The coaching literature is full of books that assume coaching is a profession (Hawkins, 2008), or will soon become one (Grant & Cavanagh, 2004; Lane et al., 2010). There is less critical analysis of the process by which coaching becomes a profession (Fietze, 2017) and very little fundamental critique of what being a profession, or professionalism means for coaching. There is confusion of terms; behaving professionally, or with professionalism is about behaving with the competence, skills, probity and concern for the client and public expected of a professional. It is not a set of characteristics owned exclusively by those who work in the formal professions, nor does working that way make one a professional, in anything but the loosest sense. We expect our builder, our electrician, our car mechanic to behave professionally.   Unfortunately the term “profession” is frequently used so loosely that it is almost synonymous with “being paid”. A professional footballer contrasts with an amateur one. For the term “professional” to be useful it needs to have a more restrictive and clear meaning.

There are advantages and disadvantages to those practicing am endeavor, and to the public if it is formally designated a profession. In the enthusiasm to claim that coaching is a profession this has been lost sight of. Indeed the designation of coaching as a profession could be viewed as evidence of capture by those considering hierarchy, perceived social value and reward, than the consideration of public good.

Is Coaching a Profession 

In determining if coaching is a profession we first have to ask what it is to be a profession. As Larson points out there has been a “dilution of professions into a general category of expert occupations, many of which are poorly defined and poorly understood”(Larson, 2018, p. 51). This blurring of professionalism with expertise means that those with expertise believe that they should be acknowledged as professionals, else their expertise is being doubted. The aspiration of coaches to be treated as professionals could be considered a sign of insecurity rather than of real consideration of what a professional is. Or perhaps it is economically based upon the belief that “Professionals” can charge more. Being a professional means being associated with Physicians, Lawyers and Architects, elites who work with their expertise and brains, rather than the technical classes, or even worse those that labour!

There are many ways of describing, and defining the professions (Burns, 2019). For the purposes of the argument here the Neo-Weberian approach offered by Saks will be used (Saks, 2016; Saks & Adams, 2019). This approach clearly describes some activities as Professions and others as not, therefore providing a definition that has some utility. Furthermore, it avoids conflating the notion of professionalism with expertise. The neo-Weberian approach as described by Saks centres the definition of Professionalism as being based upon the creation of state sanctioned groups through “social closure”(Saks, 2016, p. 6). Professions occupy a position that has exclusionary legal privileges. Medical, Legal, Accounting professionals have legally prescribed privileges, and entry to the profession is limited. Limiting practice to those considered eligible may be considered an act to ensure quality, or it might be seen as market control. The state defined legal boundaries, requirements for training and expertise,  and control of access lead to status, power and income. This also means that there is a sanction, “being struck off”, for serious poor performance. This also results in public benefit, particularly where there is risk to the public from poorly performing practitioners. There are other methods to impose exclusionary closure, for example unionisation. However these are rarely associated with the requirements for training and expertise.

Saks’(Saks, 2016) examines arrange of approaches to determining what is and is not what a profession. The trait approach produces lists of characteristics such as formal training and an altruistic orientation to work. However there is no common agreement on a set of traits (or which traits must be absent). Functionalist approaches explain the value ascribed to the professions as being due to the benefits society accrues from their activity. The profession gains socio-economic privilege and self-regulation by operating in the interests of wider society, ensuring quality and avoiding exploitation of the vulnerable. Other frameworks exist for situating the professions, some Marxists see the wider professional class as a product of late capitalism and where some have done well affiliating with the “neoliberal state” and losing their sense of service (“On the Origins of the Professional-Managerial Class,” n.d.).

Although many of the feature of the professions are present in descriptions of coaching, such as its being based upon deep knowledge and training exercised in in the interest of the Coachee anything other than a cursory interrogation shows that coaching fails to reach the criteria to be considered a profession by almost all of the frameworks describe, in particular if the neo-Weberian approach is taken. There is no social closure, no state regulation, no deep, exclusive body of knowledge, and, in spite of the statements of various coaching organisations it is difficult to discern self-regulation in the interest of wider society.

Indeed, the requirements of some of the accreditation bodies are contrary to the interests of the wider public and could be seen to be inconsistent with their own ethical statements. The Association of Coaching (AC) insists that no more than 25% of the hours submitted for accreditation can be pro-bono (Association for Coaching, 2020, p. 11), furthermore under the “Executive scheme” a minimum of 75% of coaching hours have to be within an organisational setting. The AC is not the only coaching accreditation organisation that assumes that coaching is only of value if money changes hands. International Coach Federation accreditation demands that less than 12% of eligible hours are pro-bono (The Gold Standard in Coaching | ICF – PCC Paths, n.d.).

These rules act against wider interests and imply that a commercial relationship is paramount and that coaching individuals who may not be able to pay (the young, those in not for profits etc) has less value than coaching well paid company executives. This also puts barriers in the way of those who may wish to “give back”, supporting those who may well need development and support, but cannot afford it.  The stance of the AC is in some ways the antithesis of the professional code. Or perhaps the cynical AC coach believes that those that are not charged for a service do not value it.

The AC accreditation rubric, and that of a number of other coaching accreditations make it clear that the prime driver underlying coaching is commercial. This seems to go against the AC’s own definition of coaching, which suggests it is orientated towards “the personal growth of the coachee”, though it is consistent with the AC privileging of a particular status group of “Executive Coaches”.  

Having established that coaching is not a profession we can now consider if it should be.

