On this page you'll find ample information provided as a comprehensive yet concise overview of the life coaching profession and industry. Head to Services to learn about WattsWorks services and how to get started, or read on to discover coaching and gain a full understanding of this important new profession. Here's just a few of the questions we'll answer:

  • What is life coaching and how does it work?
  • How is coaching like therapy or counseling?
  • What do I do with a life coach? Why do I want to hire one?
  • Whats the history of the life coaching profession?
  • Are there credentials? How do I know if a coach is legitimate and skilled?
  • What types of coaching exist? 

What is life coaching?

Among professionals and organizations, there are many nuanced definitions of life coaching. As you can see below, the perspectives differ but main ideas remain the same.

The International Coaching Federation defines coaching as:

Partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.
Professional coaches provide ongoing partnership designed to help clients produce fulfilling results in their personal and professional lives. Coaches help people improve their performance and enhance the quality of their lives
Coaches are trained to listen, observe, customize their approach to individual client needs. They seek to elicit solutions and strategies from the client, and they believe the client is naturally creative and resourceful

Authors of the seminal book Co-Active Coaching state:

Coaching is a methodology that allows us to work with change on a personal level, an organizational level, or on a relationship level.

On the first page of the comprehensive coaching textbook Becoming A Professional Coach, authors Patrick Williams and Diane Menendez weigh in on the subject:

Personal and professional coaching, which has emerged as a powerful and personalized career in the last few decades, has shifted the paradigm of how people who seek help with life transitions find a professional to partner with them in designing their desired future. No matter what kind of subspecialty a coach might have, life coaching is the basic operating system: a whole-person, client-centered approach.
Coaching the client's whole life is the operating system working in the background. A client may seek creative or business coaching, leadership development, or a more balanced life, but all coaching is life coaching.

With this we see the common threads, that life coaching is about the client and his or her process in creating a desired change. Partnership and alliance are words frequently used because this emphasizes the lack of hierarchy in life coaching. In other words, coaches don't direct, lead, or command their clients. Both the coach and client word together as equals, each contributing to the collaborative work aimed at benefiting the client.  

The fundamentals of coaching are multilevel listening and skillful questioning, used to forward and deepen a client's process by facilitating awareness, clarity, and action. With an understanding of the how develop a more full understanding of coaching, its useful to look at both the similarities and differences of coaching to other people-helping professions.


How does life coaching compare to other professions?

Coaching can be quite similar to consulting, mentoring, training, and especially therapy/counseling. All exist for the benefit and progress of people, yet each has a specific role, methodology, desired outcome, and focus. Lets look at the similarities and distinctions. 

Therapy and Counseling

When compared to coaching, all are people-helping, but coaching is present-future focused and directed by the client whereas counseling/therapy is past-present focused and directed by the counselor. Coaching engages the present and future to facilitate action. Counseling/therapy engages the past and present to facilitate.

To quote the Essential Coach Training manual of the Center for Coaching Excellence, "A qualified counselor or therapist is an expert in the diagnosis and treatment of mental health issues. The qualified coach is an expert in the coaching process that results in personal growth and discovery. The coaching alliance is a partnership, whereas the counselor/therapist has a hierarchal relationship that is directive for the client."

A coach may use elements of counseling in coaching partnership and a counselor may use elements of coaching with client. Each has a specialized role and domain within which they operate. Both professions provide value, and indeed they are complementary professions, but the coach does not provide counseling to clients.


Training is the impart of knowledge from one who knows (trainer) to one who doesn't know (trainee). This process can be formal, such a training program or college course, or it can be informal, such as person teaching their friend how to cook a stellar pan of lasagna. Coaching partnerships can have moments where a coach steps into the role of trainer, though infrequent and explicitly communicated as distinct from coaching. 


Similar to a trainer, a mentor is an experienced and knowledgable person who provides that experience and knowledge for the benefit of someone with less experience or knowledge. Again, the Center for Coaching Excellence provides a great articulation, stating that "a mentor is someone who has been down the road before, who knows the "lay of the land" and is willing and able to advise someone else on how to navigate that road."

Mentorships can embody a form of partnership similar to coaching, but like training and counseling/therapy there is a hierarchy in the relationship where the client is not the director of relationship. In these professions the client is supported but does not set the agenda or lead in the relationship. In coaching the client leads the partnership by setting the agenda.


An easy way to understand a consultant is to view this role as a specialist or problem solver. A client can call upon a consultant to provide solutions for a specific problem or set of problems. Have you heard an old adage about the man and fish? It goes like this: Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you feed him for a life time.

