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What’s the difference between coaching and therapy?

At Sanctus we hold the view that coaching and therapy cannot be rigidly demarcated, because wellbeing cannot be rigidly demarcated. There are degrees of depression, degrees of performance, degrees of happiness. 

To meet this spectrum of ‘mental wellness’, coaches and therapists have degrees of therapeutic and coach-like approaches. Instead of simply holding a polarity of “mentally ill” or “mentally well”, we believe that each of us can oscillate on the spectrum of wellbeing – sometimes reaching extremes. 

Because of this, the coach and client both agree on how they will work together, depending on where the client finds themselves on the wellbeing spectrum. If, at any point, the client needs more support than Sanctus coaching can give, our coaches are trained to signpost clients to other practitioners.

By comparison, a more traditional view of personal (or life) coaching is similar to sports coaching: let’s say you want to run a marathon. You would only consider using a running coach if you are reasonably healthy and fit. If you don’t have any fractures, injuries, or severe health conditions, your running coach can get you from couch potato to marathon runner in due time. 

However, if you have a broken leg, sprained ankle, or a serious heart condition, you would first need to see a physio, doctor, or surgeon. The goal there would be to get you back to a baseline level of ‘health’ before you see a running coach. 

Therapy versus coaching

Life and Personal coaching can be compared to therapy in a similar way: if you are experiencing severe depression, anxiety, or an eating disorder, the priority would usually be to see a therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist. Once you are at a healthy baseline, you could start seeing a coach to achieve goals or improve performance. 

Seeing a coach can also be done alongside seeing a therapist, so you can better connect to who you are as you attend to the parts of yourself that need healing.

We don’t expect ourselves to play tennis with a broken arm, and in the same way, it may be unrealistic to expect great work performance if you’re having a depressive episode.

That being said, this distinction between coaching and therapy is somewhat artificial. Where surgeons will (hopefully) never work on a tennis court and tennis coaches will never work in an operating theatre, therapists may do ‘coach-like’ work with clients, and coaches may do therapeutic-like work with their clients. 

In this more traditional view, coaching is a process to support the client to reach their goals – be that personal or professional. The assumption is that the client is doing ‘well’. They are healthy, stable, and resourced, so they reach out to a coach to do ‘better’ – whatever ‘better’ means to them, be it a new job, a happier relationship, or better work life balance. 

Unfortunately, this more rigid view often labels clients as “uncoachable” if they fall more on the ‘mentally unwell’ side of the spectrum, and are referred to a therapist. This raises the question:

“When should I see a therapist, and when should I see a coach?” 

Unless you fall on the severe Mental Illness side of the spectrum, that is a hard question to answer! In fact, instead of thinking therapist vs coach, we encourage that you rather ask: 

“What is the level and type of experience, skills and expertise I need?”  

Where some therapists only do CBT, other therapists specialise in depression, and some therapists do a combination of coaching and therapy. The same applies to coaches: some have training to work with trauma, where others only help with career changes. 

When it comes to Sanctus coaches, it is critical for us that they have a broad range of experience and expertise, so that they can meet the needs of most people who walk through their door, and where they can’t, they are trained to signpost people to the best service provider. 

It’s important for us that our coaches are just as comfortable working with workplace burnout as they are with talking about how a client can go for that promotion or have a difficult conversation with a colleague. 

To ensure that they have an additional level of support, all our coaches are trained by our own International Coaching Federation approved risk training program. This helps us preserve both the quality and safety of our coaching sessions. And in turn, their effectiveness.

We’re awfully proud of our excellent team of coaches. Learn more about our coaching philosophy and the high standards we set for our coaches here.

And if you’ve ever wanted to give Sanctus coaching to your people, you can get started here.