What Exactly Is Coaching?

Pierre Van Zylburnout, coaching, physician wellness, PracticeBalance, work-life balance

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This being a blog made of women physicians, I thought it would be prudent to write a post about Coaching. If you haven’t noticed on the socials, coaching – a fixture in the corporate leadership world for some time – is really taking off in the physician and professional wellness space. There are coaches for every sort of physician wellness niche issue you might be facing: burnout, getting unstuck, work-life balance, negotiations, finances, parenting, weight loss, etc. And with some exceptions, these coaches are predominantly women. During the takeoff of the pandemic, coaching programs around the problems of PPE stress, furloughs, homeschooling, and quarantine were everywhere. 

I used to think coaching was for CEOs or entrepreneurs. High-powered execs who use The Secret and go to Tony Robbins events. Yet now, in our current landscape as women physicians, there’s never been a better time to get some coaching.

My experience

When I was in the throes of burnout and self-care failure years ago, I had a coach. He was the spouse of my residency mentor, a person versed in executive problem solving with a thriving business and book on the subject. My sessions with him were so incredibly insightful; he helped me embark on the self-knowledge journey that I started during my sick leave… which ultimately lead me to starting PracticeBalance!

Yes I have a supportive family. I have a great relationship with my husband, and we openly communicate about everything in our lives. I’ve also seen a therapist during particularly dark times. But until I had a coach, I never realized just how powerful it can be to have an objective person listen to you, whose sole job is to listen without judgement, and help you analyze your thoughts.

It’s like, all of a sudden, you gain CLARITY: on directions, on decisions, on values. Yet YOU are the one who solves your own problems… with some gentle help. I’ve had other coaches since, and I have one now.

The Power of Clarity
Is coaching effective?

Aside from the fact that it’s very popular to have a coach right now, it’s also effective. A 2019 study in JAMA found that primary care physicians randomized to a 6 month professional coaching program reported lower rates of emotional exhaustion of overall burnout. A 2020 study in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology of a six-session coaching intervention found the same. And these studies are now extending to medical students and residents.

Coaching can take place in different settings: group, one-on-one, in person or virtual. Sometimes sessions involve themes, lessons, or mini lectures, and other times it is completely client-led. Sessions can last anywhere from 45-90 minutes, and as the coachee, you should expect to be put “on the spot”. Coaching is about YOU. And expect to have homework between sessions. Also, the most effective coaching will involve follow-up, as you see demonstrated in the above cited studies. One-off sessions aren’t completely useless, but part of the coaching experience is the accountability to take what you’ve learned/realized and apply it to your life… then report back to your coach.

Coaching vs. other things

How is coaching different from therapy, or even mentoring? Coaching takes a collaborative approach that is often future-focused and/or goal-focused, with the intent of changing behavior or thought patterns. Therapy tends to focus on past traumas and other experiences as root causes of behavior or thought patterns. Whereas coaches ask focused questions to help clients gain better self-awareness so as to institute their own changes, mentors offer advice and more concrete guidance.

What kinds of things can you expect to discuss in a coaching session? That depends on your coach, and why you sought out the coaching in the first place. (Full disclosure: coaching is a service I offer through PracticeBalance.) While I personally love to guide physicians on journeys of self-knowledge and self-care, my approach has been to individualize coaching based on what each client needs: more frequent sessions vs. less frequent sessions, higher structure vs. gently guided conversations. But some exercises I always suggest are mindfulness techniques and self-knowledge assessments; which ones depend on the individual client’s interests and lifestyle.

How do you know if a coach is qualified? Unlike the practice of medicine, the field of coaching does not currently have an over-arching, governing body of certification. A “certified” coach is not necessarly better than a non-certified one; it really depends on the coach’s experience – both with clients and within themselves. Kind of like a senior resident or a newly-minted attending vs. the senior physician with tremendous academic accolades, recent life experience can trump a pedigree when it comes to the quality of care you receive. In my opinion, in addition to basic listening and questioning skills, a good coach for you is someone who’s experienced the pain points you’re going through and has successfully moved past them.

Have you ever had a coach – even a traditional coach for athletic performance? What was it like, and what did you learn? Share your thoughts below in the comments.


(A version of this post first appeared on the blog PracticeBalance)