The dangers of using an unqualified coach

If you were alive at the turn of the 20th century,  do you know what you would give your baby to soothe their teething pains? Morphine syrup. 

Yup. Morphine – a drug potent enough to stop your breathing.

Oh, and to top it off, you could also dust their gums with some mercury. You know, good old mercury – which is basically sprinkling poison directly  into your baby’s bloodstream. 

We might look back and think “How could they!?!” but, we need to remember: modern medicine as we know it today, was still in its infancy back then. And since it was still working through its growing pains, you’d find peculiar, to downright dangerous practices, proclaimed as “Good Medicine”.  

It wasn’t that doctors would intentionally put their patients’ lives at risk, it’s just that…well, they didn’t know any better. How could they? It was still early days. 

Today, professional coaching is still in its early days. In its current format, coaching has only been around for about 40 years, so we are roughly as old as modern medicine was about a 100 years ago. 

And, being so young, our profession has its own set of unknown risks and unintended consequences. For all the incredible benefits coaching can offer your employees, it would be reckless not to consider the risks, before choosing your service provider. 

But, how dangerous can coaching really be? 

It may be  true that coaches don’t exactly place their clients’ lives in imminent  danger.  It’s not neurosurgery. But, herein lies the problem: it’s precisely because our work is not a physical, easily measurable intervention, but a psychological, relational, confidential exchange, that the consequences of what happens behind closed doors, often goes unnoticed. 

One literature review on the negative effects of coaching (and we don’t have that much research behind us yet), shows at least five possible negative effects of coaching:

  1. Values shift: When the coachee experiences a decreased sense of meaning toward their work, because of coaching.
  2. Self-satisfaction shift: An overall sense that life is not as satisfying as it was before coaching started. 
  3. Life balance shift: A shift where the coachee’s work-life balance decreases, with the coachee spending less time supporting and taking care of  themselves, and more time and energy on work. 
  4. Mission shift: When the coaching goals are modified without the coachees’ explicit approval.
  5. Scope shift: When a coaching session triggers a psychological problem, that cannot be safely worked on in coaching, and is best suited to other mental health interventions.

These risks tend to have only a low to moderate intensity,  but it’s not impossible for a coaching session to have a more serious psychological impact.  As Dr Steven Berglas, psychotherapist and executive coach, rightly points out in the Harvard Business Review: 

“Misguided coaching ignores—and even creates—deep-rooted psychological problems that often only psychotherapy can fix.”

How, then, do you know whether your coaching is ‘misguided’? When in a medical ward, the doctors’ interventions can be recorded, measured and reviewed. They can be held to account. Their treatment can be compared to protocols and industry-standards. 

But, what happens with coaching interventions? Since coaching happens behind closed doors, with only anecdotal, sporadic client feedback, how do we enforce some rigour & accountability into our industry?

Segue to the precarious topic of regulation.

The unregulated field of psychology 

Did you know that you can create a website right now, upload some fancy photos of you in an armchair, maybe with a sympathetic smile, a tilted head seated in a tranquil, sunlit room. Then, call yourself a psychotherapist, and start seeing clients. 

Yes, you

It doesn’t matter who you are, how much experience you have (or lack thereof), and whether you have any qualifications. Legally, in the UK, anyone can call themselves a therapist, counsellor, psychotherapist or coach.

And, unfortunately, many do exactly that.

Our field is not regulated by the government. The phrase “Professional coach” can mean anything from 

“I have a Bachelor’s degree in business, with 20 years experience working in retail, a psychology degree, a masters degree in coaching, and 3500 + hours coaching experience.”  to 

“I am a 20 year-old who just moved to Bali for my gap-year.”

Don’t you find it peculiar? How is it that the field of psychology, where we work with the most complex system known to man – the human mind – has almost no safety mechanisms in place? Not only that, but we allow coaches and therapists to work behind closed doors, and leave it up to them to be accountable for their actions.

For this reason, it is not just important to have adequate training and experience –  it is critical.

I still remember when I just completed my coaching Diploma. This was after 7 years of studying medicine, working as a Doctor for another 5 years, across all the disciplines: psychiatry, emergency medicine, oncology.

I had a considerable amount of life experience, rigorous training and faced some of the most difficult parts of human experience: chronic diseases, suffering, death. And, at that age, I was arrogant. I thought I was an excellent coach – after all, I have more experience than most life coaches you find online.

And then, after completing my 18 months of training, I received my assessment: 


Not ‘very good’. 

Not ‘exceptional’.

No. Just ‘adequate’. For someone who was valedictorian at school, and passed his Family Medicine cum laude, this was a hard blow to the ego. 

Fast forward another 6 years and 1000+ coaching hours later, and I can confidently tell you: 

They were right. I was very much a barely ‘adequate’ coach back then.

