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Coach vs Therapist: What do they do for you?

If you are not very familiar with what a coach does it can be hard to know when to work with a coach and when to work with a counsellor.

You may wonder what a coach does that is different than a therapist.

I work in the areas of career coaching and life coaching (usually work-life balance coaching). So let's consider the differences between therapy and coaching from the point of view of work.

A career coach will help you to figure the following:

  1. What are the factors that are stopping you from enjoying your job?

  2. What do you need in a role to make it fulfilling?

  3. What changes can you make to get that fulfilling role?

  4. What's getting in the way of making those changes?

  5. What actions do you need to take to make that happen?

A coach will work with you on the best ways to improve, or get out of, a job that makes you miserable.

Therapy helps you safeguard your mental well-being at a miserable job. It encourages you to examine behavioural and emotional patterns that contribute to mental ill health. Therapy will help you to repair the emotional damage caused by being in a bad work environment.

career coaching two women in conversation

What is therapy/ counselling for?

Crucially, therapists and counsellors work specifically in the mental health field.

Coaches are not qualified to diagnose or treat disorders and psychological problems .

Choose therapy to deal with issues around feelings of worthlessness, anxiety, sadness, depression, compulsions and other, more serious, mental ill-health problems.

Your GP is always a good place to start – and can recommend an appropriate course of action.

What is coaching for?

In coaching, you'll work with your coach to decide what you want to change in your life.

You'll use a variety of different coaching frameworks to get there. Some of this won't look completely different from talking therapies.

In coaching you will use existing skills and attributes, or develop new ones, to make change happen.

Coaches can support you in a broad range of areas including, but not limited to, change, productivity, relationships, mindset, business growth, team-building etc.

Depending on your coach's approach you will also work on the beliefs and behaviours that keep you stuck (but, unlike in therapy, not the genesis of those thoughts and ideas).

There is a lot of truth in the adage "if you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you always got". And fixing that pattern will require you to understand where you get in your own way.

This is, perhaps, where the confusion arises.

Coaches help you get clear on what you want in your life and help you to get there. But to do that they will also work with you to figure out what is stopping you from moving forward. This will require some self-reflection.

Self-examination might feel a bit therapy-ish. And it is. But it is very specific to addressing and solving a situation or problem that you want to change. Whereas therapy helps you to unpick the past, change thoughts and behaviours that maintain mental ill-health, process trauma, and work towards healing.

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So, if a coach isn’t a therapist, what is a coach?

It is sometimes useful to think of a coach as something akin to a sports coach.

The role of a sports coach is to optimise your desire, preparedness, and skills to tackle your sporting event at optimum performance.

Here's an example. I know a runner, let's call her Gemma.

a runner with a baton used as an illustration of what a coach does.

She is in peak physical condition, trains hard, eats well.

But at big events she has a tendency to choke. She rarely does as well at competition as she does in training.

She recently changed coaches.

Her new coach specialises in working with athletes that perform sub-optimally at competition. Athletes with the talent and determination to succeed, but that falter at the last hurdle. So to speak.

Gemma's new coach doesn't help Gemma to chew over the past and the reasons that she chokes.

Gemma is talking to a counsellor to unpick that. She thinks it's probably because her well-meaning parents over-emphasised unrelenting high standards. And the pressure of her own expectations make Gemma freeze.

Gemma's coach doesn't address this at all. That's not their purview.

The coach helps Gemma prepare well. Together they to expect the probability of choking, and strategise to minimise its impact on performance.

The coach optimises Gemma's physical conditioning, and improves her confidence by reflecting on her achievements. They work on performance, and on managing nerves by developing tools and exercises that help Gemma before a meet. These resources and tools help Gemma to feel more in control on a big day.

There is crossover between coach and counsellor. But there is a difference. The coaching is about performance optimisation and the specifics of running. The counsellor helps Gemma to make sense of her fears in the context of her whole life. And helps Gemma tackle the unhelpful perfectionism that results.

