I was facing some big decisions last year for me and my personally meaningful but financially unsustainable small business. Like everyone else, I was burned out from the pandemic, claustrophobic and ready for change. I felt hammered by the realities of parenting a kindergartener and twin toddlers who always seemed to be on the verge of pulling a knife off the counter or swallowing something dangerous.
“I need someone to walk me through all of these layers of choices and complexity,” I thought. “Maybe what I need is a coach?”
I never ended up hiring one, but over the previous year, I had been growing more curious about the profession as I noticed acquaintances posting about their new coaching ventures. Many had attended prestigious colleges, gotten advanced degrees and developed accomplished careers. It seemed like every other mom on Instagram had added “coach” to her bio with a seemingly endless number of specialities, like wellness, health, love and relationships; executive, success, business and marketing; coaches focused on anti-racism, personal finance, aging and body image; and many, many coaches for coaches.
I wanted to know more about what is behind this boom in coaching and hear from some of the women who are a part of it. I spoke to a number of coaches to try to understand who they are, choosing people who aren’t celebrities or influencers, do not make seven figures and who have worked for years to build up their business. I learned that, despite what the nonstop social media ads I’m now being fed may claim, coaching is not a get-rich-quick profession.
These coaches work with people who feel as if the institutions they belong to aren’t supporting their needs, including moms in corporate America, progressive women in conservative churches, or people who are queer, neurodiverse or disabled.
What Do You Have To Do To Call Yourself A ‘Coach’?
Though coaching is a booming business, there is no official credential necessary to call yourself a coach. The International Coaching Federation, the largest nonprofit association for the profession, estimates that coaching is a $3 billion business worldwide. In the past decade, its membership has increased 160%, to more than 50,000 worldwide, and more than 20,000 members have joined in just the last five years.
The association was growing before the pandemic, but COVID-19 seems to have ramped it up. The federation saw a single-month record for coaches joining in December 2021.
IFC sees itself as serving “professional coaches”: people who spend more than 50% of their time coaching. They define coaching as “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.”
ICF CEO Magdalena Mook said about 70% of ICF coaches in the U.S. are women.
So Why Is Coaching Having Such A Moment Among Women?
An easy first reason is that women, especially mothers, have borne the brunt of pandemic caregiving, which in turn disrupted their careers, leading many to seek less-conventional livelihoods.
According to research by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, mothers were nearly three times more likely to report taking on the majority — or all — of the additional caregiving responsibilities due to school closures. At least partially as a result, 1.1 million fewer women are in the workforce now than there were in February 2020. And those who are working aren’t wildly happy: According to a 2022 McKinsey survey, 42% of women said they are often or always burned out, up from 32% in 2020.
And many women have been isolated from extended family and in-person social communities and suffered the loss of loved ones during COVID, prompting personal and professional reevaluations. Who wouldn’t want an encouraging person guiding them through this thorny and unprecedented time? The appeal of coaching for women and mothers underscores how unsupported and alone people feel when faced with navigating jobs, caregiving, family and personal fulfillment. After two years of the pandemic, with so many people overburdened by work and care responsibilities, more women than ever are crashing hard against the myth that they could somehow “have it all.” They are grappling with the reality that they don’t, and perhaps coaching feels like a solution to that problem.
This pandemic-fueled soul-searching may also be driving the uptick in women becoming coaches themselves. Coaches I spoke with shared that a draw for a career in coaching was that it is flexible, conducive to caregiving responsibilities and provides a service that people feel is meaningful and genuinely helpful. Many coaches also seem to attract clients who have biographies similar to themselves, and in those relationships they can use some of their life experiences to help others.
That was the case for Stacy Kim, 53, who has been a certified coach in New York City for 14 years. She has a Ph.D. and was previously a social science researcher at Columbia University focused on work-family issues. Ironically, she came to feel that her full-time job wasn’t compatible with her own family life.
She left the full-time workforce for three years before enrolling in a coaching training program, eventually getting certified by ICF. Fitting coaching around her family and caregiving responsibilities appealed to her when making the switch and has proved to be a huge help, especially when she has had to deal with personal crises — like her daughter’s cancer diagnosis in 2017 (she’s now in remission) or needing fly to South Korea to support her mother, who has Alzheimer’s.
What Does Coaching Cost?
The IFC estimates that on-on-one coaching typically averages $244 per session, though it can range from $100 to $1,000. Clients don’t always pay this cost, as employers are also increasingly interested in covering coaching for professional goals or work-life integration as an employee benefit.
