When is a coach a coach?

Project5’s experience and approach to selecting ‘coaches’ at scale to support the NHS team.



Disclaimer: This post represents our experience of onboarding coaches and is not a judgement on any coach, coaching body or the working practices of the sector. We have been bowled over by the generousity of both! I write this to provide insight to our volunteer team, of our journey, and learning for others who may strive for the same. Project5 has learning as a core value and tries to share our experience for the benefit of the sector.


In March 2020, Project5 invited ‘coaches’ around the UK to express their interest in supporting the NHS team, at a time of great need. We have 1,000s of applicants and opened Pandora’s box on a question we had been oblivious to, “what makes a coach a coach?’.

Project5 has set itself up with the unusual task of trying to decide who, from 1,000s of coaches, are appropriately qualified coaches to support NHS staff in a time of complex need, where mental health may surface as a risk factor. This is unusual, as outside of professional coaching bodies, rarely is there an endeavor to draw a line around what identifies suitability on such a grand scale. Coaching bodies call this “accreditation” or “credentialling” and we call it a job spec. Typically, a coach applies for a role and then proves how their CV maps onto this, sometimes accreditation is a shortcut/requirement — but what happens if you choose not to use this shortcut?

Project5 made this choice. Not out of any act to dismiss the value of coaching bodies, but due to the fact that 70% of our applicants were not accredited and many of them wrote to us arguing that this is not a marker of a coach and does not infringe on their ability to function as a coach, outside of the NHS. This is where the world of coaching revealed itself to us as complex, diverse, and the largest admin challenge I’ve ever led. Coaching Bodies The first challenge was understanding what it means to be an accredited coach or a member of a coaching body, as this seemed a shortcut to at least onboard a large number of applicants easily. This assumption proved to be wrong. We quickly identified that there are 45 coaching bodies with jurisdiction in the UK, but many of these credential coaches internationally also. Some of them list their membership / accredited levels and criteria clearly, others don’t. Some of them provide an ability to check on the level of a coach, others don’t. Some claim to be the national standard, others claim they are, others argue that this position does not exist. One thing was clear, clarity and agreement were not accessible. We approached this by asking coaching bodies to agree on a standard, approaching 4 leading coaching bodies. However, their response raised additional questions as they often referred to their own levels of membership which were not equitable between them. They had models that worked well when mapped against their own values, but less so when striving for a national standard that mapped onto a specific coach role.

As a consequence, we decided that membership was important, as it meant coaches were signed to a global ethics charter. But beyond this, for most of the coaching bodies, membership did not provide an ability to quickly verify from such a large pool of diverse coaches.

Coach Standard

The second challenge was creating a quality level, in terms of training and experience, that was both appropriate but also accessible and respectful of diversity. This was extremely difficult, and likely not a fixed output.

The number of coaching courses in the UK is legion. The term ‘coach’ is not protected and can be applied to any course or individual’s CV, often without the coach themselves knowing the difference between whether the course they delivered was accredited or not — or even if they were accredited or not. We had 100s of coaches tell us they were accredited, when they were not, confusing the accreditation of their course with the accreditation of themselves as a coach. If even the coaches themselves are unsure what accreditation means, this begs the question as to how clear this is to the public and who it serves? Even in the context of accreditation, there is very little agreement between the coaching bodies on what this means, nationally — in terms of capability.

Our efforts to understand this drew out complex conversations, with different organisations, about why their approach was right and others were lacking. There was little information that had been centralised, to aid the public or the employer in judging one coach from another. Much of it seems to serve the corporate world of coaching as a training business — with reputation/size being the main differentials between one accrediting body and another.

This is not to say that the coaching bodies lack any sense of goodwill or ethics, as we were more than impressed by the support and focus on quality all of the bodies exuded. However, the sector is competition-driven and lacking centralised governance, meaning that the claims to which route is most valid is made by the seller without an objective national representative. As a customer of this sector, at a mass scale, we could pick up thousands of threads all leading to often obscure coach personas, which felt impenetrable as a naive client seeking reassurance about the skills of their future coach, at scale. Despite a great amount of generousity from the coaching bodies, in terms of time to explore this, we realised that the longer we searched the more lost we became in the labyrinth of training, membership and accreditation routes available in the world.