So as with sports coaching, career coaching is action orientated. It encourages you to pursue particular targets and change your situation for the better using a variety of tools and resources.

Therapy helps you heal. It will provide the therapeutic tools to gradually change the way that you respond to stressors and emotional stimuli.


Should I choose coaching or therapy?

Having experienced both therapy and coaching I would advocate for, and recommend, both. When in a period of distress therapy is invaluable. When requiring focus, drive, reframing a problem, then coaching should be your go-to.

With coaching you will get clear about next steps related to some specific issue – like changing jobs, moving house, getting organised, divorcing, completing a project, improving workplace performance and relationships, going back to work after starting a family and so on.

Some coaches offer general coaching without specialising in any one area. Others have a targeted offer catering to specific areas of change and development.

Neither one is better than the other. What makes a good coach is whether they are the right coach for you, and sometimes, as with therapists, you’ll need to shop around a bit before finding the best fit.

Can I have therapy and coaching at the same time?

In short, yes, you can have therapy and coaching at the same time. The advice when engaging in therapy is to work with one therapist and one type of therapy at any given time.

Since coaching and therapy have different targets it is eminently possible to do both simultaneously. But you should inform both your coach and your counsellor that this is what you are doing.

A good coach will always advise you to seek therapeutic help if you are experiencing difficulties that may require clinical treatment, rather than trying to diagnose or address these themselves. But they should also be able to work with you on a specific coaching topic to put your plans and dreams into action.

Coach, Therapist, Mentor: what they can do for you


  • Usually works with you on discreet areas of your life that you want to change e.g. career, project delivery, getting organised, house move, building an effective business strategy etc.

  • Helps you to get clear on exactly what you want and how to get it

  • Supports you to make practical changes to your situation

  • Intended so that you use your own strengths and resources to make the changes you want to

  • Uses questions, reflection and challenge to reach a personal change

What is a Therapist/ Counsellor?

  • Intended to relieve or heal a disorder

  • Helps you to process and deal with past trauma

  • Is a treatment of psychological disorders by psychological means

  • Resolves problematic behaviours, beliefs, feelings and physical responses to mental and emotional stimuli that often fit within diagnostic criteria

What is the Crossover Between Coaching and Therapy?

Both coaching and therapy:

  • Shows unconditional positive regard

  • Makes sense of confusion

  • Helps you to improve your life

  • Helps you to identify and use your strengths

  • Offers supportive advice, accountability, listening, reflection

  • Helps you to reframe your thinking

  • Helps you to shift your perspective

What is Mentoring?

  • Provides advice and suggestions

  • Shares knowledge of a specific work culture e.g. the procedures or politics of a particular industry

  • Will help with practicalities e.g. developing influencing strategies based on the mentor's experiences

  • May provide solutions based on the mentor's own experiences

Do I need a coach or a mentor?

This is a question that is mainly relevant to the workplace. Whether you need a coach or a mentor depends on the outcomes that you are looking for.

If you are new to an industry, for example, or are starting a promotion process, a mentor can provide excellent advice, guidance and support, if your chosen mentor has solid experience and a desire to help and support. Having an influential mentor will also provide you with invaluable advocacy.

A coach may also have expertise in your area of work, but their methodology will differ.

Rather than lead with conversation and advice, a coach will listen to your needs to help you to develop strategies for career advancement, balancing work and life commitments, doing your job in a way that best suits you, managing projects effectively, and so on.

Your coach's role is to serve you, your mentor's is to lead and advise.

Both can be invaluable. And neither is mutually exclusive - a good mentor will use coaching techniques, and a good coach will be flexible enough to recognise when advice is required.

As a rough guide, choose a mentor to help gain industry knowledge, advocacy and advice.

Choose a coach for when you are at a crossroads, need support and accountability through a process of advancement, change or challenge. If you are lucky to be able to, choose both for complimentary support.

If you have found this post helpful, you might be interested in working with me as your coach. Get in touch with me by emailing to start the coaching conversation.


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