The coaches I spoke with charge between $125 for a single session to $10,000 for a yearlong engagement. The ICF says the average annual earnings for a coach in the U.S. are around $62,000, which is not as lucrative as those high hourly rates might suggest. That’s often because many coaches work part time or have other jobs in addition to coaching.
Christy Farr, 46, came to coaching through some soul-searching following her divorce and coming out as gay 13 years ago. She loved that she could work from home (which was far less common then than it is today). But mostly she loved that she was helping others. “When I heard about life coaching, I was like, oh, that’s what I do with people now,” Farr said. “I’ve been this person since I was in middle school.”
But coaching hasn’t always been financially successful. She’s had to balance it with caring for her kids, her own health and, more recently, her mother’s health. At the same time, she’s committed to making her services affordable, and she hasn’t raised her private session rate in 10 years.
“I’m also not a six-figure coach,” Farr said. “I could be if I had some time and energy that I don’t have. I finally broke $50,000 a year maybe two years ago, and then COVID hit,” when Farr had to cancel some of her more lucrative in-person group coaching and retreat programs.
Farr’s expansion into group coaching reflects larger industry trends. Mook said interest in corporate team coaching and group coaching is growing. Those sessions can be less expensive per person than individual meetings and can create a valuable community for the client by showing that they aren’t alone and that the obstacles they face aren’t the result of personal failure.
What Happens In A Coaching Session?
Sessions can be as diverse as the coaches themselves but are usually focused on helping clients articulate an area they’d like to work on, and create goals and plans to support achieving them.
Coaches I interviewed described active listening and thoughtful questions as part of the process. Most said they strive to be client-centered about the direction of the session rather than being didactic or telling clients what to do. Some use exercises or have created frameworks to guide people through a self-discovery process. Some mentioned that it is common to work with clients regularly for a few months on a specific issue and then stop meeting consistently once that goal is met.
Kim’s clients were initially women and mothers who were successful and high-achieving and didn’t understand why they weren’t happy, even though so much was going well in their lives. Throughout her years of coaching, she’s developed a program called The Lighthouse Method, which is designed to help “smart, caring people who spent so much of their time taking care of other people that they kind of lost their own way.” Kim helps her clients who are weighed down by self-doubt get unstuck and make changes with the goal of finding fulfillment, starting with reconnecting with enjoyable activities with small steps.
Farr focuses on relationship coaching and what she calls “space healing” — helping people find motivation “to not just clean up [their physical spaces] but to release the thoughts, beliefs and behaviors that created the chaos.” Many of her clients are women and mothers, identify as LGBTQA+, have a chronic disease or are neurodiverse.
“My clients are often unconventional in all the ways, not just one,” she said.
So How Is Coaching Different From Other Relationships, Like Therapy Or Self-Help?
Caitlin Olsen, 36, is a trained marriage and family therapist and a mom of three who started building a coaching business in 2020.
Olsen, who is Mormon, found the pandemic accelerated both people’s comfort with meeting online and their need for support. “A lot of Mormon women are having really intense faith crises,” she said, particularly in dealing with loved ones who refuse to wear masks, are opposed to the Black Lives Matter movement or support former President Donald Trump.
For Olsen, the difference between what she did as a therapist and what she does now as a coach is that she does not offer diagnoses. If a client is dealing with a mental health issue she doesn’t feel her coaching is the right fit for, like an active eating disorder, she can refer them to a licensed therapist.
Olsen recently decided to not renew her marriage and family therapist license to do coaching full time. Though Olsen sees the extensive training she did to become a therapist and the years of working with clients as a clinician integral to what she offers now, the red tape that came with her maintaining her license — and getting licensed again in new states after moving with her active-duty military husband — wasn’t worth it. She now describes herself as a trained therapist and mental health coach.
Kim said a potential benefit of coaching, in some contexts, is helping people understand that their difficulties are not the result of individual failures or deficiencies. “I saw how systemic these work-family conflicts are, especially for women, and I knew that it’s not a problem that I can solve. But to be able to work one-on-one with people navigating these problems is very, very fulfilling.”
What Does The Rise Of Coaching Say About The World Today?
In generations past, people feeling lost might have joined a church-led group, volunteered at a soup kitchen, participated in a weekly bridge night or formed a feminist conciousness-raising collective. While none of these communities would directly answer how to chart a new career path, navigate a tricky work situation or realize you are in an unfulfilling marriage, they did provide a space for people to talk and others to listen.
