How to Become a Certified Coach

UPDATED: November 30, 2022
PUBLISHED: July 18, 2021
How to Become a Certified Coach

In 2018, my Uncle Bill bought me the book Vladimir Putin: Life Coach. The photoshopped cover of the Russian dictator, barefoot in ripped jeans, told me it was a humorous satire (the author also wrote The Beautiful Poetry of Donald Trump).

Uncle Bill didn’t know that I’d started coaching my first clients the year earlier. To the uninitiated, the term does seem preposterous. “You coach people how to live?” 

What is coaching, really?

As with most emerging professions, that’s not half accurate, and to barely scratch the surface will uncover a thriving multibillion-dollar global industry filled with dynamic professionals, some who have spent tens of thousands of dollars and decades serving hundreds of clients whose lives are radically improved. And yes, as in every industry, there are the charlatans and incompetents, too. 

The best place to understand coaching is to start with a question, “Who is coaching for?”

Who can benefit from coaching?

My 2014 was chaos. My mother died; I bought my first rental property; and I started dating my now-wife. My business was also imploding, and I had no idea what I was going to do for money. Life was upside down.

When I was invited to a four-day workshop called Transformation and Life Mastery I said, “What the heck?” I needed a transformation. I craved mastery over my stormy life, but I didn’t know what it looked like. After session No. 1, it was clear the coach had a gift. She performed a live grief-release exercise on the guy next to me, and when I saw his profound and immediate healing, I hired her the next day for one-on-one sessions.

We worked on my anger and my mom and dad baggage, shuttered my old business and started a new one, and worked on my guilt for falling in blind love when I “should” have been grieving a death.

My results were incredible—exactly what you can expect from great coaching. 2014 plus the rest of life’s traumas has made me a great coachee, but also a formidable coach. Are you someone who’s had fate compress five years of painful challenges into a year? Maybe this article’s for you, huh?

Problems you can take to a coach

There are as many coaches as there are definitions of what that title means. Here’s a grossly incomplete list of problems that coaches deal with:

  • Unhelpful expression of emotions: Anger, pain, grief, sadness, frustration. No emotions are bad; they are only messengers. But the way we process them can be skilled or not. In this way, coaches overlap with therapists.
  • Ego: It’s strong in some and not in others, but it is always masking your true self, and causing mischief in your life. This is not a part of you to kill, only one to tame.
  • Relationship issues: Can’t find a partner, can’t stand my partner, tired of looking for a partner, attracting a certain kind of mate, can’t trust, can’t stop cheating, can’t move on… coaches see it all.
  • Your health: In this article we won’t include personal trainers in our definition of a coach but can call them close cousins. Health coaches deal with anything from the energy in your body to diet to the emotion-body connection.
  • Business goals: You may be starting a business, growing one or closing one, which always entails changing our thinking about business.
  • Career: A coach can help you advance in your organization, make peace with your boss, grow confidence, switch careers or get into your dream school.
  • Spiritual life: There are soul coaches and atheist coaches and traditional-ish religious coaches, but each work with the real you behind the thoughts, the “I am” part.

Clients of professional certified coach Victor McGuire are working on “anything from learning how to be better leaders and communicate more effectively to dealing with common confidence issues such as imposter syndrome.” For clients of Jo Davis, the work is “[finding] meaning, a career change, retirement or planning for it.”

And what do you get in return for taking your problems and desires to a coach? It depends on your aims, but all good coaches are this: a mirror held up to you so you can see the parts you wouldn’t on your own.

When you see your thoughts and behaviors clearly, you bring your decisions out of the basement of your automatic subconscious onto the roof deck of your deliberate consciousness.

Is coaching like therapy?

Yes. No. I explain it to clients like this: therapists focus on the past (traumas, childhood conditioning, unhelpful beliefs), where coaches focus on the future (purpose, goals, expansion, prosperity). 

Professional certified coach Jessica McClure elaborates: “Therapy is helping you to understand and come to terms with your past; a mentor is an expert in the field telling you best practices and a coach is in the middle.”

Many therapists may protest, and I want to clarify that there’s no impenetrable fence between the two fields—instead, see them as overlapping circles, and know that much of our shared work falls in the intersection of that Venn diagram.

