What is Coaching?


Imagine, if you will, you’re driving a Rally car.

The engine is screaming and the stones are flying as you slide between the trees on an impossibly small road. There’s a smell of pine and dirt. Your pulse is elevated but controlled. You’re not thinking, you’re doing. Despite the fact that this was an odd Christmas gift – you're having the time of your life.

Beside you is your co-driver!

A good co-driver knows how to read maps, they know how to communicate with you and they care deeply about your performance.

They study the route you are driving and they encourage you to put your foot down and go for it.

A good co-driver will help you figure out your goals and work with you to achieve them. But if you drive off the road because you went too hard your co-driver will jump out of the car and help you push it back onto the road. They will then help you work out the key learning so you stay on course and have a wild time.

Coaching is the co-driver.

But, at times, coaching is also the vehicle, the map, the compass and coaching is the person who cleans the windscreen.

Coaching is a technique, an approach, a process, a way of relating to someone.

As a mindset, coaching is available to everyone but do we all make good coaches? Sadly not.

When you’re in a coaching frame-of-mind you work with the understanding that it may indeed be quick to give your client a fish but it is far better to help them understand that they will be hungry again tomorrow.

This old adage concludes by saying you should teach them to fish but in coaching, this is not the conclusion. In coaching, we help the client to take a look at all their options, after all, maybe they are Vegan.

Coaching recognises that everyone is different and they must find their own way to sustain themselves.


That’s all lovely, but I’m still not getting it?

Most people don’t know what coaching is. This is understandable for four reasons:

Mentoring and coaching are not the same despite people using the terms interchangeably! Say you went to a swimming coach to improve your technique and speed. You pay that person to tell you what to do. They are indeed a sports ‘coach’ but in a business context, we’d describe this person as a mentor. A mentor passes on their expertise or knowledge directly to you. But telling is not coaching.

Unlike ‘Accountant’ or ‘Architect’; ‘Coaching’ is not a protected term. Therefore anyone can call themselves a coach regardless of whether they have trained professionally or not. Because of this, you meet a lot of ‘coaches’ who would be only too delighted to tell you what to do with your life. “If I were you I’d…” <girr, but you’re not me, and that advise isn’t what I want to be doing>

Coaching is probably the most flexible process known to man because it depends entirely on the needs and learning style of the individual client. Therefore what one person takes from working with a coach will not be the same as what the next person takes.

The benefits of working with a coach can, at times, be hard to measure. It can be hard to pin down and describe. It’s a bit like taking a flight, you might be aware that there’s probably a pilot at the front but you don’t really think about what she’s doing. You just arrive happily at your destination.

Can we define coaching?

For every person operating as a coach, there will be a different definition of what coaching is, this is my definition:

"Coaching is the art of eliciting what you –as an individual– should do in your –unique– circumstances. A great coach will help you discover who you truly are so that your direction and actions can be made more obvious, more meaningful and more authentic."

What is the main aim of coaching?

People have tremendous potential! Everyone has tremendous potential but for myriad reasons [like: lack of resources; lack of time; lack of knowledge; lack of confidence; too much fear, too much uncertainty, too much confusion] we can’t, don’t or, sadly, won't achieve our potential.

Some people come close but most people don’t get anywhere near. It is the aim of coaching, well my coaching anyway, to rectify that. My aim is to help my clients achieve their full potential; so that they can work in a way that is deeply meaningful and truly authentic to them.

Coaching helps you become aware of your blind spots, the things that are slowing you down but you are not fully cognizant of. This is also known as your areas of ‘unconscious incompetence’, a good coach will help you understand what is in that zone and what you can do about it because it’s pulling on you like an anchor.

Coaching sounds like wizardry to me, is there any science?

Plenty, here’s a wee bit:

Oxytocin & Cortisol

In a trusting relationship, such as between coach and client, the release of oxytocin is triggered. This can help lower cortisol levels. This can have the effect of uncoiling the anxiety-fuelled flight, fight or freeze response and help you to see things with greater perspective and think more effectively. You can then more readily connect with the wisdom of your own thinking and have ideas without the self-critic having his day.

The Prefrontal cortex (PFC)

Affectionately thought of as the CEO or conductor of the brain. The PFC is responsible for a lot of higher-level cognitive functions, including attention and processing. It is also known for being involved with short-term memory and is implicated in self-control.

