Forget mentioning your recent exotic vacation or showing off your new wheels or latest tech toy. These days, if you want to impress people, let it be known that you have a coach.

“Because it’s individualized, it’s costly to have a coach. It’s almost a luxury, there’s status associated with it,” said Susanne Jones, professor of communication studies at the University of Minnesota. “There may still be some stigma associated with counseling, but coaching is a social plus.”

Coaches have been around a long, long time. (Think tennis, golf, maybe baseball.) But in the 1980s, coaching branched out, with the advent of life coaches. Now wellness coaching is a standard feature of many health plans. And specialized coaches have worked their way into our professional and personal lives.

You can hire a coach to improve your SAT score or your job performance, propel your college search or land a date, even help you through the birthing process or choose a name for your child.

Coaches — who often act as equal parts mentor, motivator, tutor and shrink — typically work with clients on a short-term basis and with a narrow focus. Taking a page from the playbook of their athletic counterparts, they often stress fundamentals, strategy and winning the mental game — for fees that run from the hundreds into the thousands.

“People feel empowered to seek personalized help,” said Jones. “We have this need to get the maximum out of our lives. Coaches are a resource our parents didn’t have.”

In the business world, coaches have become commonplace. Last December, research firm IBIS World counted more than 46,000 U.S. firms providing business coaching. In fact, being paired with a coach is often a vote of confidence in the American workplace.

“When a company tells an individual employee they are getting them a coach, it doesn’t mean they are in trouble,” said Rico Mace, CEO of Orman Guidance, a Bloomington-based market research firm. “It’s often seen as a sign they are investing in that employee’s potential.”

Most of executive coach Trudy Canine’s clients are high-level leaders, company directors, vice presidents and the like. A client may be “a high-potential, newer leader who the organization wants to fast-track, or a leader who has one dimension where they’re falling short,” said Canine, whose services are paid by the companies her clients work for.

She offers weekly or biweekly coaching sessions, and also interviews colleagues who have close interactions with the client. The goal, she said is transformational.

“At the end, they will see the world differently, and will make different choices because of this new awareness. They are changed at the core.”

Stacy Heltemes isn’t looking for such dramatic change. She works for the EPIC (Employing Partners in Community) Program at Pillsbury United Communities, coaching adults with developmental disabilities. “Coaching makes a difference in their ability to find and keep employment,” she said.

EPIC offers their mostly minimum-wage clients services ranging from résumé composition, to refining interpersonal skills, to managing transportation. “Our clients like feeling productive and being part of a team, but like the rest of us, they are money-motivated,” she said. “They do like those paychecks.”

Send me in, coach

There are many factors that feed into the rise of coaching, including the contemporary expectation that learning is a lifelong premise. Mastering new skills, for work and for personal growth, is now a given.

Also, young people, who’ve grown up playing on teams, are comfortable with the concept. Both boys and girls come of age forming relationships with coaches, often starting with the patient parent who coaches T-ball to preschoolers, then extends to athletics and beyond. Many schools also have coaches for activities like debate, chess and writing.

“If that relationship has been positive, they are more willing to seek out that style of learning again,” Mace said.

Smaller families may even play a role.

“We also see millennials being amenable to coaching because of how they’ve been parented,” Mace said. “The smaller family dynamic gives children a bigger opportunity for that kind of individual attention from parents.”

Choose wisely

Despite the broad availability of coaching, the pull of personalized tutoring doesn’t hold universal appeal.

“If you don’t have a support system, I could see the benefit, but I would rather take advice from someone I know and respect,” said Jamie Yanisch, who cites her “common sense” and her family and in-laws as her personal go-to resources.

“When I was pregnant with our first child, we found out she would be born with a birth defect. Our insurance company provided us with a nurse to act as a coach,” said Yanisch, 28, of Hudson, Wis. “I found myself more annoyed with her than thankful. I leaned on my own support system and the coach felt like an outsider and another opinion I felt overwhelmed by.”

There also is concern about the credentials of specialized coaches.

Some boast extensive training, while others have little in the way of formal education. The field is unregulated, with no mandatory schooling. There are, however, scores of organizations and niche associations that provide classwork, diplomas, certification and credentials.

Word-of-mouth drives businesses to many coaches. Networks and referrals from trusted connections often carry weight in the search for the best guru.

“Good coaches all have great people skills, what we academics call communications competence — they have that high emotional intelligence. That’s what allows them to jell or bond with their clients, to be able to motivate them,” Jones said. “There’s no degree or credentialing for that.”


Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.