Therapists usually seek past traumas first and the rest comes second. They often have specialized and sometimes medical training on diagnosable mental health issues. Coaches generally do not, but because humans are primarily emotional creatures, coaches can’t help but delve into serious past traumas and challenging emotions at times.

Are coaches consultants who give advice or cheerleaders who motivate? That’s part of the resume, but those descriptions fall short. Coaches focus on goals and actions, says coach Fannie Watkinson, but the great ones work at the level of mindset and beliefs. 

“Without shifting the way of being behind the doing, it’s predictable that when the coaching relationship is over, the doing reverts back in alignment with the old way of being,” Watkinson says. As with therapists, coaches work toward lasting change.

The mechanics of coaching

Ahh, the question on everyone’s mind, that everyone thinks is too simple to ask in front of the class. What does coaching actually look like? Most coaches work one-on-one with clients. Meetings are sometimes video-based but face-to-face in a room can be powerful. Sessions I’ve had last from 30 minutes to three-and-a-half hours.

In it, we talk. The best coaching is usually a 50-50 dialogue, never a lecture, and never just a venting session for the client. Coaches will use tools like visualization, assessments, stories, breathing and mindfulness exercises, project management software and paper-based exercises, emotional releasers, mantras, and on and on.

Each coach has their own almanac, but most coaches receive roughly the same basic training; even novice coaches will know about the Pomodoro technique, a breathing exercise or two, and how to listen for your limiting beliefs. You’ll leave sessions either exhilarated, or emotionally raw—both states that lead to progress.

Do you need a coach?

Nobody needs a coach in the same way that nobody needs electricity or plumbing. You can live an entire life without professional, intellectual, emotional or spiritual advancement. But that’s not an option for you if you’re reading this.

If you want more success, inner peace, love, joy, happiness, laughter, courage, wisdom and self-acceptance, then a coach can be your doorway to these gifts.

I can make these claims with a degree of certainty not only because I’m a coach but because I’ve also worked with half a dozen coaches and therapists of my own in the past 13 years. When I do, it’s uncomfortable. This kind of growth involves pain, because as Alexis Carrel points out: “Man cannot remake himself without suffering, for he is both the marble and the sculptor.”

But every time I collaborate with one of these rare human beings, I evolve. My life improves, even if I see it only after five years of hindsight.

Can I change my answer? Yes, you need a coach. Yesterday.

Could you be a coach?

Having written for this audience for the past five years, I can make some predictions about you. You’re an A-type achiever. You have it together in many areas of your life, especially work. You have an entrepreneurial streak and you’re a risk taker. You’re probably a deep thinker and certainly a visionary (you’ll discover that part of you, if you haven’t yet). And yes, you’re deeply flawed, though you want to be perfect.

You have this self-doubt that is the sidekick to higher intelligence and ambition, and so you may look at a coach and say, “I’d love to do that, but I could never.” It’s simply not true.

“When one of my coaches suggested I would make an amazing coach, my first reaction was, ‘No way. That’s the last thing I want to do. I could never do that,’” says master coach in training Heidi Smith. “Then after some reflection I realized that all my natural skills were perfect for coaching.”

Your self-doubt is normal, but coaching requires only this recipe: compassion, listening, intuition and a continuous and longstanding desire to improve yourself a little every day, whether it’s through books, magazines, seminars, YouTube videos, or your daily interactions with life. 

Yes, you can do this. I had the same doubts when I started coaching five years ago, but when I gave myself permission to do it, I confirmed what I suspected was true: that I was born to do this. If you’re reading a personal development magazine like SUCCESS, then you’re already in the Goldilocks zone of coaching potential. 

But why go down this road at all?

Why become a coach?

Coaches have the honor of getting to know their clients at the deepest levels. They ask you questions your friends and family never would. They keep asking until they hit the bedrock of your soul. It’s thoroughly rewarding to get to know someone this intimately (and yet still professionally) over three months or a year or 10 years. 

And coaches have an appealing advantage over therapists; we’re allowed—nay—encouraged, to discuss our own experiences. Professional standards dictate that therapists must stand at a distance from their clients. I preferred my interactions with coaches because they could share their personal experiences, much as a workplace mentor would. 

