When Pat was laid off from her editing job last summer, she knew she needed guidance in planning her next step, but the traditional avenues of assistance didn’t interest her. “I’d already read plenty of books and attended seminars,” explains Pat*, a 43-year-old Falls Church, Va., woman. “I felt I knew what I wanted and I knew how to get there. I was just being lazy and had too many excuses.”

So she turned to a life coach.

Pat’s not alone. Today, more and more people are hiring a life coach, a modern mix of trusted adviser, strategist, friend and cheerleader, to help them define and achieve their goals. The sports vernacular is fitting. Think of the Olympic gymnast whose coach pushes him or her to a personal best, listening, encouraging, prodding—whatever it takes for the athlete to excel—and you have the basic philosophy. Coaches ask hard questions, help clients define what they want and challenge them to reach it, often without ever meeting them in person. Most coaching is done via phone and e-mail, a sort of “in your face” without the face to face. One coach even describes the typical life coach as “a drill sergeant with a positive attitude.”

Professional coaching generally falls into two categories: personal or life coaching, which strives for growth through self-discovery and achievable strategies; and executive or business coaching, which works with corporations and individuals to improve the work environment. Either way, “Coaches work with people who are ready to make a change in their personal life or business,” says Maryland life coach Jim Allen.

Bill Donahue, a 55-year-old Annapolis man, hired a coach after he grew unhappy with the feast-or-famine nature of the small business he owned, which produced performance reviews for banks. Originally his business allowed him time for the things he loved—coaching youth lacrosse, restoring boats, running—but over time it had become less satisfying and more stressful and time-consuming. Enter Terry Schaefer, full-time life coach for business owners, licensed social worker, organizational development teacher at Johns Hopkins University and former entrepreneur. Donahue signed on with Schaefer 21/2 years ago with two goals in mind: to find a way to professionally pursue his passion for boat design and boat building, and to escape his frustrating business.

These days, Donahue is enjoying his dream job designing and restoring boats as the owner of Annapolis Classic Watercraft. “I don’t think I would be where I am without coaching,” he says. “One of the major downsides of being a solo businessperson is a tendency to develop tunnel vision. Terry plays the devil’s advocate, helps me brainstorm and makes sure I’ve considered all sides in a decision.” Though selling his banking business wasn’t necessarily a goal at the outset, Schaefer helped Donahue grab the opportunity when it arose.

“Most people can’t make big changes on their own,” says Kim Goad, author, personal leadership expert and president of Ovations, a Westminster-based performance consulting firm. “[They] cannot push themselves. They need someone to tell them to stretch, and they need to hear it from someone other than a spouse or friend.”

Allen, who has been coaching since he retired from a civilian career in video production and television management and a 13-year career in the Air Force, agrees, calling self-help a myth. “If we could really do it by ourselves, we would,” he says. “Personal support systems are great, but friends and family cannot make that leap to providing unbiased comments. They have a vested interest to keep you happy and tell you what you want to hear. My interest is in helping you to succeed. If I see you spinning your wheels or going off-track, I’m going to challenge you and call you on it.”

That’s exactly what Pat pays for. Every two weeks for the past six months, Pat and Coach Allen talk by phone or e-mail about her career and job hunt, the clutter in her house or inter-personal issues. Rather than listening to her self-described tendency to wallow in why things happened, Allen asks “what I can do to make my day better,” says Pat. “His questions get me to be more specific. I was caught up in what was not going well, and Jim’s changed some of my attitude and outlooks.” When Pat told Allen that her day-to-day life was a struggle, and that she yearned for peace of mind, he pushed her to define these terms. His probing questions, says Pat, helped her gain valuable insight.

Life coaching emerged as a profession in the 1990s as the economy grew and burst, says Dr. Ken Morgen, a personal and executive coach and licensed clinical psychologist in Towson. “Personal relationships became increasingly more complex and difficult to maintain, competition increased, and people became more mobile and conscious of how they managed their time,” he explains. Technology also played a key role, as professionals recognized that they could assist significantly more people through the Internet, telephone and fax.

