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What is Coaching?

What is Coaching?

It is a question most people don’t feel the need to ask. Why? Because they have a definition in their head, and assume that everyone shares the same definition. Cough… cough… we know what assumptions make of us. That can have undesired consequences. To be avoid being the proverbial ass, let’s ask:

What is coaching?

Well, it is NOT teaching, instruction or training. The coach does not have to be a relative expert in the field being coached. It is not managing. The coach has no responsibility for the performer’s behaviour.

Let’s have a look at one statement just made:

“The coach does not have to be a relative expert in the field being coached.”

How can a coach, coach unless s/he is an expert?

Highly effective coaches get the person they are helping to do all the thinking. If they are not, then what they are doing may have an element of coaching, but it is probably more training or instructing.

An expert coach can coach any subject, even if s/he knows nothing about it. Expert coaches understand that. Novices or non-coaches protest vigorously. Why? Here we are back to the problem outlined: different definitions of coaching.

Again, what is coaching?

A coach is someone available for the performer to learn WITH.

Coaching is the process whereby one individual helps another to:

unlock their natural ability; perform, learn and achieve;

increase awareness of the factors which determine performance;

increase their sense of self-responsibility and ownership of their performance;


to identify and remove internal barriers to achievement.

The Self-Coach

Ultra high performers are typically self-coaches who do everything above, for themselves. The highest performers seem able to self-coach through the most unbelievable adversity. Some analysts even suggest that a history of serious adversity is one of the prerequisites of outstanding achievement.

What is Mentoring?

A mentor is someone available for the performer to learn FROM. At least that is the theory. In practice a mentor will be the assigned ‘teacher’ of an individual. There is enormous variation of expectation in the function and behaviour of people bearing the same title – mentor. Some of the roles lead to the following definitions.

Mentoring is the process whereby one senior individual is available to a junior other:

to form a non-specified developmental relationship;

to seek information from;

to regard as a role model for the purposes of emulation;

to pick up what the organisation/ dept/ company expects;

to show the performer how the organisation works; to ensure cultural compliance;

to guide the performer through a phase of operational, professional or vocational qualification;

to provide feedback and appraisal;

to teach all the relevant facts that will enable the junior individual to perform effectively in an organisation.

The Coach – Mentor Distinction

Let’s put the two rough and ready working definitions beside each other, so that you can see the distinction.

A coach is someone available for the performer to learn WITH.

A mentor is someone available for the performer to learn FROM.

The two roles are worlds apart and overlapping, depending on which dimension they are compared. In terms of volition, a mentor can be unwitting or even unwilling, but still a successful mentor. How? By a performer choosing a role model at a distance. A coach could never be unwitting, and is unlikely to engage in the process if unwilling.

Coaching and MentoringThe roles overlap when a person performs successfully as a coach. He or she is likely to be adopted as a mentor of coaching skills. The reverse is not true. A mentor can never be a coach unless they deliberately adopt the skills involved in successful coaching. Perhaps the distinction is best illustrated from your own experience.

Who were/ are your unwitting mentor(s)? Who are/ were your ‘witting’ and willing mentors? Who were your favourite coaches? Who were your most effective coaches?

Many of the people from whom I learned most, were those who were doing ‘it’ so appallingly badly that it was easy to see how to do ‘it’ right: just do the exact opposite. To those of you who know me well: that wasn’t you! 🙂

Focus Distinction

The coach is focused on helping the performer learn how to achieve more. The mentor is focused on being available for the performer to use as a resource.

Skills Distinction

A mentor can fulfill the role quite adequately with basic management, people and training or teaching skills. An effective coach must have the knowledge, technique and skill to help the performer achieve, without dis-empowering.

Theory vs Practice

The Perfect Coach Book Cover 160kAs always with definitions, the difference between coaches and mentors is not defined in theory, but in practice. Whatever an organisation defines for each role creates the parameters of that role.

Over the decades I have seen some organisations define coaches in exactly the same way others defined mentors, and vice-versa. And others used the terms inter-changeably. And others re-badged all trainers as “coaches” even though what they were doing was clearly just instructing.

As Lewis Caroll’s famous character Humpty Dumpty said: 

“When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

What is Coaching?

If you are unwise, coaching will mean just what you choose it to mean. If you are wise you will adopt a shared definition that everyone in the organisation uses. Choose your meaning wisely, for whatever you choose will have consequences.

Prof Nigel MacLennan

PsyPerform gets executives promoted and secures improved results for leaders. If you would like a FREE coaching session provided by Prof Nigel MacLennan contact PsyPerform here.

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