Member Insights, Opinion

Counselors who coach

Lyle Labardee, Pat Williams & Shannon Hodges November 1, 2012

According to the International Coach Federation (ICF), “Coaching is an ongoing relationship which focuses on clients taking action toward the realization of their vision, goals or desires. Coaching uses a process of inquiry and personal discovery to build the client’s level of awareness and responsibility and provides the client with structure, support and feedback. The coaching process helps clients both define and achieve professional and personal goals faster and with more ease than would be possible otherwise.”

Does this sound pretty close to the professional service you are already providing to your clients as a counselor? Well, the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) and its affiliate, the Center for Credentialing and Education (CCE), would agree that the professional education and preparation of counselors closely aligns with that of coaching.

In comparison with all other professionals, licensed counselors who are trained and qualified in coaching are some of the best prepared to meet the burgeoning need for life coaching services. Our goal in this article is to bring to light how coaching fits into the counseling profession and what counselors need in terms of training and understanding of core competencies, ethics and practice standards to successfully add coaching to the services they already provide.

Coaching fits into counseling

From a counselor’s perspective, coaching may be considered a counseling specialization that, like other areas of specialization, requires specific and focused training to ensure the application of globally accepted best practices.

According to the introduction to Section A (“The Counseling Relationship”) of the ACA Code of Ethics, “Counselors encourage client growth and development in ways that foster the interest and welfare of clients and promote formation of healthy relationships.” The manner in which a counselor goes about encouraging client growth and development varies based on the needs of the client. This may range from psychological first aid and assistance coping with grief and loss at one end of the spectrum to planning career goals at the other end of the spectrum. The former calls for support of a client in emotional distress, while the latter presumes the client is free enough from acute psychological distress to apply the necessary cognitive processes to engage in career planning.

Coaching is a specialized approach for assisting clients who are relatively free from acute psychological distress and who appear able, in the eyes of the counselor, to apply their resources to the pursuit of the goals, actions and outcomes they have identified. If we were to think of the running condition of one’s car as analogous to one’s psychological condition, then the spectrum of counseling ranges from assisting drivers who are stopped alongside the road looking under their hoods as they try to get their cars running again to, at the other end of the spectrum, assisting drivers as they navigate down the road and scan the horizon for where they want to go next. Coaching presumes the car is in good running order and the driver is ready and able to decide where to go next.

Training for counselors who coach 

In 2010, CCE conducted a gap analysis study in close collaboration with master certified coach and psychologist Pat Williams (one of the co-authors of this article) to identify the differences in core competencies between a coach trained through an ICF-accredited training program and a professional completing a master’s degree in counseling. The gap analysis revealed that the counselor’s professional preparation already covers many of the core coaching competencies.

The results of the analysis were used to identify the 30 additional coach-specific training hours a master’s-level counselor would need to complete to augment his or her counseling skills with the core competencies of coaching and qualify for the CCE’s board certified coach (BCC) certification. In comparison, professionals without the foundational, human development theory and helping relationship principles that master’s-level counselors already possess are required to complete as many as 120 hours of training focused on the core competencies of coaching. Therefore, the CCE determined that professionals with a master’s in counseling are best prepared to acquire coaching competencies and provide coaching services.

Coach training for counselors includes the following:

  • Fundamental coaching skills
  • Coaching ethics and practice standards
  • Screening and orientation of coaching clients
  • Coaching for individuals
  • Coaching for businesses
  • Explaining coaching processes to clients
  •  Providing coaching via distance technologies
  • Facilitating client development of decision-making skills
  • Assisting clients in role transitions
  • Facilitating clients’ use of coaching resources
  • Applying coaching practice standards
  • Promoting awareness of coaching
  • Peer coaching

The CCE verifies successful comprehension of core coaching competencies by requiring applicants to complete a national standardized Board Certified Coaching Exam (BCCE). Similar to the manner in which the Commission on Rehabilitation Counselor Certification requires counselors providing rehabilitation services to successfully complete a certification exam and adhere to the CRC (Certified Rehabilitation Counselor) Code of Ethics, the CCE requires successful completion of the BCCE and adherence to the BCC Code of Ethics to ensure that all counselors who coach apply the same understanding and coaching practice standards.

