Coaching v. Mentoring. What’s the difference, and how to choose which service is best.

Katherine Ann Byam
Harnessing the Courage to lead
7 min readDec 7, 2021

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How to choose a coach, mentor and or therapist. Hint, they aren’t all one person.

What are the disciplines of mentoring, coaching and therapy really about, and how should one get started on getting professional support for their growth and career development needs?

I have made use of all of these areas in my own personal career and business development, and I find them powerful, relevant, and important to breaking your own personal limitations and barriers.

They are different disciplines though, and believe this is a healthy approach to deciding what is right for us at any given time. One person can potentially possess all 3 skills, although sourcing this level of support across these disciplines from one person isn’t recommended. and this article will explain why.

In this article on coaching vs mentoring vs therapy we’ll cover:

  • What is a mentor, when they’re useful and when not.
  • What is a coach, when they’re useful, and when not.
  • What is a therapist, when they’re useful, and when not.
  • Hybrids and guidance on working with each.

What is a mentor?

A mentor is someone who has gone through a journey similar to the path you are on at the moment, and who has wars, battle scars and medals to prove it so to speak. The mentor has practical, tacit knowledge of the subject area in the way only experienced people can, and having a mentor there to help guide you will give you what you cannot learn from a textbook.

They are great fonts of knowledge, rich with storytelling, and influential presences that you cannot help but be drawn to, confident in what they know, and with strong entrenched opinions.

Mentors are great for:

  • Navigating politics.
  • Understanding niche problems in your discipline.
  • Helping you build a network of meaning, and making great introductions.
  • Passing on intangibles; that tacit knowledge that comes from stories well told, and well lived.

Mentors are not great when:

  • The assumptions about how things work are shifting rapidly.
  • They have been out of the game for some time.
  • Their ideals and values are fundamentally different to your own.

Should you work with a mentor? Here’s the verdict:

Everyone needs a mentor when they are getting started / growing in a new discipline, as they can help fast track your knowledge acquisition and authority in the area. It’s less useful when you become the mentor!

What is reverse mentoring?

A note on reverse mentoring, because it’s important to mention it here. Reverse mentoring is designed to remediate some of the weaknesses of mentoring, where the mentee actually brings useful insights to the mentor. This is a clever solution that benefits organisations, and should be engineered where possible, Yet for the individual looking for some specific outcomes, they may want to look to other sources to help them through challenges. Enter the Coach.

What is a coach?

A coach in my definition is someone who leverages knowledge of neuro-scientific disciplines to help their client/coachee access the resources within to construct solutions to problems they face more consistently, and or to leverage their strengths to develop themselves in the direction of their goals.

The skills of good coaching are different to the skills of good mentoring. A coach needs to explore their coachee’s mental models, mindsets with deeper and deeper questions, reflect those answers back to them, play those answers forward and backward, illustrate using the coachee’s language the pros and cons of each, it goes along the line of decision making and behavioural change.

Coaches are great for:

  • Helping you develop greater self awareness
  • Helping you take responsibility for your experiences and learning
  • Helping you continuously grow by adapting constantly for new information.
  • Helping you understand fundamentals of behavioural change.

Coaches are not great when:

  • There is unresolved past trauma that blocks forward momentum
  • You need some technical knowledge and know how that they do not possess
  • They are formulaic in their approach

Should you work with a coach? Here’s the verdict:

Coaches and coaching is a powerful resource when you want to create momentum toward something, the more specific the goal, the better. When you’ve done behavioural work with a coach, this illuminates areas of yourself that you can no longer un-see, and this embeds a growth mindset like no other development work can.

A coach isn’t the full solution. There’s so much more that goes with developing yourself toward your goals, but they are certainly part of the solution.

Examples of coaching in popular culture

At this point I want to take a journey into sport, as this is one of the arenas where there is significant overlap between the skills of the coach and the skills of the mentor, and how these work together.

The greatest tennis player of all time? The debate rages on, but let’s see what he got from utilising all of these approaches in his professional development

Say what you want about Novak Djokovic, he is one of the greatest examples sport as a whole has on how to build systems and a team around your goals and success.