Here lies the primary reason to become a coach: to share your hard-won experiences and wisdom with those who may be going through the same challenges, so you might lessen their suffering. If you are considering becoming a coach, you have undoubtedly done a gruelling tour of duty in the arena of life.

A chance to turn your struggles into lemonade—to serve others—is the most fulfilling work you can imagine. And you get to choose how to serve, in whatever way is most meaningful to you. Helping women out of abusive relationships? Mentoring struggling entrepreneurs? Guiding young adults into meaningful careers? Your call.

More practically, coaching gives you absolute freedom to: 

  • Work as much or as little as you want. I limit myself to five clients at a time so I can manage another business and write every day.
  • Take vacation on short notice. My wife and daughter and I spent a week last month camping in the woods. 
  • Charge whatever you decide. My rates increase with my confidence and reputation.
  • Pick and choose your clients. I seek clients with an entrepreneurial streak.
  • Find a niche or work in multiple fields.

Coaching, as many jobs in our brave new world, can be done from home, or anywhere with an internet connection. Your client list can be global. I have worked with clients from California to Chicago to Texas to Toronto; from India to Australia to Thailand, all from my garden patio and co-working office.

If you’re sitting in a cubicle or your basement home office with the kids screaming upstairs, I imagine that being your own boss sounds delicious.

Certified vs. uncertified coaches

Beware: all a coach needs to become a coach is the gumption to call him or herself one. This means that there are many (usually good-intentioned) self-identified coaches out there who may never have coached anyone or even had their own coach. It’s not impossible for someone in this situation to become an exceptional coach, but you should always do your homework on a coach’s credentials and experience.

You can of course just dive in and start coaching, as I did years ago, or you can get some formal certification through one of the many organizations that offer this service. 

But do you need to get certified?

Should I get certified as a coach?

If you’re becoming a doctor or a lawyer, you need to get certified. It’s the law. You can’t poke around with your scalpel without 15-plus years of training because that could go very, very wrong. The stakes with coaching are not small (we’re entrusted with people’s mental, emotional and spiritual well-being), but they’re typically not life and death as with medicine. 

No government has passed a law to regulate the coaching industry (though it’s likely to happen at some point, so you are free to hang up your shingle and get to work anytime you like.

“Coaching is a tricky field because technically anyone can say they are a life coach—it is unregulated,” says Watkinson. 

None of the exceptional coaches I’ve worked with were certified. The world’s top coaches—Tony Robbins, Les Brown, Robin Sharma, Jen Sincero—are not certified. You can become an exceptional coach without becoming certified. It’s your training that is far more important, (which is usually a valuable part of any certification process).

There are some compelling reasons both for and against certification. Let’s look…

Arguments against a coaching certification

The points that follow are offered without judgment; they’re simply what you’ll hear out there from either camp: evaluate them on your own to find the best road for you.

  • “Coaching is more an art than a science, and like writing or therapy, can be taught, but there’s no guarantee that the student will be good at it.”
  • “The best way to become a coach is to do the work on your own, first, not in a classroom.”
  • “Some of the top coaches are not certified, and there are plenty of bad certified coaches out there.”
  • “Certification won’t give you the self-confidence to become a great coach.”
  • “Certification programs are unregulated and vary widely in quality; best to skip it altogether.”
  • “That certification will cost you $1,000 to $10,000 and three to 24 months of your life—just for some made-up title after your name.”
  • “Most certification programs don’t teach you how to actually build your client base.”
  • “Clients never ask me about credentials—real legitimacy comes from results and testimonials.”

Arguments for a coaching certification

  • “Many certification programs include training that’s invaluable whether you’re brand new to the field or an elite veteran.”
  • “Coaches without certifications are unethical charlatans.”
  • “Certification gives you legitimacy and helps you stand out in a crowded, noisy industry.”
  • “Moving through a certification program will connect you with a network of mentors and peers that you can lean on for support, and collaborate with.”
  • “Your confidence will skyrocket when you achieve your training and official designation.”
  • “82.8% of professional coaches said they would feel more competitive if they were certified and 76% said they would sign on more paying clients.” These are actual findings from an industry survey.
  • “The coaching industry will become regulated sooner or later; you might as well get your credentials now and get grandfathered in.”
  • “Many certification programs will help you land your first clients.”