In addition to a master’s degree and coach-specific training requirements, the counselor also needs to accumulate at least 30 hours of post-degree coaching experience working with individuals, groups or organizations, and submit professional verification and endorsement forms acknowledging that the applicant has coached and is competent in the use of fundamental coaching skills.

While the National Counselor Examination for Licensure and Certification and the ACA Code of Ethics serve to define the full spectrum of theoretical constructs, standards and ethics guiding the counseling profession, the BCCE and the BCC Code of Ethics equip and guide the counselor’s delivery of coaching services.

Ethical considerations for counselors who coach

Aspects of the BCC Code of Ethics distinguish it from the ACA Code of Ethics. For example, “sponsor” refers to the individuals or employees who hire a coach to provide services to employees or other individuals.

In addition, BCC certificants shall:

  • Recognize the limitations of coaching practice and qualifications, and provide services only when qualified
  • Avoid coaching techniques that are harmful or have been shown to be ineffective
  • Obtain a written coaching agreement before initiating a coaching relationship
  • Ensure that clients, sponsors and colleagues understand that coaching services are not counseling, therapy or psychotherapy, and avoid providing counseling, therapy and psychotherapy (this standard makes reference to “counseling” in the context of therapeutic services; it also cautions those who are not professional counselors to refrain from presenting coaching as counseling or psychotherapy)

Practice considerations for counselors who coach

Counselors who coach need to adhere to the following practice considerations:

  • Clearly state in the informed consent that you are providing coaching services.
  • Explain that coaching services are designed to assist clients in identifying and achieving goals and/or designing a life consistent with their values, vision and objectives.
  • Explain that coaching is not a substitute for counseling.
  • Use appropriate assessments as needed to ensure that your client is not in need of clinical or therapeutic services.
  • Do not provide coaching services to clients who are in acute psychological distress.
  • Do not provide coaching and therapeutic services to the same client at the same time.
  • Refer the client to another counselor or therapist for therapeutic services as needed.
  • Explain to clients that they will do the work of identifying and pursuing what is important to them and that your job is to help them clarify, hold them accountable to and uphold what they have identified as important and valuable objectives.
  • Remember that coaching services presume the client is healthy, whole and fully resourced to achieve his or her own goals and objectives.
  • Refrain from positioning yourself as the expert who is uncovering, assessing or diagnosing the nature of a problem.
  • Position yourself in a co-active role with the client wherein you support the client’s effort to discover what is most important and to achieve his or her goals, dreams and objectives.

Following are examples of clients who would benefit from coaching services:

  • A 20-year-old single college student who has completed two years of junior college and is contemplating starting his own software company
  • A 48-year-old married female who is contemplating going back to school for her nursing degree after raising three children
  • A 54-year-old business owner who is married and wants to achieve more work-life balance
  • A small business owner who wants to focus on “working smarter, not harder”

There are also clients who would not benefit from coaching services. For example:

  • A 20-year-old single college student who has completed two years of junior college, has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, has not been taking prescribed medications and has not slept for several days but is contemplating starting his own software company
  • A widowed 48-year-old female who is despondent over the unexpected loss of her husband six weeks ago and is now contemplating returning to school full time to finish her nursing degree
  • A 54-year-old business owner who wants to achieve more work-life balance because his wife threatened that she would file for divorce unless he quits his job
  • A 25-year-old graduate student who has just been released from the psychiatric center after a suicide attempt

Getting started as a counselor who coaches

As outlined in Standard C.2.b. of the ACA Code of Ethics, “Counselors practice in specialty areas new to them only after appropriate education, training and supervised experience. While developing skills in new specialty areas, counselors take steps to ensure the competence of their work and to protect others from possible harm.” Standard C.2.f. further states, “Counselors recognize the need for continuing education to acquire and maintain a reasonable level of awareness of current scientific and professional information in their fields of activity.”