Eventually, we decided that we had to draw on a clinical approach to role creation — moving towards developing our own excellence framework and key skills framework. Simply because we know this world best and it is the route applied to clinical roles, where known and equitable skills is the primary standard.

The Project5 Coach Excellence Framework

Project5 developed an excellence framework, which we considered would allow us to create a sense of equity as a selection process. This includes:

  • membership with a body, signed up to global ethics (not necessarily a coaching body — as this could be nursing, HCPC, GMC etc)

  • a minimum qualification in coaching (at a practitioner coach level, using the Association for Coaching’s terms) OR accredited as a coach with one of a number of coaching bodies we found transparent in their approach to this and at a very high standard (above this framework, in truth).

  • a reference from a supervisor providing evidence that the coach was operating at the practitioner level (a minimum of 100 hours in supervised practice, post qualification).

  • £1million indemnity insurance — based on standards observed in other NHS areas (as no suggestions are made by any coaching bodies on the amount needed).

  • Confirmation of ongoing supervision, as a part of continued reflective practice.

An agreed minimum standard, that creates a lot of administration — both in terms of collecting this and verifying it against the identification and proof required. In a sense, we are undertaking the very same task as an accrediting body — without any funds and using a voluntary team. However, this accrediting approach is stating something quite clear at the end — “this coach can work in this role in a Public Sector setting”.

The Project5 Coach Key Skills Framework

We don’t consider this to be enough — this simply states who is eligible and not what is our commitment, in terms of ensuring that the key skills inferred by a resume are in fact demonstrated/supported into the role. This is common in clinical practice, where yearly appraisals review the role of a clinician against their key skills framework — to promote CPD if needed, supervision or agreed actions to get back on track. To this end, Project5 is developing a key skills framework via it’s Clinical Governance Committee. This will inform a CPD model, which we will translate into engaging and interactive CPD to train our coaches towards these key skills. Many will already feel native to the work, whilst others may feel new (suicide risk responding, supporting diversity in a workforce, identifying and referring mental health issues away etc…). This same training will underpin the supervision model we provide, ensuring that the key skills are seen as a focus for effective working and personal development.

This is where we move from a ‘coach’ to a specific coaching role, with clear skills as a target.

Mass scale accreditation & training

We’ve arrived at a place where the challenge we have set ourselves is monumental. Essentially credentialling and supporting coaches to an equitable standard and underpinning skills development to a practice standard. This feels like acting as a part quasi-coaching body, absorbed into a wellbeing service. However, we cannot see any way to deliver a high quality and valid service without this approach. Some of our coaches have waited for onboarding, alongside this process, perceiving us as slow — we hear regularly. But, the pace of progress and the very fact that we have already onboarded hundreds of coaches into this model — is a huge success.

Especially, as in the 10 weeks since our inception, it took us 6 weeks to research and then build this model. We now face the added task of managing coaches who feel that diverse experience or skills outside of this, make them eligible but who are rejected.

This may be a task we can face, once we complete this project with those who fit the criteria. But, until then, we hope that the sector realises that we have created something quite fantastic to handle an area where the norm is vast diversity supported by none-equitable membership approaches.

We aim to onboard 1,500+ coaches over the next few months, building technology to support this. To put that in context, almost all of the UK coaching bodies have fewer than 1,000 coaches accredited.

The End Result

We will have selected coaches at the standard we feel is needed to deliver on our practice approach, which itself is extensively evidence-based.

We will train our coaches.

We will continue to develop our approach and their role, alongside evidence as we progress.

From this, we hope to badge them (the details of which we are still working out). We will let them use this badge elsewhere so that we have provided some clarity for other organisations that need the same skills in similar situations.

This is FREE for our coaches and its value is immeasurable, not because we couldn’t cost it, but because it is game-changing and takes our coaches from a ‘coach persona’ to a validated Project5 coach — capable of supporting Healthcare staff, during times of crisis. This is surely a portable asset.


We will then need a coffee and a biscuit, as this task is beyond any sensible aspiration — and yet, we have chosen to hold onto it. So, for any coach wanting to join us.

Welcome. You can be sure that your application will be taken very ‘seriously’.


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