There are no shortcuts to becoming a good coach. There are nuances to the human experience you only learn through hours and hours and hours, days, weeks and months of working with people. All kinds of people, in all kinds of contexts. Think of the most magnificent chef, the most skillful musician, the renowned surgeon: it takes years, and years of honing one’s craft, to work skillfully with another human.

Can you be coached by an ‘adequate’ coach? You can. You can choose to have a cheap take-away burger for lunch. And you can choose to spend less, and be coached by a newbie with a diploma in positive affirmations. 

It’s just that I wouldn’t. It’s just not worth the risk. 

I’ve been in this industry long enough to have a higher bar for what I deem to be ‘adequate’. Even if the trainee coach is a great listener with a ‘lot of natural talent’. Even if his coaching qualification was ‘above average’ – they just don’t have sufficient time on the field for me to trust the coaching. 


And this, my dear reader, is the 5-letter word at the heart of our debate.

Can your coaching provider be trusted?

When I hear this question, my mind conjures up images of a sinister old money-hogging Scrooge: a coaching conglomerate who tricks you into buying cheap coaching solutions, branded with “unlimited access”, “more bang for your buck”,  “coaching for everyone!”, while hiring low-quality, inexperienced trainee coaches who are still wet behind the years.

In reality, though, many service providers (and coaches) do not have any negative intentions. If I think back to my younger self, I was truly sincere.  I wasn’t out to exploit clients. I cared deeply about the person in front of me,  and wanted to make an actual difference.

But good intentions a good coach does not make.  

I was  ‘adequate’, and I simply couldn’t know what I didn’t know and have had to come to know about my profession through practice. Life and experience are my teachers. And this takes time.

SO, in the context of a fledgling profession, in an unregulated industry, where the service is delivered behind closed doors, with very little accountability,  how do you ensure you get what you pay for? 

Or, more pertinently: where do you need to place your trust, when looking for a coaching provider?

Coming up below:

  1. Robust training & regulation
  2. Rigorous recruitment
  3. Continual professional development
  4. Experience in hours, not years
  5. Psychological safety & risk management

Robust training & regulation

When it comes to recruitment of our coaches, a coaching diploma is not enough. You can get an advanced life coaching diploma, simply by attending a 6-hour training course online, for £10. For this reason, we only recruit coaches from credible coach training institutions, with longer coaching programs stretching from 9 to 18 months.

At Sanctus, we expect more than simply a qualification. All of our coaches have to be registered under the coaching regulatory bodies, such as the ICF, EMCC, AC – or BACP, with at least 500 hours of coaching experience on top of that, before they even start working with Sanctus. They also need to be in supervision, and continue supervision during their time working at Sanctus. 

Think of supervision as a layer of protection – sort of like a Coach for our Coaches. Our Coaches will share with their supervisor choices they made during sessions, ask for advice on best next steps, or may even have blindspots highlighted back to them by the supervisor. 

Thanks to supervision, I’ve been able to refer clients when they needed therapists, and work through my own anxieties & stressors, so I could be more compassionate and supportive for my clients. 

Without supervision, I would have no one to keep me rigorously accountable, ethical and effective in my work. 

Rigorous recruitment

Coaching is not therapy. Although this is true, the lines between what actually happens in therapy and what happens in coaching is not always that clear. 

Let’s say you’re a personal trainer: you train clients who don’t have any injuries, and you’d ensure they don’t have any medical conditions before training them. But, in reality, you just don’t know what you don’t know. If the client has an undiagnosed heart condition, diabetes, or a joint-problem, they can’t leave these at the door. As a trainer, you work with the whole person – and all their diagnosed, undiagnosed, obvious and not-so-obvious physical ailments.

Professional coaching is similar. I may not treat your depression, or counsel you after a traumatic event, but if I coach you as a person, your diagnosed & undiagnosed, obvious and not-so-obvious psychological challenges will be in the room, and I need to know how to support you – or at the very least, signpost you. 

Even the best coaching qualifications doesn’t guarantee that the coach can create a safe, comfortable space for someone who is going through heart-break, grief, loss, or overwhelm. Your average coach is similar to a personal trainer. A Sanctus Coach is more than that. 

We stress-test our coaches during our 3-stage recruitment. We expect them to meet difficult situations with resilience, compassion and skill. Even though we don’t treat depression, some of our clients may feel depressed at times. Even though we don’t do divorce counselling, some of our clients may be going through divorce. 

You are more than your condition, your title, your problem. And a Sanctus coach needs to have the range to create a compassionate, supportive space for you in all of life’s ups and downs. 

Inexperienced coaches, who don’t have a reasonable depth and wide range of experience, are more likely to miss warning-signs, or – even worse – they might glance over warning signs, too out of their depth to emotionally support and adequately refer someone on, when needed. 