In 2021, he achieved something no man in the open era ever has in a calendar year, he came within one win of holding all the grand slams on 3 different surfaces in one year. Today we will remember that he didn’t make it, but as we reflect on his journey to winning his first slam in 2008 in a tennis world dominated by the phenomenal talents of Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, it makes his achievements that much more astonishing.

Marian Vajda is Djokovic’s coach, and has been for most of his professional career (2006–2017, and again 2018 to 2021 present time). Marian has won only 2 professional tennis tournaments in his life, so mentoring Novak on the brink of winning a slam, or once you’ve won it staying hungry to go after more, is not something Marian had a lived experience of.

Djokovic worked with slam winning champions who are fundamentally mentors, to help him make some performance breakthroughs.

  • Boris Becker came on to the team, and supported Novak through a few slam titles.
  • Andre Agassi came on to the team, but this relationship didn’t last very long.
  • Djokovic also hired a spiritual coach over a period, to help him with some behavioural change, but he didn’t win very much during that year. (Are immediate results everything? — immediate results are definite sign that something is working, but somethings do work on a long term more subliminal level, and are often harder to uniquely identify as the single point of success)
  • Then Novak brought in Goran Ivanisevic, another former player, to add a deeper layer to his serving and volleying.
  • All alongside those, he has had psychologists, physical trainers, dieticians and slew of professionals to help him fine tune his game.

To be the best tennis player in the world, Novak has honed his team year after year, and the consistent feature to his success has been Marian Vajda. Mentors have played pivotal roles, but coaches in the true sense are more consistent, because they see and know their performer intimately, and understand what to say at what time, to create impact and change.

Mentoring and coaching often blend together in sport as well as in professions, because a coach experienced in one discipline, will often bleed that knowledge into their charge. This works at times, and breaks down at other times, and his heavily dependent on the strength and foundations of the professional relationship built.

So what then is therapy?

Therapy in my interpretation is about healing. This is a critical third discipline that again requires deep skills in the therapist, and an exceedingly disciplined approach. Accessing the roots of past trauma and healing takes time, many conversations, and exceedingly high levels of self awareness.

Healing is important to interrupting past patterns that have become very deeply ingrained and are difficult to shift. Trauma is defined as a deeply distressing or disturbing experience, and can often be re-lived by the patient when an identified trigger point is experienced.

Therapists are great for:

  • Healing deep seated traumas
  • Providing a safe space to the patient to discuss things otherwise suppressed.
  • Remediating responses to triggers.

Therapists are not great when:

  • The patient is ready to take that journey
  • Some other more immediate action is required

Should you work with a therapist? Here’s the verdict:

Yes. If you have unresolved trauma, yes. If something keeps coming up and blocking your path in every relationship you have, definitely yes.

Many of us can and do take advantage of opportunities to leverage all 3 of these relationships in our wellbeing bag, and they all come highly recommended.

Other observations and recommendations around choosing a coach, mentor or therapist:

  • A coach can also be a therapist, but would then be best advised not to also be a mentor. I suggest this because the process of healing needs to move at the pace of the patient, not at the pace of the mentor, and this can be a risk, when a person approaches that relationship as a teacher leading that individual, as opposed to guiding that individual to their own light.
  • A coach can also be a mentor, but would then be best advised to not also be a therapist. For the same reason as outlined above, blurring too many lines can do more damage than good, and being aware of this is key to the wellbeing of the coachee.
  • The use of the word patient when discussing therapy is important, as it connotes a more medical relationship and should come with certain minimum professional standards of care, although for the most part none of these disciplines are medically regulated.
  • Mentors clearly should not be therapists and vice versa.
  • Mentor relationships are typically for a time and a specific need.
  • Coaching relationships can continue for long periods of time when well managed.
  • Therapy relationships should end, if healing is their objective.

I hope this provides clarity on how to review what support you may need going forward.

Reach out to me on LinkedIn to connect, or tap into my Linktree to find the most updated ways to work with me.

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Katherine Ann Byam
Harnessing the Courage to lead

Author, activist, coach and consultant for innovation and sustainable change. She’s the founder of Dieple Consulting & Where Ideas Launch.