In the past decade, the ranks of coaches have continued to swell. Membership in the decade-old International Coaching Federation, an online national training and certification organization, has reached 5,500 coaches worldwide. Add to that an estimated 10,000 members of Coach Ville, another online coach training and certification organization, and the number of coaches worldwide hits 15,000. The majority of coaches are in the United States, with California, not surprisingly, leading the nation. And as the profession grows, there seems to be a coaching specialty to cover just about everybody: book and writing coaches, teen coaches, divorce coaches, coaches for managing Attention Deficit Disorder, life transition coaches, guerrilla marketing coaches and those who coach people with significant inherited wealth, to name a few.

There’s no such thing as free advice, and an hourly life coaching session can cost anywhere from $125 to $350 and up, with executive coaching sessions and group programs generally costing more. Reputable coaches offer a free trial session to prospective clients, and many offer packages that include several 30- to 45-minute phone sessions. Depending on the “project,” coaching can be a quick shot in the arm or last much longer. Some coaches like to work with clients for three to five months, says Schaefer. He prefers up to 18 months, which gives him enough time to get to know the person and his or her wants.

The process typically begins with the coach asking questions to assess the client’s values and dreams, and hone in on specific goals. Some coaches even assign homework, such as journaling and required reading; others require clients to complete certain steps before the next session. A client who’s always dreamed of flying planes might be required to speak with flight school instructors and pilots, and report back to his coach. A client who wants to leave her career and apply to medical school might be required to arrange informational interviews with established doctors.

“Just like a basketball team, you have drills to do,” explains Donahue, who, as a former lacrosse coach, is no stranger to the athletic model.

Schaefer has assigned Donahue drills that range from writing a marketing piece and logging accomplishments, to making sure he takes time to relax and enjoy life.

“Terry regularly reminds me to get out of the office for an hour each day to play ball with my dog, have lunch with a friend or whatever,” says Donahue. “I have a tendency to isolate myself within my work, and his prodding helps me overcome that unhealthy trait.”

Coaching is for people who want to make change—not for those looking to be spoon-fed. “A consultant will tell you what to do,” explains Goad. “But a coach listens to you, asks hard questions and makes you come up with the answers.”

When Pat asked her coach about an unfulfilling friendship that she continued to hang onto, her coach didn’t offer any answers. “Jim asked me how important this person was and how much was I willing to do to keep this person in my life,” she says. His questions helped her realize that she could just let the person go. Pat feels she may have gotten to where she wants to be without coaching, “but it would be a lot more painful.”

While some of what coaches traffic in may sound like therapy, coaches are quick to point out the difference. “Therapy will focus on unhooking the past, while coaching shows the vistas in front,” explains Schaefer. Though the issues that people bring to coaching may be similar to those addressed in therapy, the essential difference is the extent and complexity of a person’s symptoms and the degree to which his/her functioning is impaired, says Morgen.

“Psychotherapy clients are not candidates for coaching because they have a diagnosed mental illness for which the standard of care demands face-to-face [vs. telephone] treatment following established therapeutic protocols by a licensed mental health professional,” he explains. A person who wants guidance on time and stress management might be well-suited to working with a life coach, while someone suffering from panic attacks and anxiety should seek help from a therapist. All coaches interviewed for this article agree that good coaches recognize psychological red flags and refer clients to therapy.

But the bottom line is that it’s pretty much “buyer beware” when it comes to life coaching. Though the majority of life coaches complete online training through organizations like Coach Ville, you don’t need a license or certification to hang out a coaching shingle. There’s no degree required and there are no standards of experience or education.

This lack of regulation is a prime target of criticism by the mental health community. “Without licensing or certification, there’s no recourse to the consumer if the service doesn’t meet their needs,” explains Baltimore psychologist Dr. Alice Dvoskin. “There is the potential for people to be harmed by life coaching, and there is nothing to protect the consumer.” Despite this criticism, many life coaches—and their clients—simply don’t think certification is important or necessary.

Pat agrees that there are risks to getting help from a life coach—“To be honest, you don’t know what you’re getting until you get into it,” she admits. But, so far so good. Her objectives when she started working with a coach ranged from achieving financial independence to learning to appreciate what she has. “My coach has gotten me closer to my goals by making them more real and specific,” she explains. “He gets me on the path more quickly and in the right direction. Before, it was just a wish.”

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