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Life Coach Education

Expect to complete a coaching certificate program to become a life coach. And with some experience, you can go for a professional credential.

two men meeting and talking
two men meeting and talking

There are no federal or state-mandated educational or licensing requirements to become a life coach, but there is consensus in the industry on education and training: Completing a coach certificate program is highly recommended to be a successful coach and demonstrate your expertise to potential clients and employers.

The International Coaching Federation (ICF) is widely recognized by life coaches and educational programs alike for taking the lead in setting educational and professional standards for this self-regulated industry.

According to a global survey by the group, 95% of coaches say they have completed 60 or more hours of training, and 43% report that they have 200 hours or more.

What to Look for in a Coach Training Program

There are hundreds of life coach programs available in online, in-person, and hybrid formats. Life coach gurus, coaching schools, and university extension programs all offer programs and courses, and some colleges and universities also offer undergraduate or graduate programs or certificates.

As you consider your options, find out if the programs or courses you’re looking at have ICF accreditation. The ICF has developed a code of ethics for coaches, standards for coaching programs, and a credentialing process for coaches to demonstrate their expertise and skills.

Because of this work, ICF accreditation is considered the gold standard in the coaching industry.

Luke Davis, vice president of ICF coach training, advises prospective coaching students to ask these questions as they evaluate coaching programs:

  • What’s the training delivery method and do I learn best that way?
  • Does it have the emphasis or specialty area I’m interested in?
  • What’s the philosophy on coach training/education?
  • What’s the cost?
  • Does the program offer support services for graduates?

Life coach gurus, coaching schools, and university extension programs all offer coaching programs and courses, and some colleges and universities also offer undergraduate or graduate programs or certificates.

Accreditation for Life Coach Programs

The ICF provides three types of program accreditation. Here’s a look at each one.

Accredited Coach Training Program (ACTP)

Programs with this accreditation:

  • Are considered “all inclusive” training programs with start-to-finish coach training
  • Include a minimum of 125 student contact hours with faculty
  • Include mentoring by a professional coach
  • Conduct performance evaluations
  • Are a good option for students looking for a complete program
  • Are good for those planning to pursue an ICF coaching credential

Approved Coach Specific Training Hours (ACSTH)

Programs with this accreditation:

  • Provide “a la carte” training classes
  • May or may not offer start-to-finish coach training
  • Require a minimum of 30 student contact hours with faculty
  • Are good for those rounding out their training or adding an area of concentration
  • Can be used when applying for an ICF coaching credential

Continuing Coach Education (CCE)

Programs with this accreditation:

  • Offer supplemental and advanced training education
  • Are meant to further professional development
  • Are for coaches who want to learn the latest in their field
  • May be taken for ICF credential renewal

The ICF provides a searchable directory of accredited programs, courses, and providers on its website.

Life Coach Education and Training

When it comes to the programs themselves, there’s a range of formats. Some are offered as retreats over a long weekend. Others can be six-week online courses, or in-person or hybrid programs that take six months to a year to complete. If the program is part of a postgraduate degree at a university, the time frame might be a year or two.

This means that prospective life coaches have a lot of flexibility in how they pursue their education. For example, aspiring coaches who work full time in another profession could choose to complete their training in monthly or weekly courses.

Jenny McGlothern, owner of the retreat and life coaching business Mama Needs A Refill, had young children when she completed her training and attended retreat-like sessions on Saturdays.

Angelina Corbet, who started the coaching business The Mobius Company after a career as a corporate executive, says she took several of her classes at ICF conventions, which allowed her to network, learn about trends, and pursue her coaching education all at the same time.  

Programs are offered in a range of formats. Some are retreats over a long weekend. Others can be six-week online courses, or hybrid programs that take six months to a year to complete.

What You’ll Study

Life coach programs cover a range of topics to help you learn to work effectively with your clients. A program might cover any or all of the following:

  • Basic coaching skills
  • Building trust with clients
  • Active listening skills
  • Goal setting and holding clients accountable
  • Visualization techniques
  • Techniques to identify obstacles to client success
  • Ethics in coaching
  • Coaching practice sessions
  • Preparation for the ICF Coach Knowledge Assessment, required for ICF coach credentialing

Core Competencies for a Life Coach

The ICF defines coaching as “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.” According to the ICF, an effective coach:

  • Demonstrates ethical practice by adhering to coaching ethics and standards
  • Embodies a coaching mindset that is open, curious, flexible, and client-centered
  • Establishes and maintains coaching agreements with clients
  • Cultivates trust and safety by creating a safe, supportive environment that allows the client to share freely
  • Maintains presence by being fully conscious and present with the client, using a style that is open, grounded, and confident.
  • Listens actively by focusing on what the client is and is not saying to fully understand what they are communicating
  • Evokes awareness by facilitating client insight and learning using tools and techniques such as powerful questioning, silence, or analogy
  • Facilitates client growth and autonomy by partnering with the client to transform learning and insight into action

The International Coaching Federation

Sample 6-Week Program Versus 6-Month Program

Since there’s such a broad range of programs, you might be wondering how they differ. Here’s how a basic coaching program might compare to an intensive program.