Under stress our prefrontal cortex does not function well. The neural circuitry and neurochemistry of the PFC can be changed by our experiences. In adults it has been shown that even mild acute (as opposed to chronic) stress can have a rapid and dramatic impact on our PFC’s ability to function. It can affect creativity, flexible problem solving, working memory and other processes.

A coaching session is focussed time away from devices and other people. By removing distractions, we are creating a better environment for the prefrontal cortex to focus and be effective and efficient in high-level information processing and decision making.

What do people work on in coaching?

It varies. However, I only work with people on topics that relate to their work-life (if something is really impacting their work performance then we may ‘go there’ as much as we need to in order to get back on track).

My clients and I nail topics such as these frequently:

  • Leadership:–

    • The majority of my clients are entrepreneurs and have already successfully started a business however as the business grows they may need to look inwardly at how they are impacting those around them. They may need to understand the vision better themselves. It may be necessary to let go of a few old habits, develop some new ones and have time to reflect on what they stand for as a leader.

    • What does leadership mean to you? Is a common question we seek to define.

  • The Future:–

    • When you’re busy with day-to-day life it’s really hard to make the time and find the headspace to think about the distant future and what exactly you want to put there. I have many ways to come at this

  • Transformation:–

    • “How can I transition from where I am now to where I want to be?”

  • Success:–

    • Figuring out what success would actually look like is key. It’s simple really; the more visceral that picture is the greater the chance of achieving it.

  • Energy & Work/Life balance:–

    • “I’m yawning my way through meetings or irritable when I’m with my loved ones. There must be a better way!”

    • Yes! You are right, there is. But it’s not easy to find in isolation. A creative, objective look at this always helps. Often the balance is just off centre, it’s not a total rewrite.

    • Like a gyroscope, when life is spinning right it’s a joy to behold.

    • We figure out what drains your energy and how we can limit this.

    • We also work on how can you cultivate more energy and therefore achieve more.

  • People problems:–

    • It can be hard to work with others. Finding ways to make it work (or what to do when it isn’t) is a common discussion topic.

  • Big Decisions:–

    • On one level coaching is entirely about decision making. It’s about understanding the ingredients in the decision and the desired outcomes.

    • Thought experiments (aka scenario planning) often help. A chance to test ideas before pulling the trigger.

  • Confidence:–

    • As you’d imagine, confidence and self-belief is a theme throughout all of this. Much like a stick of rock, ‘Confidence’ can be written all the way through the coaching programme (but perhaps never tackled directly).

  • Action:–

    • Almost every single session concludes with clear and motivating next steps.

What are the benefits of coaching?

In addition to the main theme/topic of a given session these are the peripheral benefits enjoyed after most, if not all, sessions:

  • Feeling more positive

  • greater clarity

  • greater certainty

  • greater confidence

  • better work/life balance

  • more energy/drive/motivation

  • more headspace

  • commitment to a particular decision/direction/strategy

  • a deeper understanding of yourself

  • greater wisdom around how you can operate at your very best

These are the things that clients rarely come to me with but, it’s perhaps because of these, that they continue to invest their time and money into coaching.

What does coaching look like?

Here’s one picture, mine:

  • I meet my clients every 2-4 weeks

  • We meet for 1-2 hours

  • The venue depends on what’s best for the client but include: a hired meeting space; the clients home; a park bench or a walk around the Harbourside or the Downs. I don’t meet clients at their work because it’s necessary to have a transition away from the day-to-day so that bigger ideas can be hatched and greater perspectives gained.

  • I’ve worked with some clients for years and, by virtue of how well I know them, our best (most damascene) sessions are often the more recent ones

  • A session might focus on one of the topics above or it might focus on a particular self awareness exercise.

There was a lot there… could you summarise?

Definitely! Clearly it’s a topic dear to my heart and I have a LOT to say about it. Ironically coaching is a lot more about listening.

Coaching is the art of eliciting what is it that you should do and how you should achieve it.

Coaching is a space created for you to do your very best thinking. After all everything we do depends for its quality on the thinking we do first.


James is so good to work with because he asks the right questions. And he is able to empathise quickly. I continually benefit from his expert bespoke and person centred approach!
— Rosie Sirkett, Owner and Founder of Relax Bristol; massage on demand
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