What is a Coach?

I have been asked recently, what is a coach? Where to begin? First, I am one. I think I’ve always had a coach’s heart, encouraging, pushing, urging one on to one’s potential. I coached young people playing soccer. I have coached basketball, leading a wrecking crew of football players trying to find some gracefulness with the round ball. I have coached young clergy beginning their work of ministry. And I have coached leaders in healthcare and in the non-profit world. After formally studying and going through training, I have been certified as a coach by the International Coach Federation, so I got that going for me…which is nice.

Coaching is one of the helping professions. I have been a therapist, a pastor, a professor, a spiritual director, and most recently a consultant. But coaching is different. Coaching is probably most like that of a therapist in that it pairs persons in a helping relationship.

But coaching is different than therapy. When I was a therapist, there is a presupposition that people are coming to me because of some problem, be it deep in the psyche, boiling on the surface, or in many cases, both. It could be a problem in the self, in the couple, or in the family. As a psychotherapist, my focus tended to be on the presenting problem, understanding how the past affects and forms the present, and helping the person cope with living in the now.

I took on the role of consultant which is somewhat like a therapist for an organization, and I did that work with congregations, dioceses, bunches of bishops (that I call a gaggle, on my good days), a school, a non-profit, and even a city.

Therapy presumes pathology. “Houston….we have a problem.” Something has gone wrong and it needs attention. Therapy tends to focus on the past in order to get a handle on what is influencing the issues in the Now moment. I have found this work fascinating as one must excavate the early relationships and attachments, or lack of, to understand what is going on in the present.

Coaching is more attuned to unlocking the potential for the future. There is a positive attitude to coaching that presumes that persons are naturally potentiated to actualize their gifts and hopes. The mantra in the coaching world is that humans are naturally creative, resourceful, and whole. That’s a mouth full, but more importantly, it fills the mind and attitude of the coach with an optimism for the future of the client. The exciting part of coaching is unlocking the possibilities for the person one is coaching. The presumption is that everything the person needs is inside, waiting to emerge, rather than the therapeutic expectation of pathology.

Pathology that needs to be dealt with; potential that needs to be developed. That is the difference in the classical way in which the literature describes therapy versus coaching. My way of doing coaching seems to be a hybrid of the two, a mix, a mash up of what seems to me to be true about the humans I have known, the people I have experienced, the persons I have encountered. There is both potential and pathology in all of us.

And I know this even more with the experience of my own damn self. As I engage in self-reflection and try to enhance my most important attribute, self awareness, I am profoundly reminded of both my gifts and my liabilities. I am simultaneously broken and whole, combined in a magical, mystery known as my self. I am connected to a past that forms me genetically and psychically in ways that I will never transcend. There are some wounds that I have received that may heal but the scars remain. This has to do with the reality of my past which is now a given. My mirthful way of playing with this determinism is that I am a six foot three inch male with a linebacker’s physique. It’s a good bet that I am not going to be a jockey next year at the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. I have limitations. It’s part of the reality that I trailer around in my body and psyche. It’s a given.

At the same time, I am full of potential. I have an amazing mind, as does most humans, that has the capacity to imagine a future that is loaded with possibilities. I have the inherent gift of a human being of being able to decide, that is, to make choices. I can exercise agency in determining how I spend my time and where I want to be. Of course, this is within limits, tally ho. My point is that we are a mixed bag of tricks that we trundle forth through our world.

The assumption in coaching is that the person to be coached is the same as the one who coaches. There is no false assumption that sometimes occurs in the therapeutic milieu that one member is sick and the other is whole. Given what I know of other therapists and shrinks, this is more than a false assumption but it is, in fact, the presumed reality brought by many patients to the therapeutic room.

In coaching, there is no advantage, certainly not an ontological one. Rather, the coach comes alongside, my favorite image of coaching, in order to add a perspective to the isolated perception of the other. This is what the coach is selling. It’s all he/she really has to offer. An additional set of eyes that grants depth perception to reality that goes beyond the flat, one dimensional look of the solitary other. The coach may have some expertise in certain areas but the gift the coach brings is a process of pausing the action, calling attention to what is going on, surfacing options that may not be evident, assisting the other that one has come alongside to make decisions, and then to offer a structure of accountability.

This description of a coaching encounter is a schema of most coaching sessions I engage in, be it a regular session with a CEO of a large two billion dollar healthcare system, a session with an Episcopal priest seeking to guide her parish to an agreed upon goal, be it an Operating Officer maneuvering his organization through a change initiative, a young pastor seeking to discover his leadership capacity, a senior clergy person who is ready to retire from parish ministry but wants to explore what’s next, or a middle aged woman struggling to write the next chapter of her life following the ending of the last. The form is the same but the content is wildly and wonderfully different. It’s probably why I love my work.

