What IS Health Coaching? - Part 1 (Practitioners vs. Coaches)
Updated: Apr 16, 2021
Nina and I were on a long drive over the weekend and while brainstorming some content ideas for social media, she asked me to unpack the "simple" question
"What IS coaching?"
In other words, since the term feels nebulous, what are you actually doing with people when you coach them?
Essentially, what she was asking is...
"What separates a coach from anyone else in the health realm, and why would someone want to hire a coach?"
As I thought about her questions, I realized that to answer it, I first needed to differentiate how a health coach thinks vs. how a health practitioner thinks.
HEALTH COACHES VS. HEALTH PRACTITIONERS
If you saw my last article, you may remember how I teased out the difference between innovation-stacking entrepreneurs, and system-following business owners.
Similar to the business world where you have entrepreneurs and business owners, in the health profession you have coaches and practitioners.
Most of the health profession (I'd say over 95%) is comprised of practitioners.
Practitioners are people trained in a narrow trade--fitness, nutrition, Ear-Nose-Throat, oncology, pharmacology, chiropractic, acupuncture, Rolfing, etc.
Practitioners (medical or alternative) are all trained to "niche down"--to identify a very specific problem and "solve it."
In other words, they are trained to not focus on the bigger picture, but instead to address the immediate symptoms in front of them.
A lot of the time that's a great approach--I don't need (or expect) my E.R. doc, or massage therapist to interview me and do a deep dive into the bigger picture of my life.
I want them to use their (hopefully) highly-refined, niche-specific skill set.
The challenge many people run into when seeking to better their health, is they are led to expect a comprehensive, needle-moving solution, from an in-the-weeds professional.
Practitioners are, for the most part "in-the-weeds" professionals.
True health coaches on the other hand (not practitioners who call themselves coaches) are different, and I'd argue, rare.
A great health coach is someone with...
A breadth of experience with both the medical and alternative world--i.e. someone who knows the paradigms and methodology of many approaches to health/healing.
A willingness to empathetically wrestle with the entire puzzle of someone's health--accounting for the confluence of context, personality, and backstory.
A critical-thinking skill set to strategically stack together personalized, step-by-step innovations until the health challenges sort themselves out and a new, sustainable lifestyle is built.
Sounds a little different from going to a doctor, a personal trainer, or a nutritionist, right?
TRUE COACHES (AS I SEE IT), ARE EQUAL PARTS INVESTIGATORS AND INNOVATORS
While I can't speak to what you'll get when you hire other "health coaches," I can tell you what we do here at TRUE Whole Human.
The two best ways to explain how we define health coaching is to offer 1) a tangible example of what our coaching is like, and 2) to compare our coaching to the world of sports.
A COACHING STORY
Brain (not his real name) came to me in his early-40's.
An expanding waistline
Moderately-high to really-high stress
Increasingly-frequent bouts of self-doubt
Brian had no (perceived) room to slow down because he is the major breadwinner for his family of 5.
His home-life, while not strained, could be much better.
He was watching his kids get older and felt like he was missing important moments.
Hobbies and simple outlets for personal fulfillment? ...Yeah right, that wasn't happening.
The final straw that led him to reach out was he was starting to have a hard time showing up with his best self at work--that, he knew, would crash everything.
Here's the thing though...
The guy didn't lack intelligence or ability.
He's a problem solver.
Yet, despite his ability to be successful at work, he couldn't crack the code on his health and his body was done cooperating with being neglected.
Brian knew if he fast forwarded his current trajectory of his accumulating health debt, it wasn't going to be a pretty picture.
Not only would his health suffer, but his family would too.
SO, PLAY DETECTIVE WITH ME...
What do you think Brian needed?
A good workout plan?
A list of foods to eat or not eat?
Some supplements to help him sleep better?
A way to "biohack" his metabolism?
Are you starting to see the point?
Brian is a personality type we call a Driven Achiever.
One thing I've observed in coaching this personality type is how they attempt to solve problems.
For this personality type, more is more (more exercises, more supplements, more calorie restrictions, more willpower)...until sheer force-of-will just doesn't work anymore.
While Brian had the foresight to see that his health debt was about crash his life, in his mind, his tendency was to find another thing to add to his plate to get his health in order.
PAUSE THE STORY
Just looking at the above scenario...do you think adding more to Brian's plate (a workout, a new diet, a sleep aid, a benchmark for daily fiber intake, or...all the above) is what would turn the ship around and solve all the challenges I listed?
Here's the answer: Not a chance.
While any of those parenthetical suggestions above could be a step in the right direction, if we start there, we might make a bit of short-term progress, but we'd be setting him up another round of failure.
Because we didn't do ANYTHING to fix the mindset or lifestyle that is creating his problems.
Adding more to an over-stuffed life is like offering water to a drowning person.
We in the health profession have to do better.
We have to stop offering band-aids, and instead roll up our sleeves, think hard, and innovate personalized solutions to help solve the real problems.