Consultants give their clients the fish they seek. The consultant provides a fish by providing the solutions to certain to problems. This is an important and distinct role. In contract, coaching teaches a man to fish by working with him so that he is solver of his own problems. 


The difference between life coaching and other people-helping professions is subtle and important. Dave Wondra, in the September 2015 issue of SUCCESS Magazine, phrased the distinctions well when he said, "Coaches aren't mentors imparting wisdom to callow colleagues, nor are they therapists helping other individuals through emotional land mines. Instead coaches treat clients as capable and resourceful, asking them questions aimed at helping define goals and guiding them toward winning strategies."

Consulting, mentoring, training, and therapy/counseling are all powerful in their own right and can often be of great benefit when sought in addition to or independent from life coaching. With an understanding of how life coaches define their profession and how coaching compares to similar professions, we can add yet another layer of understanding by looking at the history and roots of life coaching.


What is the history of the life coach profession?

I describe the history of life coaching as a unique synthesis of applied philosophy, modern psychology, and the field of motivation and self-help. Life coaching as we now know it first originated in the United States as executive coaching in 1970's and 1980's. The early forms of contemporary coaching was primarily used by and available to top-level leadership in large companies and the highest echelons of business, finance, politics, sports, and entertainment. As this service gained popularity the distinct profession and industry of life coaching started to take shape in the late 1980's and continued to gain momentum throughout the the 1990's. This leap in growth culminated in Thomas Leonard's founding of the International Coaching Federation(ICF) in 1995, the ICF's rapid growth in the late 1990's, and Leonard's founding of the International Association of Coaching in the early 2000's. These two industry organizations have played historic role of tremendous benefit to the life coaching profession. Their importance and contribution is discussed in detail later, in the section titled Credentials & Training, but for now its worth highlighting that these two organizations have served in the past and present to advance the profession by legitimizing the industry, connecting professional coaches, and representing the interests of life coaches throughout the world.

Contributions and Influences

The earliest seeds of life coaching can be found in the work of ancient Greek philosophers and Socrate's famous method of cultivating truth and knowledge by asking questions in conversation. These ancient thinkers set a standard of learning and growth over 2,000 years ago that still stands and influences today. The ancient Socratic Method, the modern philosophy of existentialism, and the practice of thinking about our thoughts are all contributions of philosophy exhibited in life coaching through the conversational methodology and transformative shifts in thinking that are a hallmark of skillful coaching.

Much can be said on the influence and contribution of psychology, likely ranging as far back as the 1880's. To be concise though, coaching as we know it wouldn't have come into being without the foundational work and evidence-based theories of many psychologists, such as William James, Abraham Maslow, Stan Grof, Carl Jung, Carl Rogers, Viktor Frankl, Richard Bandler, and Ken Wilber—just to name a few. In particular, we can highlight the work of William James on perception, consciousness, and habit; Carl Jung on ancient wisdom, possibility, and the collective unconscious; Viktor Frankl on intention, paradoxical intent, and the importance of finding meaning in work and life; and Richard Bandler on neurolinguistic programing and the influence our words and thoughts have on our actions.

In the field of motivation and self-help, many speakers, workshop facilitators, and best-selling authors contributed directly and indirectly to the development of life coaching. Most notably, the leaders of this field have furthered life coaching by supporting the popularization of self-directed personal growth through books, lectures, workshops, and other resources. Worthy mentions include Dale Carnegie's seminal book How to Win Friends and Influence People; Og Mandino's book The Greatest Salesman in the World; Les Brown's motivational lectures; Tony Robbin's two best-sellers Unlimited Power and Awaken the Giant Within; & Jim Rohn's motivational lectures, philosophy on personal growth, and direct mentorship of Tony Robbins. 

Challenges & Summary

With such a diverse combination of contributions and influencers, we come to appreciate the unique history and optimistic future for life coaching. The relatively young profession hasn't been without its share of challenges though, the most notable of those challenges being legitimacy and misunderstandings of what the coaching profession is and the way it works. In a 2012 survey conducted by the ICF, 43% of respondents believe that the biggest challenge for coaching is "untrained individuals who call themselves coaches," and 30% responded that they believe the biggest challenge is "marketplace confusion about the benefits of coaching." Now, with decades of forward progress and the continued support of industry organizations like the ICF, the industry continues to grow with skillful coaches joining the profession and widespread social understanding being furthered throughout the world. Indeed, the future of the life coaching profession look brighter than ever.