Why Coaching should not be a Profession

Coaching is a worthwhile pursuit. Even though it is not a profession it still has value and should be based on firm intellectual and ethical foundations. Indeed escaping from both the anxiety of proving it is a profession and the commercial construct that has hi-jacked much accreditation should make coaching more relevant and meaningful. There are many definitions of coaching; they all have much the same meaning, “ a development process that involves interactions … strategies, tools and techniques to promote desirable and sustainable change for the benefit of the coachee …” (Bachkirova et al., 2014). It is about a coach using their knowledge and skills to help develop another person. It is about being good, helping someone. Of course you may be able to make a living out of doing it, Physicians and Priests can make a living as well as doing good. However it does not say that there has to be a commercial relationship. Whilst a Coach may have specific knowledge about learning, or about psychological issues, they may not, they may still be a highly effective coach. This does mean that there is no core knowledge set, though some core processes have become normalised, such as being non-directive.

From a public benefit point of view everyone should have access to a coach. The professions are activities where practice of the profession carries significant risk  to the client. No-one wants an incompetent Surgeon, Lawyer or Architect. The risk is intrinsic to the professional activity. Coaching is a very low risk activity. The major risk in coaching is if a coach fails to recognize that an individual is bringing issues to them that lie outside their area of competence. The risk is extrinsic to the professional activity and little different to the risk anyone faces when they enter into conversation with another. This means lowering the barriers to access, not raising them. There is no public protection argument. Indeed the pursuit of excellence can damage the benefit to the public. Elite sports (Engalycheva & Chappelet, n.d.; Grix & Carmichael, 2012), art (Ragsdale, 2009) and music (Lamont et al., 2003) may turn people into observers rather than participants. We should be taking a Public Health approach to coaching not an elitist one.

Coaching is currently something that senior leaders get. Or is offered to rising middle management as part of their reward and development package. High-cost elite programmes aimed at elites, by elites; those that go through expensive training and accreditation programmes are faced with the need to recoup their investment, and therefore turn towards high cost coaching, encouraged by the accreditation systems that have implicitly and explicitly cultivated an ethos where ones value as a coach is simply a function of what you can charge.

If one believes that this activity, coaching, is worthwhile, and is really about “desirable and sustainable change for the benefit of the coachee …”, then structuring the pseudo-profession so that pro-bono activity is discouraged is unethical. Indeed, one would wish to create an activity that encouraged as many people in as possible, drove the cost of training and supervision down and made it widely accessible. Ideally coaching would be a component of every teaching, management and supervisory interaction. The pipe-line of coaches should be widened, not throttled and non-evidence based commercial practices which are about market capture and monopoly would be discouraged.

Developing quality focused groups that promote good practice, research and even offer accreditation schemes in coaching should be a “good thing. However, they need to operate in the interest of the public, the client, not the coach. Unnecessary gilding of accreditation is merely an exercise in churn, developing income generation opportunities for trainers, supervisors, accreditors … Those that are coaches have an interest in keeping high barriers to entry, maintaining the cost of training and accreditation and the mystique of the professional coach.


Coaching is not a profession, and should not aspire to be a profession. It is a set of useful and important tools and processes as many people as possible should be encouraged to wield, and to access. It is about being a good citizen and leader.

Accreditation and training as it operates at the moment does not act in the public interest, and some aspects are unethical.

 This analysis will no doubt upset many good coaches, but I hope, in good coaching style it causes some reflection and consideration. I hope that I am wrong and have been misled by what I have seen, experienced and read. I want a world full of people coaching.


Association for Coaching. (2020). Coach Accreditation Scheme and Executive Coach Accreditation Scheme Applicant Guide. Association for Coaching.

Bachkirova, T., Cox, E., & Clutterbuck, D. (2014). Introduction. In The Complete Handbook of CAChing (2nd ed., p. 484).

Burns, E. A. (2019). Beyond Defining Professions. In E. A. Burns (Ed.), Theorising Professions: A Sociological Introduction (pp. 39–71). Springer International Publishing.

Engalycheva, K., & Chappelet, J.-L. (n.d.). Sport Participation in Host Countries before and after the Olympic Games. Collected Insights from the Field of Sport.

Fietze, B. (2017). Is Coaching on Its Way to Becoming a Profession? A Profession-Centric Sociological Assessment. In A. Schreyögg & C. Schmidt-Lellek (Eds.), The Professionalization of Coaching: A Reader for the Coach (pp. 3–21). Springer Fachmedien.

Grant, A. M., & Cavanagh, M. J. (2004). Toward a profession of coaching: Sixty-five years of progress and challenges for the future. International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring.

Grix, J., & Carmichael, F. (2012). Why do governments invest in elite sport? A polemic. International Journal of Sport Policy and Politics, 4(1), 73–90.

Hawkins, P. (2008). The coaching profession: Some of the key challenges. Coaching: An International Journal of Theory, Research and Practice, 1(1), 28–38.

Lamont, A., Hargreaves, D. J., Marshall, N. A., & Tarrant, M. (2003). Young people’s music in and out of school. British Journal of Music Education, 20(3), 229–241.

Lane, D. A., Stelter, R., & Stout-Rostron, S. (2010). The future of coaching as a profession. The Complete Handbook of Coaching, 357–368.

Larson, M. S. (2018). Professions today: Self-criticism and reflections for the future. Sociologia, Problemas e Práticas, 88, 27–42.

Press, A. (2020, October 22). On the Origins of the Professional-Managerial Class: An Interview with Barbara Ehrenreich. Dissent Magazine.

Ragsdale, D. E. (2009). The Excellence Barrier.

Saks, M. (2016). A review of theories of professions, organizations and society: The case for neo-Weberianism, neo-institutionalism and eclecticism. Journal of Professions and Organization, 3(2), 170–187.

Saks, M., & Adams, T. L. (2019). Neo-Weberianism, Professional formation and the state: Inside the black box. Professions and Professionalism, 9(2).

The Gold Standard in Coaching | ICF – PCC Paths. (n.d.). International Coaching Federation. Retrieved March 4, 2021, from

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