Wheel of life internal resources

An example of a life coaching tool.

I’ve realized that there are all kinds of images that come to mind with the words “life coaching.” Some people think it’s all woo-woo crunchy granola mindfulness stuff (untrue, though there’s nothing wrong with that) and others think it’s some kind of MLM or pyramid scheme (also untrue, though there are some bad apples out there, just like any line of work).

So, what is it then? Life coaching is the professional practice of helping people thrive.

In my practice, coaching is the skill of using evidence-based, research-backed methods to support teens and young adults on their journey to self-discovery and life satisfaction. I’m biased, but I believe that all people, at their core, want to understand themselves better, identify their strengths, build confidence in their abilities, enhance their well-being, and plan for a future they can get excited about—especially young people. And coaching can help them do exactly that.

Here is the long and short of it:

Coaching is…

Supportive. A coach believes you are your own expert; you know yourself best.

Nonjudgmental. A professional, legitimate coach has an open mind and doesn’t have preconceived ideas about who are you or who you “should” be.

A way to be accountable. Working with a coach is like having a guide on an excavating mission. She asks questions that help you uncover your values, strengths, and abilities so you can find your way. She’ll remind you about what you said you wanted to accomplish on the mission, and encourage you at each step.

Full-out participation. A coach can only help if you are willing to speak up and share your thoughts, feelings, and goals, and be ready to take action. There is a symbiotic relationship between the coach and client.

Coaching is not…

Therapy. Counselors, psychologists, and psychiatrists are mental health practitioners who can diagnose and treat mental health issues and offer advice and medical opinions (and they are key to many people’s mental wellness). Coaches are not clinicians.

Directive. A coach doesn’t tell you what to do. They don’t teach or use formulas and templates to show you the “right” way. Only you can truly direct yourself, while your coach supports, questions, reflects, and offers evidence that may be helpful.

Problem-focused. Coaching takes problems into consideration but does not dwell on them. Instead, coaching is solution-focused, action-oriented, and strengths-based.

Forever. A coach who supports your wants and needs eventually helps you progress to self-coaching.

I will never forget the moment I understood the true impact of coaching in my life: it was about eight years ago, and my business coach and mentor, Misty Lown of More Than Just Great Dancing, was listening to me yammer on about my stress level. The pressure I put on myself was heavy and I had been feeling stuck in that heaviness, but I didn’t know how to lighten it up or loosen my grip. At the time, my dance studio had just gone through a big transition of downsizing space and right-sizing staff. Enrollment was stable but revenue was stale; I was facing big decisions about programs and pricing. And in my personal life, I was struggling to make time for family, friends, and rest.

“It sounds like what you’re saying is you want more freedom,” Misty said. “Freedom of choices. Breathing room, so you can get unstuck and stay unstuck.”

Her reflection hit me like a thunderbolt. She was spot on, and all she was doing was listening and sharing what she noticed. Coaching. Later that day, I wrote “freedom” on a Post-It note and put it on my desk where I could see it every day. Just looking at it would remind me that freedom—breathing room to make thoughtful choices—was my long-term goal.

Now I am able to live inside that goal, which I’ve realized is more of a process than a place. The design of it came with time, experience, and resourcefulness. But it was coaching that got me there in the first place; it was coaching that brought clarity.