Are you starting to see where a health coach fits in?
WHAT PROFESSIONAL SPORTS COACHES CAN TEACH HEALTH COACHES
Just like in sports, I see a health coach's job as being someone who always has an eye on the big-picture factors influencing their athlete's performance.
Yes, a good coach helps their athlete know the rules and "master the fundamentals" of their sport--in our case, understand physiology and practice the best health habits.
BUT, in professional sports, a great head coach gets paid the big bucks because they recognize their athletes are not one dimensional.
In short, a good coach helps the athlete focus on the next play while the coach observes, asks questions, and manages the strategy.
Additionally, a great coach:
Gets to know the strengths and weaknesses of his athletes.
Stays up-to-date with all the latest innovations in his profession.
Inspires the athlete with what is possible and creates a clear path to get there.
Observes the big picture, while also helping the athlete stay focused in the moment.
Manages his athlete's emotions through the ups and downs of striving.
Doesn't try to make his athlete master too many skills at once.
Sequentially sets up skills and plays they will work to perfect in the future.
Knows when to push his athlete and when to back off.
Accounts for (and speaks into) the player's off-the-field life.
Can train his athlete to think differently when his/her current narrative isn't working.
See how that's different from what you get when you go to a doctor?
A PRACTITIONER VS. A COACH
Here are some practical differences between an experience with a practitioner vs. a coach.
NOTE: The differences below aren't meant to direct you to which option is "better," rather the intent is simply to explore the frame-of-mind practitioners and coaches bring to the task of helping you find solutions.
Just like any profession, both health coaches and health practitioners can have a broad range of competency, work ethic, and ability to think of innovative solutions.
A nutritionist might ask about your macros, your intake of "greens," or grams of fiber...
A health coach asks if you know how to cook and why to eat a particular way.
A personal trainer can teach you good form and prescribes exercises...
A health coach analyzes and tweaks the volume/breadth all movements in a day/week.
A chiropractor adjusts your joints to relieve compression...
A coach investigates all forms of structural stress.
A counselor asks about your emotional state...
A coach helps you map out detailed goals that account for your emotions.
A general practitioner asks about your symptoms and medicates them...
A coach asks about your stressors, inputs, habits, and thinking.
A medical specialist tends to treat you as a lab-test, or a biochemical, math equation...
A coach relates to you as a whole person.
Are the differences making more sense now?
None of the above is to say that we don't need health practitioners.
We absolutely do.
BUT, if 95% of what we get in the health realm is so mired in the tactical weeds, at what point do we zoom out, look at the landscape, and solve the upstream problems rather than (medically or alternatively) treat all the downstream problems?
There's a reason the average person goes on a diet 55 times...
The reason, is because most in the health profession don't work to solve the real problems.
IS COACHING RIGHT FOR YOU?
With all the above in mind here are are four ways to know if a health coach might be right for you:
Are you ready to slow down, think bigger, face yourself, evaluate important trade-offs, and play the long game?
Are you ready to spend at least 6-12 months working to investigate and innovate a new, you-specific, healthy lifestyle that can be put on autopilot?
Are you ready to give up a focus on weight loss, and instead focus on building health, educating yourself, and developing a bulletproof mindset?
Do you recognize the investment and the short-term sacrifices to be something that will pay you back every day for the rest of your life?
If you answered "Yes!" to all of those questions, you're ready.
The next challenge is to find a great coach.
HOW TO FIND A GOOD HEALTH COACH
Here are four qualifications to look for when considering who to hire.
How long has your potential health coach been at it?
How many health topics can he or she speak knowledgeably on?
How many people with a situation like yours has he or she helped?
Does he or she live a lifestyle that backs up what they teach--i.e. would you want to trade places with him or her?
I may come back from time to time to add to that list, but those are the basics.
Coaching is a very different skill set from what most in the healing arts do for a living.
Coaching (at least our coaching) is an investigative process, doggedly determined to help you identify the real obstacles, and stack innovation upon innovation until you create a health breakthrough that lasts.
You have to be in the right mindset for coaching to create a breakthrough, but when you are, that's when you get to say "peace out" to poor health, and "game on" to a long-healthy life.
The coaching road isn't easy.
It will refine you as a person.
If fact, I like to say...
"Health goals are a personal-development project disguised as a way to look and feel a lot better."
As soon as that clicks...it's game time, and all of your life starts an upward spiral.
It worked for Brian...he's a new man now with time for his family, and a body he's proud of.
I'll bet, with the right coach, you can have a story like that too.
So, for anyone considering health coaching, I hope that helps.
And best of luck to Nina as she tries to synthesize this into a three-sentence meme for social media. Haha.
Until next time, stay humble and stay curious,
PS. If you want to know more about our health coaching you can:
Check our our website
See a presentation of how we go upstream and fix health problems
Take our Health-Transformation-Type Quiz to see how your personality influences the solution that's right for you.
Have a specific question for me? You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org