What’s right for you?

As with everything in life, nothing is black and white. Whether you should seek a certification depends on your unique situation. 

There are no glaring downsides to investing in a training program that will give you new coaching tools, bolster your professional network and add a credential to your resume, which is important to some clients.

Certified professional coach Royal Carney makes a great point: “Accreditation and certification are great; however, they don’t create a great coach. A coach is created through self-development, self-education in the coaching field, and coaching hours.”

What to expect from the journey to certification

If you haven’t figured it out already, the world of coaching certification is like the Wild West: No governing laws. Vast riches to claim. Heroes and mustachioed villains. If you go to right now and search for “coaching certification,” you’ll find (sit down for this) 10,000 results, with most of these “accredited” programs costing between $10 and $20. If I were a cynic, I could accredit myself right now and nobody could stop me.

At the other end of this frontier territory are programs that rival university degrees. Lisa Walker spent around $10,000 and 10 months achieving a certification from prestigious Columbia Business School. “You’re buying into the integrity, quality and brand [of this school],” she says.

To become a “professional certified coach” will cost $7,700 and take a year or two. Becoming a “certified professional coach” will run you a whopping $11,950 and about a year of your life. (Perspective: earning $100/hour you will have to coach 120 hours, or 10 hours a week for 4 months to recoup your investment).

What to do? 

There is of course always the middle way: programs that are measured in days, not years, and that run in the hundreds or low thousands of dollars, instead of rivaling a small down payment on a house. 

Regardless of the program’s intensity, here’s what you might expect from a training program:

  1. Training on the craft or art of coaching, with concepts, exercises, and tools
  2. Mentorship from experienced coaches
  3. In some cases, business-building and client-finding strategies
  4. Longer programs may involve working with real clients while a mentor watches over your shoulder
  5. At the end, an impressive title to add to your resume and some letters to shore up your email signature

“[My] training program was incredible and prepared me to be an exceptional coach and to keep growing as a human being. It was worth every penny,” Davis says. Her sentiments were echoed by the other six coaches I spoke with. 

I asked each coach, “If you could go back in time and do your certification again, would you do anything differently?” Unanimously they told me: I’d do it sooner.

How to get started as a coach

If you’ve read this far, you must really want to become a coach. But how do you physically go from reading about it to serving clients? Here are some pathways.

Work with your own coach first

You wouldn’t decide to study medicine without ever having visited a doctor. You wouldn’t go through law school without ever stepping in a courtroom. You wouldn’t marry someone you’ve never met. How could you possibly know that you want to be a coach without having experienced powerful coaching? 

If your answer is “for the money,” or “because I enjoy giving advice” then you need to get your own coach ASAP and experience it firsthand to know whether this is truly what you want to do. There is no point wasting your time or your clients’ time. There are a hundred thousand amazing coaches out there, suited to any budget, available from anywhere in the world through the magic of video chat, including top-tier coaches vetted by people with decades of industry experience.

My decision to become a professional coach grew out of hundreds of sessions over 10-plus years working with six different coaches. After years of seeing my own rapid growth while I was in coaching, I wanted to help others in the same way, and I realized that I could be just as good as my guides.

Should you coach for free in the beginning?

Many coaches who opted to dive straight into coaching as an alternative to a certification and training program, started by doing it for free. This is a perfectly valid way to get started in many careers (think unpaid internships and volunteering)—and some of the most successful people I know have careers that started as hobbies.

However, it is a law of human nature that we don’t value much what we get for free. Clients who get coaching for free or at a deep discount often:

  • Don’t do the work, or even disappear unexpectedly
  • Don’t adequately respect your work
  • Don’t refer paying clients
  • Get upset when you haven’t “fixed” them after one session

You may not have the confidence to ask for money to do something when there’s sparse evidence that you’re good at it; it’s the classic chicken-and-egg scenario. As an aside, this limiting belief about money is something you can work on with a coach. If that’s the case, coach for free, but do it only for long enough to confirm your hypothesis that you can, in fact, help people. 

