Newsletter #470 – Skepticism of Coaching and Psychology

The New York Times recently published an article critical of life coaching (January 27, 2012). Coaching is now taught in more than 30 American universities including Harvard, Yale, Duke, Penn State, University of California at Berkeley, George Washington and NYU among others, but the thrust of the article was the extent to which people without coach training are advertising themselves as coaches and selling their services. Many of these people charge high fees but lack credentials or have certification that is meaningless. The Times article never mentioned this but the Christian coaching field has the same mix of high quality training and competent coaches mixed with self-proclaimed, poorly trained coaches similar to those profiled in the Times. The incompetent practitioners pull down the whole coaching field and reinforce the negative perceptions of coaching that come from many mental health professionals and the broader public.

This came to mind as I read a carefully documented article titled “Public Skepticism of Psychology,” published in American Psychologist (February-March 2012). For years people have misunderstood and mistrusted psychology and counseling because there is confusion about what mental health professionals do, misrepresentation of the fields by incompetent practitioners including popular media figures like Dr. Phil and Dr. Laura, and limited public awareness of the scientific underpinnings of these fields. Similar attitudes appear about coaching, especially since there is almost no scientific documentation to show that coaching is effective. Personal  testimonies from clients mean little since statements like “it worked for me” are subjective and not very convincing.

Countering skepticism is difficult and involves all of us whatever our specialties.  Facts to counter misperception can help and so can evidence-based scientific support for our work. Can we improve training standards and credentials to increase our credibility? Competent, authentic practitioners can do a lot to meet the skepticism, including the writing of articles that present a different side of the Times criticisms. It is taking years to dispel skepticism about mental health practitioners. Coaches can learn from their example, then show and teach skeptics what we do and how we do it well.

How have you countered skepticism of your work? Please share your experiences as a way of helping all of us.


  1. The same thing is happening in the library field, especially in England (not Scotland so far), where councils are required by law to provide an ‘efficient and comprehensive library service’, but have decided that this is best done by replacing trained librarians with all-volunteer staff. Their argument (and the mayor of London actually said this) is that it’s a waste of limited funds to pay professionals because ‘anyone can check out a book’. Of course, these judgements are made by people who have absolutely no idea what professional librarians actually do and have probably not set foot in one in decades. And they’re making these decisions in blatant disregard of entire towns (the very people who elected them) that have risen up to protest – even physically blocking access to one library so that it couldn’t be boarded up. Which seems to contradict the councils’ other argument – that nobody uses the library anymore now that ‘everything’ is on line. Hopefully these councils will be voted out next election, but by then it may be too late. It’s so depressing. What’s next – replace medical professionals with volunteers because ‘anyone can take a temperature’?


    1. Keep doing what you do Lynn. Of course the library issue you raise is not limited to England. Look to Chicago where Mayor Emmanuel is cutting costs by closing libraries and cutting staffs. He wants to improve education but concludes that as part of doing this we should close libraries. He is not a bad mayor but this is crazy thinking in my opinion.


  2. Sadly, there are coaches who bring disdain upon the field. The rest of us must work on our credentials from respected and qualified sources (i.e. AACC and ICF). As your friend, Dwight Bain says: “Coaching is about results.” Therefore, we must do our best for our clients in finding those results. As Christians, we must be certain to always give the Holy Spirit the credit He fully and truthfly deserves.

    At church, we are building a coaching program and more importantly culture, using your book “Christian Coaching” as our main text. Faith Strengths from Gallup will provide us with further training and tools. Coach students are encouraged to independently pursue the AACC courses as well.

    Thanks Gary for your leadership in both the field of Christian Psychology and Christian Coaching.


  3. I suggest that readers who are interested in this topic consult the Evidence Based Coaching Handbook by Dianne Stober, PhD and Anthony Grant, PhD, who have been long-time advocates for rigorous research on coaching. It was published in 2006 and many additional studies have been published since then.

    A few journals addressing the topic of coaching are:
    Coaching: An International Journal of Theory, Research and Practice
    The International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring
    Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research
    International Coaching Review, published by The Australian Psychological Society
    The Coaching Psychologist, published by The British Psychological Society

    For a number of years, I have been involved in the ICF special interest group on coaching research (formerly the Coaching Research Consortium). The ICF maintains a web page with a few samples of research studies and doctoral dissertations on coaching at

    Another group supporting solid research on coaching is the Institute of Coaching at McLean Hospital, a Harvard Medical School affiliate. Their mission is to build the scientific foundation and best practices for coaching. See You might be interested in Dr. Anthony Grant’s presentation on Evidence for Coaching through 2009 that is posted on the research page.
    For those looking for scholarly references, he also offers an annotated bibliography of coaching related research from 1937 – 2008.


    1. Anita

      Thank you for this very informative post. It has been my impression that most of the research in coaching is based in Australia and the UK but clearly more is being done in the US than I recognized. I was familiar with some of the journals you mentioned but have not been getting these. Of course I know about the pioneering work of Anthony Grant and I do have the Stober-Grant book but overall I have not been impressed with the quality of the research that I have read. As a psychologist I have watched as the evidence-based research has improved, in part because of the demands of insurance companies. In contrast, coaching is a newer field and making huge strides – but from my perspective (probably not very well informed) we have a way to go. Thank you so much for helping me in my awareness of all this. I will be following up on some of the suggestions your post offered. Let’s keep in touch. I am very grateful for what you sent and I hope that others will notice these developments as well.


  4. Gary, I think some healthy scepticism is good for the industry. Potential clients should select coaches cautiously and with an eye toward legitimate training and certification.
    From my class with you at Regent as well as certification training with MentorCoach, LLC (an ICF approved program), along with my hours of coaching, I am eligible for NBCC/CCE’s new BCC (Board Certified Coach) credential (which I’m taking advantage of during the “grand-fathering period). I think it behooves us as “legitimate” coaches to present our qualifications, certifications/training and experience clearly. Hopefully, we can help potential clients make wise choices.


  5. Hi Gary,

    Margaret Moore/Coach Meg here. We talked a few years ago.

    I’m working hard in a volunteer capacity to build the credibility to coaching as co-founder and co-director of the Institute of Coaching, at McLean Hospital, an affiliate of Harvard Medical School (bridging science to best coaching practice). We are delivering to coaches a rich stream of science-basec coaching resources to raise the bar for the field. Visit

    Also I’m co-leading the National Consortium for Credentialing Health & Wellness Coaches, with 75+ organizations, moving toward a national credential and training/education standards for health and wellness coaches.

    So much is underway and even more to come!



    1. Margaret,

      Thank you so much for this information. I was very enthusiastic to learn about your work. I will be in touch again soon. I did not know about the Institute of Coaching and your work. Thanks for sharing this.



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