The CCE has made a clear and efficient way for counselors to obtain and document attainment of appropriate education training and supervision in coaching. In addition to defining training requirements and approved coach training schools, the CCE also requires BCC applicants to demonstrate completion of 30 hours of coaching experience and to provide professional endorsements. BCC certificants must also maintain 100 hours of continuing education credits over a five-year period.

More than 50,000 counselors on the NBCC mailing list are regularly receiving e-news messages that include invitations to complete BCC training and credentialing. Numerous coach training organizations have become qualified by CCE to provide BCC training for counselors interested in coaching. Whatever your experience with coaching has been up until now, there is accumulating evidence that the coaching specialization is becoming interwoven into the fabric of our counseling profession.

Thousands of counselors have already obtained their BCC credential and are actively developing their coaching services. Many are learning the nuances of building a coaching practice and discovering that although there will always be clients who need therapeutic counseling because of the life circumstances they are facing, many additional clients are eager to receive coaching to help them explore, define and pursue their dreams, visions and goals.

Don’t go out and lease more office space just yet, however. Counselors who coach are finding that acquiring new clients isn’t as easy as hanging a sign on the door or putting an ad in the paper. This is where it pays to understand a thing or two about social media and how those looking for a counselor who coaches go about finding help.

We live in an increasingly consumer-centric world, and health care industry experts are quick to point out that consumers are making decisions regarding their health and well-being by accessing online information and resources. Although a place remains for more traditional practice-building efforts such as informational sessions and professional networking, counselors who coach in today’s culture also need to engage prospective clients through the medium most familiar to these individuals — for example, informational e-newsletters or even just email messages that includes an invitation to take a simple, anonymous well-being assessment. Individuals who take the assessment are provided with feedback and then asked if they would like to share their results with a coach (you) at no charge and receive some (no-cost) professional feedback. (You will want to ensure you are using secure and encrypted online applications and messaging here.) Upon receiving the request for your review of their well-being assessment results, you have an opportunity to make contact with a prospective coaching client, demonstrate your ability to offer a valuable service, assess the individual’s interest and readiness to receive coaching services, and then proceed.

Once the client expresses an interest in engaging your service and you have verified his or her ability to benefit from coaching, be sure to carefully review and execute an informed consent and coaching agreement with the client before proceeding.

In 1951, Carl Rogers’ book, Client-Centered Therapy, defined counseling and therapy as relationships in which the client is assumed to have the ability to change and grow through the clinician creating a therapeutic alliance. This alliance evolved from a safe, confidential space, granting the client or patient what Rogers called “unconditional positive regard.” This shift in perspective — to the client as whole and full of the potential to grow — was a significant precursor to coaching. It is no surprise that today, counselors, in comparison with all other helping relationship professionals, are exceptionally well-positioned to deliver coaching services.

To learn more about BCC training and credentialing, visit

 Lyle Labardee is a licensed professional counselor and board certified coach who has been a member of NBCC and ACA for many years. He most recently served as CEO of the Institute for Life Coach Training and has more than 25 years of experience as a professional counselor. Contact him at

Pat Williams founded the Institute for Life Coach Training and continues to serve as its director of training. He co-authored the book Therapist as Life Coach.

Shannon Hodges is associate professor of counseling at Niagara University. He is the author of 101 Careers in Counseling, City of Shadows and other books, and is a longtime member of ACA and several affiliate counseling organizations.

