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What is mastery in coaching?

Updated: Feb 11, 2022

I was watching my nephew in awe at my husband who was fixing a broken toy. To him, as with all the children in our family, my husband’s ability to fix noisy toys and light up shoes suggests advanced practice indeed, if not an element of wizardry.

Even to me, ever ready to reach for the duct tape as a quick fix, he does have an impressive grasp on all things mechanical and electrical. I concluded that mastery is subjective and comparative. By comparison to me, and an 18 month old child, he is a modern-day Merlin. To my older siblings, both technical engineers, not so much.

For any discipline definitions of mastery or advanced practice can be subjective, comparative and potentially confusing. This is certainly true in the field of coaching. Yet we need it for our reputation don’t we?

What is ‘Mastery’ or ‘Advanced’ when it comes to coaching?

I thought I should start with basic definitions;

Mastery, noun 1. comprehensive knowledge or skill in a particular subject or activity. 2. control or superiority over someone or something

Advanced, adjective 1. Far on or ahead in development or progress 2. New and not yet generally accepted

So far so good but I find myself wincing at the words ‘control and superiority’. Visions of mastery without ethics, evil sorcerers and mind manipulators; dangerous, and insidious?

How do you get to be a ‘good’ Master Coach (more ‘Glenda the Good Witch’ than that one from the West)?

Well, to be a master in the first place you could specialise in a methodology or approach such as gestalt, narrative, psychodynamic, positive psychology and meet the definition. You could have the creative genius to develop a new approach that trends and is adopted by many.

Think Wim Hof or the Floss.

I imagine once upon a time Fritz Perls and Carl Jung might have been considered maverick in a world of Freudian psychology, now they are revered and celebrated.

Many models are strikingly similar in their core elements. They suggests a broad agreement that elements that appear frequently such as ‘being’ and ‘knowing’ are a vital part of coaching efficacy. No sh*t sherlock.

However obvious ‘knowing’ might seem, ‘being’ suggests that mastery requires a strong understanding and use of ‘self’ in the coaching relationship. It also suggests that the ‘knowing’ needs to be easy access at the right time.

Like riding a bike? The value these learned people attribute to skills, knowledge and doing would suggest knowledge becomes ingrained. I was once told that ‘we learn tools to forget them’ and that they would appear naturally and without force when most needed.

Sceptical? So was I…

Does this mean that a master coach has learned and then forgotten a broad range of coaching tools? How confident can they be that they will unconsciously present when the situation requires? My scepticism subsided when I experienced this a few times and have to say, it feels really good.

‘Trust your unconscious, it knows more than you do’ (Ericksen cited by Parsons-Fein 2014).

More than skill?

I believe that to be a master in any skill, there must be a strong awareness of how and why it works. Advances in science show that coaching activities such as ‘problem-based learning, and case-based reasoning’ are congruent with findings in neuroscience (Hung 2003). Imagine if you can help sceptical or science-led clients by outlining such evidence. To marry this information with the skills and abilities of an advanced coach via a strong sense of self and professional identity;

Is that the grail of great coaching practice? If not, it’s a damn good start.

I’m excited by the potential of new methods. When I started working in nature in 2014 I felt like a crackpot and I had the impression that my peers thought it ‘nice’ but not wholly professional (I never once wore a suit to a coaching meeting). Don’t get me wrong, I love my peer group dearly and I’m probably wrong, but it’s how I felt at the time.

Now it feels like everyone’s doing it – even learned scholars and leading thinkers as we stare down the barrel of a climate crisis.

That is 100% a very good thing.

To separate mastery from advanced?

Mastery suggests becoming great at something already existing or known, ergo you can be measured against a benchmark.

Advanced feels different. I see this as enveloping mastery but with a dash of exploration, new ground and stretched boundaries. Advanced is creating the benchmark.

The progression of coaching capability

In her foreword to Mastery in Coaching, Carol Kauffman asks what separates a good coach from a great coach ie ‘one that can walk clients through transformative odysseys’

It’s been argued that coaching is an artistic practice in the sense that it can’t predict ideas that might emerge or how they might be implemented. (Drake 2009). Surely this would damage scientific credentials.

Because of this very thing folk, more detail focused than me, have dedicated time to find quantitative measures to prove ROI for coaching. This can be used in addition to the anecdotal and experiential reports. Is it worth the effort?

Do we really procure coaching that way?

For the record, I don’t know the answer to this, it still seems somewhat of an emotive process and that rapport, reputation and referrals are still the most impactful parts of a client’s decision making.

Accreditation will reassure some, confuse most and others would rather go with what a trusted friend has recommended.

So what’s the answer?

Don’t look at me! Seriously, I’m not shirking the answer here. We all need to look at ourselves, our offer, our own competence and decide the best way to reassure our clients, now and future, of our capability and safe practice. Do look at me if you want help to do that.

I recommend accreditation along with an easy way to describe what this means to potential clients – one that resonates with them.

I do think mandatory regulation should be created for disciplines that work with the human mind, I consider coaching to be at the ‘MOT’ and maintenance end of that scale and it worries me that it’s unregulated.

Clients are often unaware of that fact.

I would welcome an aligned single entity and yet am nervous of monopoly. To that end a shared commitment to standards and a requirement for coaches to register with any recognised body in order to practice would be a start.

A journey to advanced practice

This can feel like a roller coaster. Exciting, scary, twisting, turning and exhilarating. Maybe that’s just me. I’m still on it and doubt I will ever get off.

Reflecting now, I know I enjoy the ride. I like the ambiguity that comes with each new client connection. Since qualifying as a supervisor, I have the privilege of working side by side with amazing coaches at the very edge of our learning comfort. Together we grow as coaches and grow our influence over the reputation of the industry.

The lack of mandatory regulation will continue to be a thorn in the foot. It leaves coaching and related practices vulnerable to those who see it as easy to set up without any measure or assurance of competence. Those I hope will seek help to learn and grow. Those that wish to operate unethically deserve all the karma they get.

There much still to master in terms of the core skills and practices as well as developing your identity as a coach.

Do you want to do like Erik de Haan (2008) and embrace intuition. Go with the flow. Is a narrative approach your preference? How about Constellations, Gestalt, Time to Think or Eclectic? It's a very long list.

I’ll leave you with three questions to ponder:

What approaches / methods do you currently rely on?

What else is out there?

What are you doing about that seed of an idea….. yep that one... the one you’re not showing anyone?

"Our curiosity and willingness to explore is where advancement lives" Me, 2021 References

de Haan, E., Stewart, S. and de Hann, E. (2008) Relational coaching: Journeys towards mastering one-to-one learning. Chichester, United Kingdom: John Wiley & Sons

Dictionaries, O. and Press, O.U. (2013) Oxford English mini dictionary. 8th edn. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Drake, D. (2009) Evidence is a verb: A relational approach to knowledge and mastery in coaching, International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring, 7(1), p. 1

Hagen, M S and Peterson, S L (2015) Measuring coaching: Behavioural and Skill-based Managerial Coaching Scales Journal of Management Development, Vol. 34 Iss: 2, pp.114 - 133

Maxwell, A (2009) The Co-Created Boundary: Negotiating the Limits of Coaching, International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring, Special Issue No 3, Page 82

Parsons-Fein, J. (2014) Quotes by Milton H. Erickson, MD. Available at: / (Accessed: 22 November 2016).

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Mildred D Brown
Mildred D Brown


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