Then, start charging slightly more than what you think you’re worth. Remember that great coaching always provides a positive return on investment, financially or otherwise.

How to sign your first coaching clients 

As with anyone with their own practice (chiropractors, consultants… any entrepreneur, really) an unavoidable part of your job will be marketing and sales. This can be one of the best parts of the job. 

Most coaches I interviewed agreed that the best source of clients is referrals from previous clients, and these begin to flow in only when you start to provide exceptional results. But what do you do before you sign a single client?

If you enjoy talking to people and have a knack for it (if not, is coaching right for you?), then the best way to find clients is to just talk to them. A helpful book, The Prosperous Coach covers this strategy in detail. In a nutshell:

  1. Make your No. 1 priority every week having deep conversations with potential clients (acquaintances, moms at the park, strangers in Starbucks)
  2. Provide massive value during that conversation
  3. Ask, “Would you like some help with this challenge” or “Whom do you know that I can help?”

The next most effective strategy in my experience has been email marketing. This is simple, but not easy: attract clients to your website, capture their email address, build rapport & trust over time, then ask for the sale.

If social media is your strong point, you could of course build a thriving practice through Instagram, TikTok, Facebook and so on, though engagement rates on these platforms continue to disappoint.

If you opt to pursue your certification, many training programs will help you recruit clients. “We were also required to have at least five paying clients throughout the six-month program,” Davis says. If you’re someone who appreciates external motivation, find a program like this.

How to be a great coach

The answer to this question could fill another full guide, but here are some teasers that will help you determine whether becoming a coach is the right move for you.

  1. Work with your own coach. Although your coach is working on you, you can’t help but pick up techniques, tools, body language and tones of voice you can use with your future clients—ones you can’t get from a book. Most coaches I spoke with told me that their certification program included some kind of coaching from experienced pros.
  2. Read books. Simply reading hundreds of self-help books can take you far; you can probably get a Harvard-level education from your local library, if you have a Good Will Hunting work ethic.
  3. Invest in training. By now it’s clear that although certification is optional, training is mandatory. When you pay to invest in training from a reputable organization, you’ll not only accumulate knowledge, but gain confidence in your abilities.
  4. Coach. We learn best by doing. You will never become a half-decent coach only by reading books or taking classes. Many certification programs include some mandatory coaching hours with real-life clients, often with an experienced coach looking over your shoulder.

Your next step

There’s much here to digest, but now you have a good overview of what coaching entails, whether it’s right for you and whether you should get certified. You even have a few tried-and-tested methods for breaking into the field. 

Too much information can cause paralysis, so the best way to get moving is to tackle the smallest possible piece of the larger project. What is that all-important small first step? To find out, ask yourself:

  • What kind of coach do I want to be? Whom do I want to serve?
  • Is formal training important for me, or can I lean on my life experience and self-education?
  • Will my clients expect me to have a certification? Remember: individual clients tend not to care, whereas corporate clients might consider it a must.
  • How much time and money do I want to invest? A five-figure, year-long program will steep you in legitimacy, but won’t guarantee you confidence or skill.

The best next step will come from inside you, not what someone on the internet is telling you.

In my case, I have professionally coached dozens of clients from around the world over the past five years. I have a gift for this work, and I will continue to love watching my clients grow for decades to come.

But recently I’ve been wondering whether certification will help me take my work to higher levels. The more research I do, the harder it is to find a single downside. I’m currently considering a few training programs, including the SUCCESS Coaching Certification. I’ve been contributing to the magazine for five years, and reading it for much longer, and I don’t need to tell you it’s a powerhouse in the personal development space. 

I like that theirs is a lean five-day intensive program created by coaches who are actually putting a dent in the universe, not academics or theoreticians.

This is one option, but again, do your research; I’m doing mine.

If you decide to move forward into coaching, I applaud you. In a world of material riches and technological wizardry, the next frontier is not out there, but inside us. This is the domain of the coach and it’s where I believe the most positive improvement in our world will be made. To be part of this frontier is terribly exciting.

Photo by GaudiLab/Shutterstock

I help heart-led entrepreneurs start + grow businesses that improve the world.Instagram: @mpbizcoach