Letters to the editor:


  1. Lisa

    Certainly coaching looks fun and is a propular career right now, but from a counselor looking at it from the outside, it looks like a quick way to be a counselor. I truly believe coaching should be a field of counseling, and those that decide to become coaches should have to get the same training we do. Then, develop coaching as a speciality. Coaches are popping up everywhere. The other day I had a client’s parent tell me she was thinking of becoming a coach because it requires no education and allows her to do the same type of work I do. Perhaps it is the lack of regulation of the title, as well as the absence of a required education and Independant licensure, but this new job title seems to appeal to those look for a quick way to become a counselor. That concerns me. The reality is they are doing a type of counseling, and it worries me the effect on a client who received bad coaching. I can certainly see why a coach would need a great deal more education to become a counselor, but I completely disagree that a licensed counselor need s’more education to become a coach.
    I do hope, in the near future, that coaching is regulated and requires the level of training commensurate with the duty being performed. As it stands now, coaching may perform more of a disservice to clients than any so called service they claim to provide.

    1. William

      I agree to a point Lisa. It should be a specialization but I also look at how the Insurance companies and state licensing boards have really hurt Counseling as a profession. I think people are looking for non medical ized guidance. I have been thinking about making a transition when I retire and working part time simply because I am tired of pathologizing people for the corporations and the state boards. Ethics in counseling is no longer ethics, it has become dogma. Sadly too thought some people really need more of a medical intervention. I think cert in both would allow counselors to make a determination that a person was receiving the right direction.

  2. Allison

    I am a student about to graduate with my M.S. in Counseling Psychology. I stumbled across this article, and it really sparked my interest. I had heard of life coaches before, but I just thought they were charismatic people who happened to be very business savvy. I never considered them to be part of my profession.

    When I first read this article, I got the impression that being a BCC would be more or less an add-on to my LPC title that I will eventually obtain. I thought it would give me an advantage in my career. I am drawn to the population that coaching serves, and I am also a very goal-oriented, solution-focused person. Coaching seemed like a great idea.

    However, it seems that coaching has a bad reputation within the counseling profession. After reading more into it, I realized that I did not need to be an LPC or even have a graduate degree to become a BCC. Because of this, there are many coaches out there that are essentially doing counseling without the proper training. The bad reputation that coaches get makes me hesitant to become a BCC, but is this where the field of counseling is headed? Regardless of the counseling community’s view of coaches, there might be a fairly large market for coaches in the future. If I do become a certified coach as well as an LPC, will I have any advantage over someone who only has their coaching certification? I might be more respected among the counseling community, but will prospective clients be more likely to choose my services over someone who is not an LPC? I agree with the previous comment that coaching should be a specialized field of counseling.

    1. Patrick Williams


      Coaching was already booming worldwide and Counselors have many of the prerequisite skills to become great coaches…Coaching is not mental health treatment, so the BCC was begun to get to be THE entry point for all coaches with the ethical guidelines, a monitored exam process, and CEU requirements…It is being widely praised and counselors should not be concerned. The new stats for psychotherapists is that only 3% of the population now seeks therapy and the payment is lower than it was 10 years ago.
      Become a BCC and hit the 97% of the population….there is plenty of business to go around

  3. Alberto Cancel

    I hope that in Puerto Rico begin a start discussing this topic as you are doing.

    So far I have not seen any activity that may or may be already doing professional counselors, only with much more preparation.


  4. George Anderson

    In my opinion, Life Coaching is mostly a hobby. Few Life Coaches earn enough to support themselves. It is something you do for the fun of it. Persons who are naive enough to seek Life Coaching are unlikely to have the ability to pay.

    LPCs who identify themselves will only damage their own future.

  5. Elizabeth Cole

    I remember when the ACA was the AACD–American Association of Counseling and DEVELOPMENT. I got my MA in Counseling in 1989 and since then, have been very concerned about the field going so far into the tank for mental health, DSM diagnosis, and insurance billing. My state had a CPC then LPC law, and it’s the LPC board, but the practice and title is LPCC–emphasis on CLINICAL counseling. The board members are by law selected from the state mental health counseling association. I firmly believe that coaching sprung up to fill the void that counseling left behind when it went all mental health (illness) oriented. Counseling as a profession has abandoned this space and it’s a damn shame. Disclosure: I am an LPCC, not in the practice of mental health counseling, and I am an early adopter of the BCC (#449)! I am a graduate of the Institute for Life Coach Training and taught by Patrick Williams and many other fine instructors. My private pay clientele are engaging in life, personal, career, wellness, solopreneurship, and Christian coaching issues (all of which I am trained for). I’m a proud BCC and happy to re-stake the claim that counseling left behind.

