I’m often referred to as a coach, but I’m not. So, what are you? I sometimes work with individuals one on one; isn’t that a coach? No, I’m a teacher, a trainer, and it doesn’t matter whether I’m working with an individual or a group.

The other day in a meeting, something interesting happened. A woman I didn’t know, walked up to our table to say hello to my client. The two were obviously acquainted, he introduced me as his mentor.

The proverbial lightbulb clicked!

A coach is an expert in a specific field; athletics, business, speech, birthing, etc. Someone who’s taken whatever course of study is needed to be proficient in that area. A coach doesn’t have to be and oftentimes is not experienced in the specific field their selves but is still a great teacher. For instance, there are some excellent birthing coaches who’ve never been in labor, parenting coaches who don’t have children, professional coaches who never played major league sports, etc.

Some of these people are extraordinary at what they do and like in any other field some are not! Life coaching is in a different category, because it’s too general. If I were looking for someone to help me sort out my life, I’d go to a psychologist or other professional in that field. If I needed help in business, I’d go to a qualified business coach. What I wouldn’t do, is go to a psychologist for business advice, and a business coach to discuss my marital problems.

When choosing someone to help sort out my challenges, I’ve a couple of choices; someone who’s been there, and someone who hasn’t. If I need help to lose weight, I can choose someone who’s never had a weight problem but has years of clinical experience. My other option is, someone who’s personally experienced a weight loss challenge. This in my opinion is the difference between a coach and mentor.

If I have the option, I’d usually rather get help from a mentor, but not necessarily. I’m not against coaches and thoroughly believe in a good coach. I have used a coach many times. What’s very important is, that before you seek help, you analyze what the challenge is and who’ll be the best person to help you. Remember, you may have used the most fantastic birthing coach in the universe, but why does that make her an expert in child rearing?

Remember, the difference between a coach and a mentor is a mentor’s been there, done that. He may be a terrible coach but lost the fifty kilos. She may be the biggest jerk in the world, but won the landmark case argued in front of the Supreme Court.

Mentors are difficult to find because their expertise is usually not teaching, but in performance. If you can find a mentor, she’s usually worth her weight in gold.

This is not a zero-sum game. Even if you find a mentor, it still may be wise using a coach since they’re two different animals, which means different world views. I’d like to leave you with one last thought; the difference between finding a good coach or not, is usually just a question of money. Typically, the better they are, the more they’ll charge. A mentor has a cost as well, but it’s not always money. Your challenge is to find out what your prospective mentor really wants, and to make sure you pay it in spades; sometimes it may only be your friendship!