Basic Coaching ProgramComprehensive Program
6 weeks6 months
60 class and practice hours125 class and practice hours
Online sessions twice a weekOnline and in-person sessions, with weekend retreats
Does not include coaching practicumCoaching practice sessions included
Does not include coach mentoringOne-on-one coaching with a certified coach
Final exam required for certificateFinal exam required for certificate

Online and Classroom Learning

Coaching programs can be one or a combination of the following:

  • Online classes
  • Hosted online seminars
  • Classroom instruction
  • One-on-one meetings with a professional coach

The coaching profession has offered online training and education for years, so online options are plentiful. Many programs are conducted entirely online, which is great for career changers who want to work while they train and those who want to take a program that’s not offered nearby.

However, if you prefer learning in the classroom, you’ll be happy to know that many programs offer training in person as well as online.

How to Choose Your Program

McGlothern taught coaching for six years, and she has this advice for picking a program after you’ve done your research and analysis:

  • Trust your gut
  • Choose a school that makes sense to your heart as well as your head
  • Don’t assume that the more expensive schools are better
  • Sit in on a class before committing to a program
  • Talk to a couple of graduates of the program.

Many programs are conducted entirely online, which is great for career changers who want to work while they train and those who want take a program that’s not offered nearby.

Specializing as a Coach

Life coaches can specialize or focus on a number of areas. Many enter coaching as a generalist and remain a generalist, helping a variety of clients adopt a healthy lifestyle, improve family relationships, change careers, live a spiritual life, or pursue other goals. Other coaches choose a focus over time.

Still others come to coaching with college degrees and credentials in another field, such as business or psychology, and choose a coaching program with related a specialty. While life coach and therapist are different roles, some professionals with the right education and credentials can combine them.

Top Coaching Specialties

Health and Wellness Coaching

Work with clients to improve their health, vitality, and well-being by addressing issues such as illness and weight

Relationship Coaching

Work with individuals and couples to find more connection and fulfillment in relationships

Internal and Organizational Coaching

Work at fostering positive, systemic transformation within organizations and teams

Executive Coaching

Work with executives to enhance their leadership and achieve an organization’s goals

Work-Life Balance Coaching

Work with clients to define success, fulfillment, and work-life balance and set goals to achieve their vision

Professional Credentials

While not required, many life coaches also pursue professional credentials after they receive certification through a training program.

In its latest report on membership and credentialing, the ICF says that 92% of its member coaches have one of the three ICF coaching credentials:

  • Associate Certified Coach (ACC)
  • Professional Certified Coach (PCC)
  • Master Certified Coach (MCC)

These credentials are highly respected globally and convey that you’ve been rigorously trained according to a set of high standards.

The Difference Between a Certificate and a Credential

Earning a certificate and becoming credentialed are two distinct steps in a profession.

  • A certificate indicates completion of a course or program of study and is often listed on a resume under education.
  • A credential is awarded based on standards and qualifications set by an industry. Earning a credential can require a specific amount of professional experience and a demonstration of competency, often through an exam.

    A credential’s designation—PCC, for example—can be used after your name. Typically, ongoing training and education are required to maintain a credential.

Salary

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) includes life coaching in its classification for educational, guidance, and career counselors and advisors. Professionals in this group earn a median salary of $58,120, according to the BLS, with the top 10% making $97,910 annually.

Of course, earnings can be tied to a number of factors, including:

  • Where you work
  • The hours you work
  • The rates you set
  • The location of your business or employer
  • Your experience

Having a life coach certificate, a specialty certificate, or an ICF credential may help you stand out with potential clients or employers like private businesses, government agencies, and nonprofit groups.

“Most job descriptions posted by those organizations now indicate a strong preference or requirement for a certificate from an ICF-approved program or a coaching credential approved by the ICF,” says Davis.


sheila mickool

Written and Reported by:
Sheila Mickool
Contributing Writer

luke davis

With professional insight from:
Luke Davis
Naturopath and Professor, Bastyr University

jenny mcglothern

Jenny McGlothern
Owner, Mama needs a Refill

angelina corbet

Angelina Corbet
Founder,The Mobius Company