    1. Kirk Thiemann

      Thanks for your perspective Elizabeth. This was helpful to me as I contemplate whether to add coaching credentials to my work.

  6. Kirk Thiemann

    Thanks for the information on the perceived integration of counseling and coaching. While I have some reservations about coaching I also have reservations about counseling. I agree with Elizabeth Cole that counseling has been abandoning its own self-described identity for a long time now. I also felt at times, from the article and from some of the comments, that counseling is seen as a higher level service than coaching. That used to be my perception but I am not sure I agree with that anymore. Counseling seems to be losing any sense of clear identity and it is losing professionals to coaching.

    On another note, I do a lot of holistic career counseling and the article referring to a continuum of loss and grief counseling to career planning on the other side of the continuum is outright inaccurate. This statement continues to give career counseling a bad name (“counseling light, not real counseling” etc.). Holistic forms of career counseling deal with important personal issues and how they impact career decision making. How can you separate career and personal? At first it appears to make sense but for those who have actually practiced career counseling it becomes clear that it is much deeper than what many who teach/write about it assume.

    I did not initially intend to sound inflammatory but I believe some of the statements above are major concerns that I have with the counseling field and no one seems to be engaging in sincere dialogue about them. I believe many of our professional associations are assuming all is well among the profession when it is not.

    PS I am a counselor and not a coach… yet.

  7. Mark Green

    The information contained in this timely article was a real godsend for me. I am credentialed as a: Licensed Professional Counselor, a Board Certified Counselor, and a Board Certified Tele-Mental Health Provider. I am wanting to acquire the Board Certified Coach credential to offer my online clients in My forthcoming private practice as a specialization area. My question or hesitation has been figuring out the best way to do it. The BCC credential appears to be the right course just as the BC-TMH credential appears to be the best route for those professionals wanting to engage in online counseling.
    I agree that the mental health profession as a whole, has abandoned the need to offer much to healthy relatively high functioning individuals. They have chosen instead, to almost exclusively pursue what insurance will reimburse for in the services that they offer. If a practitioner only accepts third party insurance they limit themselves to seeing only one type of client. I would like my practice to capture a wider range of clients across the spectrum not only from the standpoint of serving the needs and interests of a wider range of clients but also from the standpoint of meeting my own mental health needs. When coaching widened its range to include more than the business world, it began to fill a need that mental health professionals abandoned. I agree with the assumptions made by the article: master’s level credentialed mental health professionals are highly trained. As such, we are in the best position to offer this service as a specialization within our practice for those who want to obtain it through the BCC. The article brings out good points about avoiding dual relationships, getting informed consent, careful screening of prospective clients… While there is some overlap, coaching and counseling are different services. People are seeking to meet a need in their life. We can serve that need if we want to. Not all mental health professionals would be good candidates to offer coaching services and some coaching clients would be better served by a mental health professional. While agreed upon standards are important for any profession, it must be admitted that at least some of the bias expressed by the mental health profession toward coaching has to do with economic competition for clients. Being able to restrict who can offer a service narrows the playing field and provides economic advantage to the credential holders influencing governmental agencies. “Necessity is the mother of invention.” Today, it is hard to imagine Freudian trained psychiatrists, focusing on early childhood and long term therapy could adequately serve the needs of WWII combat veterans. They couldn’t meet the need as a professional body. This paved the way for something else. LPC’s came about as a response to psychologists. and so on. If you offer or plan to offer a service that is in needed or even in demand within society, put your cards on the table and let’s dance. Ultimately, the client determines the value of what we have to offer whether we offer psychological healing or help them to attain the next level.


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