The coaching industry continues to establish an identity, so how do those training to be a coach understand their own process of becoming? Coaching practitioner Liam Moore and Juliette Koning of Oxford Brookes University, examine the research

As the coaching industry has grown, so has the number of people training to be a coach. However, little is understood about the process of becoming a coach. We feel there is value in exploring this, as the self-reflection inherent in the process could support coaches and coaches-to-be in their continuing professional development (CPD). The following is based on research conducted into what it means to ‘become’ a coach (Moore & Koning, 2016).

We frame ‘becoming’ within the concept of identity work, which is described as “people being engaged in forming, repairing, maintaining, strengthening or revising the constructions that are productive of a sense of coherence and distinctiveness” (Sveningsson & Alvesson, 2003, p1,165). Identity work is inter-relational in that an individual’s attempt to bring about such a stable sense of self takes place through interactions with others in social settings (Watson, 2008).

Following Brown (2015) we propose that identity work is not only influenced by the setting in which people find themselves, but also by their relationship to other settings.

Relating simultaneously to a combination of challenging settings, however, increases the complexity involved in ‘doing’ one’s identity work, in this case developing a coherent identity as a coach.

For the purposes of our paper, we identified three settings to which our research participants related: a personal setting (home and work life), a (coaching) industry setting, and a learning setting (the coaching course).

To better understand the professional identity work of coaches-to-be we carried out in-depth interviews with students on an academic coaching course. The interviews revealed a sequence through which each progresses in their pursuit of becoming an academically trained coach: before, during and aspirational after.

The first of these stages (before), sets the scene, highlighting their motivations for joining the course, establishing the circumstances of their personal setting and revealing how they relate to the coaching industry setting.

The second stage (during), takes place as the participants begin and subsequently progress through the course (what we call the learning setting).

The final stage (aspirational after), considers their ongoing attempts to define a professional identity.



The participants began by describing challenges they were experiencing prior to joining the course. These took the form of complicating factors, such as being made redundant (personal setting), or feeling as though they were lacking in some respect in relation to requirements of the coaching industry setting, such as not holding a qualification (‘a coaching piece of paper’).

In addition, we noticed ambiguity, a lack of concreteness, in the way the participants spoke about their relationship to coaching practice at this stage – they describe possessing a natural or ‘innate’ affinity to coaching.

We see each of these as aspects of their professional identity work.



As they began the course, their experiences in this learning setting introduced an additional layer of complexity. They describe: the challenge of developing relationships with fellow students, “I did go through quite a lot of angst before, thinking…what… am I doing, doing this course with all these people”; balancing the ‘practicalities’ of day-to-day life with the volume of course work; and the frustrations of learning new skills and knowledge as student-practitioners, “I didn’t quite know how to do it.”

The coming together of these complex conditions has the effect of intensifying their (professional) identity work, making their process of ‘becoming’ more challenging – something we noticed in the emotional nature of their language (“my relationship with my studies is tumultuous”).

However, as the course progresses, a change occurs in their attempts to define a coherent coaching identity. This was reflected in a shift in tone as they discuss their learning from the course: “Reading what [those authors] said just made me realise that you’ll go through change and transition…”, or: “One of the pieces of theoretical knowledge that I would say made a difference, was the stuff about learning to be reflective in the moment…”.

We saw this, too, in more explicit claims that the participants made about their growing confidence as a coaching practitioner: “I was doing bits of coaching before I started and, I suppose, partly now, feel I am perfectly qualified to say, ‘yes, I am a coach’ and it’s a reasonable and credible position.”

At this stage, the ambiguity that dominated participants’ talk about their relationship with coaching prior to the course is rendered more concrete: “Looking back on my early attempts at coaching … I became conscious that it was just intuitive; I was just following my nose … I haven’t felt that for some time now, which is nice because it makes me feel like I’m getting there.”

In this respect, there is diminished intensity of identity work brought about by the coming together of complex circumstances.


Aspirational after

Having completed the course and feeling more confident and capable, there remained a sense that their professional identity work continues, particularly in relation to the coaching industry setting: “Despite my growth as a practitioner and the prospect of a pass mark on the course that would provide me with an important measure of legitimacy from an industry perspective, an absence of paid work meant I remained conscious of still not feeling like a ‘proper’ coach.”

This reflects that the development towards the aspired coaching identity, in other words professional identity work, is ongoing.

Understanding how a coaching identity evolves can be used to enhance the efficacy of training, by preparing trainee coaches for the journey ahead, may reassure many learners that their personal struggles are not unique.

Reflecting on one’s own struggles to do professional identity work may also provide insight into professional development problems encountered by workplace clients and can raise the quality of empathy. In addition, understanding the effect of being subject to multiple settings simultaneously (eg, biographical, industry or sector, organisational) can support the oft-espoused view that when coaching someone at work, it is important to consider wider social settings and the identity challenges this may present.



  • A D Brown, ‘Identities and identity work in organizations’, in International Journal of Management Reviews, 17(1), pp20-40, 2015
  • 2012 ICF Global Coaching Study: Executive Summary, Lexington, KY: International Coach Federation (Online). Available at: (accessed 23 September 2014)
  • L Moore and J Koning, ‘Intersubjective identity work and sensemaking of adult learners on a postgraduate coaching course: Finding the balance in a world of dynamic complexity’, in Management Learning, 47(1), pp28-44, 2016
  • S Sveningsson and M Alvesson, ‘Managing managerial identities: Organizational fragmentation, discourse and identity struggle’, in Human Relations, 56(10), pp1,163–1,193, 2003
  • T Watson, ‘Managing identity: Identity work, personal predicaments and structural circumstances’, in Organization, 15(1), pp121–143, 2008


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