Answer provided by the International Coaching Federation:
Professional Coaching is a distinct service that focuses on an individual’s life as it relates to goal setting, outcome creation, and personal change management. In an effort to understand what a Coach is, it can be helpful to distinguish Coaching from other professions that provide personal or organizational support.
Coaching can be distinguished from therapy in a number of ways. First, Coaching is a profession that supports personal and professional growth and development based on individual-initiated change in pursuit of specific actionable outcomes. These outcomes are linked to personal or professional success. Coaching is forward moving and future-focused.
Therapy, on the other hand, deals with healing pain, dysfunction and conflict within an individual or a relationship between two or more individuals. The focus is often on resolving difficulties arising from the past which hamper an individual’s emotional functioning in the present, improving overall psychological functioning and dealing with present life and work circumstances in more emotionally healthy ways. Therapy outcomes often include improved emotional/feeling states. While positive emotion/feelings may be a natural outcome of Coaching, the primary focus is on creating actionable strategies for achieving specific goals in one’s work or personal life. The emphasis in a Coaching relationship is on action, accountability, and follow-through.
Consultants may be retained by individuals or organizations for the purpose of accessing specialized expertise. While consulting approaches vary widely, there is often an assumption that the consultant diagnoses problems and prescribes and sometimes implements solutions. In general, the assumption with Coaching is that individuals or teams are capable of generating their own solutions, with the Coach supplying supportive, discovery-based approaches and frameworks.
Mentoring, which can be thought of as guiding from one’s own experience or sharing of experience in a specific area of industry or career development, is sometimes confused with Coaching. Although some Coaches provide mentoring as part of their Coaching, Coaches are not typically mentors to those they Coach.
Training programs are based on the acquisition of certain learning objectives as set out by the trainer or instructor. Though objectives are clarified in the Coaching process, they are set by the individual or team being coached with guidance provided by the Coach. Training also assumes a linear learning path, which coincides with an established curriculum. Coaching is less linear without a set curriculum plan.
Though sports metaphors are often used, professional Coaching is different from the traditional sports coach. The athletic coach is often seen as an expert who guides and directs the behavior of individuals or teams based on his or her greater experience and knowledge. Professional Coaches possess these qualities, but it is the experience and knowledge of the individual or team that determines the direction. Additionally, Professional Coaching, unlike athletic development, does not focus on behaviors that are being executed poorly or incorrectly. Instead, the focus is on identifying opportunity for development based on individual strengths and capabilities.