. Executive coaching is not the only kind of coaching.


  2. I find it exasperating and professionally disappointing that those who say they know so much about where and how Professional Coaching should be enhanced seem to know so little about its professional niche.

    I know the Professional Coaching Federation is quick to contrast Professional Coaching from Counseling or some other kind of potentially therapeutic intervention. No well-trained Life Coach is going to venture into that latter domain. However, neither should those of us who are trained in the mental health domain feel so insecure that we cannot let Professional Coaching be done, and done well, by Professional Coaches.

    There is little doubt in my mind that mental health professionals can become trained to be valuable contributors in the Professional Coaching niche. However, the mental health professional poorly trained in Professional Coaching–or just poorly disciplined–can make a real mess of things just as a poorly trained Professional Coach can find him/herself in unethical places, for example, drifting into a therapeutic role.


    1. Thanks Dick, I agree with you. Too many people have no training in coaching (or counseling), some – especially counselors – don’t think they need training, and they end up doing harm. Both sides of this debate can be guilty but both sides have people who are doing their work competently.


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