Again the process is relatively simple.

Situate: where are you now in your life? I love the Marvin Gaye existential press: what’s going on?

Search: What are you going to do with your one wild and wonderful life? to borrow an image from poet Mary Oliver.

Shift: What changes are you needing to make and willing to invest in?

Sustain: How am I going to rearrange my life so as to make this new reality possible and able to be maintained as I move into the future?

My role and my expertise is in this process, helping another human being move, stumble, fall, dance through this process of becoming. Perhaps it is to become the leader one has dreamed of being. Or maybe it’s the negotiating a change in life structure that will be more fulfilling. Finding a new path of promise in this new time of life. Working my way through the process of forming a team of colleagues that is world-beating. This in the stuff of life, and it is, indeed, what we make it.

I am associated with several groups, association of coaches. One is the professional certifying group, the International Coach Federation, that regulates this work and sets ethical standards of the work. The Clergy Coach Network is a group of trained clergy who reach across denominational lines and offer coaching to both clergy and lay leaders. The Coach Training for Leader is a group of trainers who offer learning opportunities to people interested in coaching. And then I have my own group of folks who are some of the smartest, most caring folks on the planet, who are dedicated to the development of people, building capacity, accelerating transformation, and making a difference.

If you find yourself wanting to grow as a person, to develop as a leader, or explore you next chapter, coaching may be the best way to take the proverbial next step. Write to me at drdavidgalloway@msn.com and I’ll be happy to help connect to a person who can come alongside and assist you in deciding your next steps on this journey of life.

What is calling you? What prompting have you ignored that needs tending, some attention? What’s next for you in the wild and wonderful life? Coaching can offer an intentional way to move into this next chapter of your journey. I’d be honored to help.

7 thoughts on “What is a Coach?

  1. Definitely a good column. I have been reading Community by Peter Block. Like reading your column, reading him makes me more thoughtful about this world and my part in it. I have recently joined a group of like-minded women. We are working on community activism to better our little neck of the woods. Because we live in such a backwater state our group is secret. We don’t not give out the names to non-members. It can affect too many areas of our professional and personal lives. However, I think we are about ready to come out of the darkness. Our first foray was in voter registration. We set up camp in traditionally black neighborhoods and gave out pizza and gift cards to those who came by and registered to vote. Next we plan to start focus groups on particular topics. Your column on coaching touched a nerve as the way we approach those groups is so important. If you have not read Community you might want to at least read the summary. It talks your language.
    Keep up the good work, a book may come from your columns.
    Happy Holidays

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pam, thanks for reading and the comment. Block is an old teacher of mine….a great one that helped me immensely when I got a Pew Grant to organize a community foundation in East Texas. His concepts were at the heart of our work. I wish you well with your work. I recommend a good book about the community organizing we did in Texas, Cold Anger, by Mary Beth Rogers. Some narrative, some strategy, some tactics. Used it as a text. These are critical times deserving our best energy and thinking.


  3. Fantastic David! As a coach myself, I very much agree and appreciate your description and explanation of the role of a coach. One of my favorite parts of coaching is the holding space for the client to step into their potential and realize that inner wisdom that is distinctively their own. I look forward to a time that we can catch up and talk coach talk!!! Take care. BTW….I agree with Mary’s comment.


    1. Thanks, Molly. Would love to talk shop.
      The friendship that the Crackers have is envious and should not be taken for granted. I work hard to keep my college friends in connection although my high school buddies have gone the way of the wind., partly due to the dispersion of the southside of Atlanta. I am grateful to Facebook in connecting us for a reunion and for maintaining a semblance of community.
      Thanks for reading and responding.


  4. DG: How am I going to rearrange my life to make (a) new reality possible and able to be maintained as I move into the future…..(and) to offer a structure of accountability?

    Got it, DG.

    Milo to Alex in Jonathan Kellerman’s “When the Bough Breaks”: “Alex, you can bust your ass trying to achieve Nirvana through inertia but it will not work.”


    1. Susan. I was on the road yesterday. I use two formal means of accountability. One is the use of a personal journal/planner that keeps my commitments in front of me every day. I have worked on it for years, using a bunch of different forms but feel good about my current one. Be happy to share it with you.
      In addition, I have an accountability partner who is not my therapist or spiritual director. Some one who holds me account, pulls no punches. Hope that helps.


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