“Part of what people get out of coaching is validation and objectivity. Our country’s lack of social support for parents can make you feel crazy,” said Lauren Smith Brody, a gender equity consultant, author of “The Fifth Trimester” and coach for new moms getting back into the workforce after maternity leave.
“It’s also someone whose time you aren’t afraid to impose on because you are paying for it,” said Smith Brody.
“If there were stronger, real in-person communities, coaching would at least look really different,” Olsen added.
Though it’s far too simplistic to say “people are turning to coaches because they don’t have enough friends,” the combination of pandemic isolation and our capitalist society certainly seems like a key to the coaching boom. So much of women’s collective time and energy are spent filling the gaps of our country’s under-resourced safety net, all while prizing “making it on your own” as cultural value. We don’t have the roadmap or bandwidth to contribute to non-monetary personal and community relationships that build invaluable support over time.
OK, What’s The Downside?
All the coaches I spoke with for this article were warm, easy to talk to and insightful, and I could imagine someone like me benefiting from working with them. But they all pointed out concerns they have about the coaching industry writ large.
In a recent survey, ICF found that “untrained individuals who call themselves coaches” is a top concern for its members. Right now, anyone with any amount of experience or training — including none at all — can call themselves a coach, which everyone I spoke to seemed to agree is a problem.
And yet many of the coaches I spoke to also pointed out that there are great coaches who aren’t formally trained or certified. Olsen thinks there should be a middle ground on regulation: “There’s a ton of freedom in being a coach, but that can be scary.”
Olsen said she is concerned that under-trained coaches are working with people experiencing mental health issues, especially due to the increased demand for mental health care over the past two years and the difficulty many have in finding a therapist.
Farr agreed that coaches need training in recognizing if clients are having mental health issues. “In the beginning [of my coaching career], I would miss red flags that somebody needed more,” she said. She remembers one client in particular who was later diagnosed as having bipolar disorder. Farr said the client had ultimately gotten the mental health support she needed and they’ve stayed in touch; now the client is “properly medicated and doing well, but not because of our work.”
At least one group-coaching company requires all of its coaches to take a Mental Health First Aid course so they’re equipped to recognize if a client needs support outside of coaching and can direct them toward those resources — but this is far from an industry standard.
Olsen said she is also alarmed by the overlap of coaching with the wellness and beauty industry, especially from influencers with no mental health training but who have large followings and are often trying to sell products. And Farr is wary of coaches who promote themselves as spiritual healers, offering easy tricks or practices to “magically heal” what’s hard in people’s lives. She said she worries these “coaches” can take advantage of vulnerable people and offer advice that is blind to realities of systemic inequality.
“If you’re a queer, Black or disabled person, [a coach telling you to] go in and demand what you want all the time, that might not work out, right?” Farr said, pointing to a popular meme that says, “Maybe you manifested it. Maybe it’s white privilege,” as an example of what she would like to see more awareness of in the coaching world.
“[These issues] were never addressed in my training 13 years ago,” she said. “I would have been a much better coach to many more people if I’d had any idea of my privilege.”
Farr is now taking continuing education classes and workshops on anti-racism in coaching, something she recommends for other coaches. “We can all do professional development and learn how to make our business more equitable, accessible and to learn how to not be harmful.”
So You Want To Find Your Own Coach.
Mook recommended checking to see where a potential coach has trained and if they have a professional affiliation or any certifications.
You should also talk to a prospective coach first — a complimentary 15- or 30-minute introductory call is very common in the industry and can give you a sense of their personality and how they work with clients. It can also be useful to interview multiple coaches.
“A good coach will listen and ask really good questions — it’s not a consultant,” said Kim. “It’s far more of a partnership rather than a top-down kind of thing.”
When looking for a coach, it may be worth exploring if your coach or program is overpromising or pitching too-good-to-be true results, or that their specific program is all you need to unlock happiness and success. Farr cautioned that people should reject marketing that suggests, “If you really believe in yourself, you’ll invest in yourself.”
Farr also warned against going into debt to get a coach’s services. “I don’t want anyone putting my services on a credit card they can’t pay off. Working within your means is really important.”
Many coaches have online resources, self-paced courses, books or virtual groups that are more affordable than private sessions. This is a great way to get to know a coach and their methods before investing in sessions.
“It’s worth digging and finding what’s really possible for you,” Farr said. “If the door’s locked and then the next door is locked, just keep walking down the hall until you find an unlocked door.”