Life coaches have seemingly done a bit of magic, making dollars appear out of thin air. And everyone’s thrilled, except for counselors, who are patting their jacket pockets and asking, “Where’s my wallet?”

Here’s how the trick is done.

First, remove stigma

Some years ago, persons experienced in sports coaching and motivational speaking began to transition into the one-on-one helping business.

In 1974, W. Timothy Gallwey wrote The Inner Game of Tennis: The Classic Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance. Many consider this to be the first major transition from sports coaching into personal coaching. The text, borrowing from humanistic and transpersonal psychological principles, addresses the concept of “the opponent within” and outlines a model for self-improvement that could be applied to a broad spectrum of life situations.

Thomas Leonard, founder of the International Coach Federation, is credited for coining the term life coaching. Although some contend that the name was created to avoid regulated terms such as counseling and psychotherapy, the rebranding offers an advantage. That is, by presenting something different than “counseling,” life coaches achieved a feat that has eluded counselors for decades — they took the stigma out of seeking help.

Second, claim dominance in a new category

The Blue Ocean Strategy is a business strategy wherein a new product or service category is created next to a previously existing category. The goal is to eliminate the competition by creating something new. To create a blue ocean, one must:

  • Raise: Offer something more than the industry standard
  • Reduce: Offer something less than the industry standard
  • Create: Offer something never offered in the industry
  • Eliminate: Remove something usually offered in the industry

For example, at a time when many wine companies were competing to offer the most sophisticated and complex wine, the brand Yellow Tail created a blue ocean by offering:

  • No jargon (eliminate)
  • No importance on aging (eliminate)
  • Less selection: one red, one white (reduce)
  • A simple, modern bottle label (create)
  • Sweeter than usual wine that is easy to drink (raise/create)
  • A low price point/higher value (raise)

Life coaches, using Blue Ocean Strategy, don’t offer help with psychological problems or emotional disorders. Rather, they specialize in helping normal people excel in life. Life coaches explain, “Counselors can get you from unwell to neutral (that is, from -10 to 0); life coaches can move you from neutral to peak performance (from 0 to +10)!”

This message is appealing to persons who don’t want to be identified with a “clinical problem.” It also makes counselors look less competent at growth-focused care.

Third, manufacture credibility

Credibility is added to a field by establishing professional organizations and certifications. For example, the International Coach Federation offers three levels of certification, each of which require training, testing and documented coaching hours. The certifications look professional and polished (the 2,500 hours needed to become a “master coach” appear equivalent to what licensed counselors need to acquire after earning their master’s degree), but upon deeper investigation, the qualitative differences in academic rigor are severe.

Life coaches have been so effective at claiming expertise that even licensed counselors sometimes wonder, “Am I missing something?” In fact, I often encounter counselors who have enrolled in life coaching certification programs themselves.

One of my employees, an excellent counselor named Deborah Brigandi, recently attended a life coaching conference in Boston. Reportedly, the sessions taught basic counseling techniques, renamed and repackaged, without background. She told me, “It’s as if they read the CliffNotes from a counseling program. Every topic addressed was oversimplified, and they didn’t see that they were oblivious to vast amounts of knowledge and research.”

Life coaches often say that they partner with licensed counselors, so Deborah was surprised by what she observed at the conference. “They were really negative toward counseling,” she said. “I was really disappointed!”

Shine a light on life coaching

If counselors can communicate the truth about the life coaching industry, they can reclaim territory that has been lost to life coaches. Here are two thoughts:

Show what life coaches lack. Counselors need to communicate to the public the low amount of training and education necessary to hang a shingle as a life coach. For example, I can envision job ads that contrast the qualification requirements for counselors and life coaches:

Become a counselor:

  • 6 Years of College Minimum
  • 2 Years of Full-time Post-master’s Clinical Work and Supervision
  • State-sanctioned Testing for Licensure
  • Continuing Education Required

Become a life coach:

  • No College Education Required!
  • No State License Required!
  • Solicit paying clients within weeks!

You want the very best life coach? Hire a counselor. Clients are going to continue seeking growth-focused care, and because of that counselors should use the term life coach. Moreover, the professional counselor should be branded as “the original” life coach.

My practice in Boston is called Thrive Boston Counseling and Life Coaching. Many prospective clients call us and say, “I don’t know if I need counseling or life coaching.” We reply, “That’s not a problem. Our fully licensed counselors are also excellent life coaches.”

What more could a client want?

Dr. Anthony Centore