What is Coaching?

See also: Coaching Skills

Put simply, coaching is a process that aims to improve performance and focuses on the ‘here and now’ rather than on the distant past or future.

While there are many different models of coaching, here we are not considering the ‘coach as expert’ but, instead, the coach as a facilitator of learning.

There is a huge difference between teaching someone and helping them to learn. In coaching, fundamentally, the coach is helping the individual to improve their own performance: in other words, helping them to learn.

Good coaches believe that the individual always has the answer to their own problems but understands that they may need help to find the answer.

Coaching is unlocking a person’s potential to maximise their own performance. It is helping them to learn rather than teaching them.

John Whitmore, in Coaching for Performance.

The ‘Inner Game’

No discussion of coaching would be complete without mention of Timothy Gallwey and his insights into the ‘inner game’.

Gallwey’s book, The Inner Game of Tennis, revolutionised thinking about coaching. He suggested that the biggest obstacles to success and achieving potential were internal, not external. His insight was that coaches could help individuals to improve their game by distracting them from their inner dialogue and, in particular, the critical voice that said "Not like that! Concentrate on your hands! Angle it differently!".

By distracting that inner voice, the body could take over. It turns out that often the body has a very clear idea of what to do when internal dialogues are suppressed. Gallwey used the example of asking people to focus on the height at which they hit the tennis ball. This activity has no relevance in itself, but the simple act of focusing on it distracted the inner voice and enabled the capable body to take over. The individual relaxed and their tennis improved immediately.

Gallwey’s real insight was that this didn’t just apply to tennis, but that individuals generally did have the answers to their own problems within themselves.

The essential part of coaching, then, is to help people to learn to silence that inner voice and allow their instincts, or their subconscious, to take over. Sometimes that means distracting it, and sometimes it’s about exploring the ‘worst case scenario’ and removing the fear.

The Competence Cycle Model of Learning

One useful model for learning is the Competence Cycle, a four-stage model that can help you identify your competences:

1) Unconscious Incompetence

You don’t know that you don’t know about something.

A good example would be a child who has never seen a bicycle, or has no idea that any language exists other than their own.

2) Conscious Incompetence

You have become aware that you lack a particular skill.

An example might be the child who has seen other children riding bicycles, or heard someone speaking another language, and therefore wishes to learn.

3) Conscious Competence

You have learned how to do something, but you still need to think about it in order to do it.

An example would be the child who can ride a bicycle but falls off if they stop watching where they are going.

4) Unconscious Competence

You have learned how to something so well that it has become hard-wired into your brain.

You no longer have to think about how you do it, but just do it. In fact, if you think about it too hard, you may not be able to do it.

Coaches need to identify the stage at which an individual is at to use the right sort of language to help them move to the next stage. After all, it’s difficult to try to improve a skill if you don’t know that you lack it.

The Differences Between Teaching, Coaching, Mentoring and Counselling

Although teaching, coaching, mentoring and counselling all share some key characteristics and skills, they are nonetheless quite different and it’s important to be aware of the differences.

Teaching and Training

Teaching and training involve an expert teacher who imparts knowledge to their students.

Although the best teachers will use participative and interactive techniques, like coaching, there is very definitely an imbalance of knowledge, with the teacher as expert knowing the ‘right answer’.

See our page: Teaching Skills for more information


Coaching involves the belief that the individual has the answers to their own problems within them.

The coach is not a subject expert, but rather is focused on helping the individual to unlock their own potential. The focus is very much on the individual and what is inside their head. A coach is not necessarily a designated individual: anyone can take a coaching approach with others, whether peers, subordinates or superiors.

Coaching’ is one of the essential leadership styles identified by Daniel Goleman (see our page on Leadership Styles for more and take our 'What Sort of Leader are You?' self-assessment to find out how well-developed your coaching leadership style is).

The key skill of coaching is asking the right questions to help the individual work through their own issues.

For more on questioning, see our pages on Questioning Skills.


Mentoring is similar to coaching. There is general agreement that a mentor is a guide who helps someone to learn or develop faster than they might do alone.

In the workplace mentors are often formally designated as such by mutual agreement, and outside of an individual’s line management chain. They usually have considerable experience and expertise in the individual’s line of business.

A mentoring relationship usually focuses on the future, career development, and broadening an individual’s horizons, unlike coaching which tends to focus more on the here and now and solving immediate problems or issues.

See our further pages: What is Mentoring? and Mentoring Skills for more information.


Counselling is closer to a therapeutic intervention. It focuses on the past, helping the individual to overcome barriers and issues from their past and move on. Here, the focus may be either internal or external.

For more about the role of the counsellor, see our pages: What is Counselling? and Approaches to Counselling.

The differences between these various 'learning methods' can be summarised as:

Learning Method: Coaching Mentoring Counselling
The Question: How? What? Why?
The Focus: The present The future The past
Aim: Improving skills Developing and committing to learning goals Overcoming psychological barriers
Objective: Raising competence Opening horizons Building self-understanding

Based on the work of: Clutterbuck, D. & Schneider, S. (1998)

A Coaching Spectrum

Many ‘coaches’ will recognise significant overlap between their role and that of a teacher. This may be particularly true of sports coaches, who are often highly skilled in their particular sport and looking to hone the technique and skills of their athletes.

It may therefore be useful to look at both coaching and teaching as on a spectrum.

Coaching Spectrum

As a coach, there will be times that you are very much led by the person being coached. These times are likely to be in the majority, especially for coaching at work.

However, there may also be times when you are the expert, and imparting information. Examples might include on the meaning of a psychometric test, or best practice in a particular area where you have some knowledge. For sports coaches, it might also include making a decision about when a particular activity is safe and why.

You can think of this as a bit like the nine levels of delegation (and for more about this, see our page in Delegation Skills). It does not actually matter to anyone else what level of delegation of coach leadership you use—as long as it works for you and the person being coached.


The term ‘coaching’ means many different things to different people, but is generally about helping individuals to solve their own problems and improve their own performance.

It doesn’t matter whether coaching is used in sport, life or business, the good coach believes that individuals always have the answer to their own problems. They just need help to unlock them.

Further Reading from Skills You Need

The Skills You Need Guide to Coaching and Mentoring

The Skills You Need Guide to Coaching and Mentoring

Coaching and mentoring require some very specific skills, particularly focused on facilitating and enabling others, and building good relationships. This eBook is designed to help you to develop those skills, and become a successful coach or mentor.

This guide is chiefly aimed at those new to coaching, and who will be coaching as part of their work. However, it also contains information and ideas that may be useful to more established coaches, especially those looking to develop their thinking further, and move towards growing maturity in their coaching.