Continual professional development & supervision

Have you heard of the physician who smokes? Actually, it’s not just one physician – it’s one in five. Although smoking won’t make you a bad doctor, it does feel wrong if your GP pops out for a fag, after lecturing all his patients on the dangers of smoking. 

Health is to doctors, what fitness is to a Personal trainer, what Development is to coaches. We expect all our coaches to proactively work on their own development, and stay up-to-date in our rapidly changing industry. 

This means updating their credentials annually, and attending monthly supervision. 

Personally, I wouldn’t see a financial advisor who is broke. Even if it’s possible that they have a lot of knowledge about the field, I would find it hard to trust them. The practitioners I choose to see, need to have a reasonable amount of integrity with their practice. 

In the same lieu, I wouldn’t see a coach who is not actively working on their growth & development – and this forms a core part of our coaching cohort requirements. 

To keep their accreditation, our coaches need to collect Continual Education Units, by attending courses, and keeping their coaching skills ‘sharp’. Some of our coaches have specialised experience with Trauma, others have certification in Internal Family Systems, and even others are qualified Gestalt therapists. This broad range of continual education, experience and skills-development ensures that our coaches stay up-to-date with the latest developments in the coaching profession, and provide the highest quality service.

Without any requirements in the industry for coaches to have to do this themselves, there is an added risk that many coaches simply aren’t continuously developing themselves to be the best coach that they can be for the individuals that they support. 

Experience in hours, not years

A common misconception in the coaching industry is that years of experience count. It’s an understandable mistake – in the corporate world, we tend to count in years: I’ve been a Brand manager for 5 years, or an SEO specialist for 3 years.

Unlike full-time roles, coaches don’t work 40 hours a week. We might see 10 clients one week, and 1 client the next week. As an example, one of our coaches has been coaching for 5 years, but accumulated 3523 hours of coaching experience. Another coach has been coaching for 7 years, with only 600 hours of coaching experience. 

Several tenders we’ve bidded for, seem to ask for coaching years of experience. If you are planning to hire coaches for any project, we recommend focusing rather on coaching hours, since this is a more accurate way to assess experience. And coaching, like any other skill, requires practice. If someone says they have been a coach for 10 years, but their last coaching contract was 4 years ago, I wouldn’t trust their level of experience. 

We only hire coaches with at least 500 coaching hours under their belt, and who have their own, independent coaching practices, to ensure fresh skills, and seasoned experience.

Psychological safety & risk management

Personally, I have high standards when it comes to choosing a personal trainer. There is a big difference between a personal trainer who just got into the game and one who has knowledge as a functional movement coach, biokineticist, or someone who has a degree-level of understanding how the human body works. And, because I value my health more than my car, I’d spend on someone with more expertise in the field – someone I can trust. 

Equally, there is a difference between a coach who doesn’t have some other psychological training or experience, and a coach who has a degree, and experience working with mental health challenges..

Maybe I’m too picky when it comes to my body and my mind, but to me, these are my most precious possessions, and I expect those people who work with me to be above average in their competence. 

At Sanctus, we require coaches to have either therapeutic or counselling experience, or be able to work with someone who may be going through a difficult time. When we recruit our coaches, we test their ability to assess psychological safety, and after we hire them, we train them in our own ICF-accredited risk training.

I’ve often had someone show up in a coaching session, saying: “I’m not sure if I need therapy or coaching.” For an inexperienced coach, this can be scary to hear. They may worry 

“What if this client needs therapy?” 

“What if they share something sensitive with me, and I get stressed or anxious or emotional?”

Sanctus Coaches have the risk training, supervisory support and the emotional capacity to hear you out – no matter what is going on for you. And create the compassionate, supportive environment to either coach you, or sign-post you to the right kind of therapy or counselling you  may need. 

Quality vs. quantity?

At the turn of the 19th century, the food industry transformed radically. The process of mass-scale production of food was introduced (mainly to cater for the military), which enabled us to produce, store & distribute food over vast areas. 

Access is important. And, thanks to the industrial process of processed foods, more people can eat affordably. 

But, most of these foods, I wouldn’t put in my body. Sure, you can buy 10 burgers for the price of one organic meal, but for me, my mental and physical health are my top priority. I’d rather spend less on clothes, technology, furniture, and my car. 

Objects can easily be replaced.

My mind and my body cannot.

When you think about spending on your people, it’s worth considering what you will prioritise: Accessibility, or quality?  

At Sanctus, we work hard, fail often, but hopefully learn how to always put the human first. And, as far as possible, we aim to bring these two key values together: accessible quality, so your people can thrive. 

When it comes down to the bottom line, we believe humans are our best investment, which is why quality is something we will never compromise on. 

If you do find an option where you can get access to support at a much lower cost, we implore you: read the fineprint. Don’t make the mistake of skimping on quality, regulation and psychological safety. It’s simply too high a risk to take.


  1.  October 2018 Coaching An International Journal of Theory Research and Practice 12(3):1-28