Right livelihood

“Life is the game that must be played.”

— Edwin Arlington Robinson

If tennis greats like Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras need coaches to help them through a showdown at the U.S. Open, then why wouldn’t the rest of us need a little help in the big game of life?

So goes one of Mark M. Brown‘s arguments for “life coaches,” a relatively new profession that helps people figure out what they want out of life and hatch a plan to get it.

Brown and his wife, Amanda Degelsmith, are among the small but growing number of local professional coaches who absolutely won’t pepper you with advice on your backhand or jump shot.

“Coaching in general — regardless of what the focus is — is about empowering the client to reach their full potential,” observes Ryan Pickens, co-founder of the Black Mountain-based Center for Meaningful Work.

Asheville life coach Denise Hedges puts it this way: “Just like many athletic coaches, when you’re right in the middle of the game … you can’t see the picture of the game, but the coach can see the whole playing field and can often give you a different perspective.”

And Degelsmith stresses, “The whole point is to be at your best and most fulfilled.”

That might sound nebulous, but life coaching turns introspection toward pragmatic ends. Its roots lie in the corporate world of human-resources consulting, which trains business executives to become more effective on the job, Brown explains.

But coaching is distinct from counseling.

“They’re not the same thing,” notes Brown. “We’re not dealing with any diagnosing or finding things that are wrong with people.”

And rather than trying to excavate the past, these local coaches say they focus on the present and the future. Hedges offers a bike-riding analogy. Whereas a counselor might try to discover whether a client has any “issues” with bicycles, a coach will help them choose a bike and will run alongside them as they learn to ride, she explains.

“Counseling is really for a lot of things that might be unresolved in your past,” declares Hedges (who has a master’s degree in counseling). “And coaching is really for: What do I want to create in my future?”

Still, these coaches say they don’t hesitate to refer a client to a mental-health professional if it seems appropriate.

From Mary Kay to yoga

Degelsmith remembers her work with a manager at a Midwestern company; the woman initially said her goal was to become a top seller for Mary Kay cosmetics during her off-hours.

“She really, I think, was seeking to empower herself and she didn’t know how to do it,” muses Degelsmith.

Through coaching, however, the Mary Kay goal faded away and the woman realized that she didn’t particularly like managing people. Her real passion turned out to be working on computer-oriented projects. By the end of the coaching sessions, she’d gotten a promotion (and the pay she thought she deserved) to do the kind of work she truly enjoyed. Along the way, her inner explorations led her to yoga and a readiness to examine a marriage that wasn’t quite working, Degelsmith reveals.

“She had a total transformation,” says Degelsmith, adding that business and personal needs often overlap, and making changes in one arena may prompt changes in the other.

In a similar vein, Pickens notes that the Center for Meaningful Work encourages people to be conscious of themselves, their relationships and how they work within a system, such as a company.

In his so-called “elevator speech” synopsis, Pickens explains the Center’s thrust: “We help individuals find meaning and purpose at work, and we help organizations create processes that empower meaning.”

At the moment, most of the Center’s clients are there for career coaching. One of Pickens’ strengths, he notes, is helping clients map out their career plans.

“Coaching really believes that the client has the answer,” Pickens reveals. “The answer is within … yourself. Our job as coaches is to help you uncover those answers.”

A short history

Although consulting has been around for decades, life coaching as a profession has blossomed mostly in the past 10 years or so, Pickens reports.

During that time, companies like Coach U have sprung up to train practitioners. Its Web site (www.coachinc.com/CoachU) says the company has trained 7,000 coaches in 36 countries since 1992. The International Coach Federation, a nonprofit professional association, claims 5,000 members and 177 chapters in 35 countries, according to its Web site (www.coachfederation.org).

A local ICF chapter, the Blue Ridge Coaches Alliance, boasts about a dozen members who regularly attend meetings, plus another 30 or so in WNC who’ve signed up to receive e-mail updates, says Brown, the group’s co-chair.

Along the way, the profession has branched out from its beginnings in the business world. You now have individuals hiring coaches to help them with their life, career and relationships, notes Brown.

The principles are similar, but life coaching often focuses on things like helping clients find balance in their lives, notes Hedges.

Pickens thinks the coaching boom reflects a society whose members are waking up to a desire to live meaningful lives, rather than simply making money. Degelsmith agrees, adding, “Maybe in that race to be successful and make money, we’ve lost something.” And Hedges believes the growth of coaching signals an increasingly harried society.

“We’re too busy, and I think that’s one of the main reasons that coaching has sprung up,” she posits. “Sometimes, for a client, it isn’t a matter of doing more of what they want — it’s actually a matter of doing less.”

Those sentiments may also reflect the attitudes of a client base that’s sufficiently well-heeled to be able to afford such services. A sampling of local coaching rates reveals prices between $250 and $400 a month for individuals. That generally gets the client a set number of formal telephone sessions plus short e-mail and phone check-ins.

Degelsmith reports that she and Brown will occasionally take on a scholarship client, and Pickens says the Center for Meaningful Work offers sliding-scale payment arrangements when possible.

A gray area

Because the profession is so new, there seems to be no universally accepted training program. So does that mean anyone can call himself a coach?

“Technically, at this point, yes,” concedes Pickens.

But these local coaches all stress that their own education and experience have helped prepare them for coaching. Pickens has a master’s degree in human and organizational transformation, Degelsmith has a doctorate in psychology, and Brown has a bachelor’s degree in communications (and both Brown and Degelsmith have experience as Outward Bound instructors). And besides her counseling degree, Hedges says her full-time work as a sponsorship coordinator for the city of Asheville helps her relate to clients who work in sales.

Brown, Degelsmith and Hedges have all been trained specifically as coaches. But Pickens says one program he checked out seemed to be repeating what he’d already learned. The International Coach Federation does certify coaches — but only if they’ve completed an ICF-approved program. So even Pickens’ undergraduate degree in a closely related field from Vanderbilt University — a respected school that hasn’t sought certification — doesn’t cut it under ICF rules, he complains.

In addition to credentials, of course, there’s the crucial matter of chemistry. Many coaches offer “samples” — a free initial session — and Hedges recommends that potential clients try two or three before settling on a coach. After that initial session, clients can usually tell whether the coaching will work for them, says Brown, adding, “If it doesn’t, you don’t do it anymore.”

Although each has a different style — from Hedges’ buoyant enthusiasm to Brown’s low-key demeanor — each also seems to have followed their own coaching advice and landed in a profession they love.

“For me, I’m all about living really simply and getting down to what’s really important and really genuine,” says Degelsmith. “And for me, coaching encapsulates all of that.”

You can reach the Blue Ridge Coaches Alliance (and Brown and Degelsmith’s Illumination coaching business) at 683-0514 or info@illuminationcoaching.com. Hedges’ LifeWork Coaching business can be reached at 242-0633. The Center for Meaningful Work is at 669-LIFE; you can also check out www.workwithmeaning.com.

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