From its humble beginnings as a niche profession employing only a few hundred people, coaching today has evolved into one of the fastest-growing industries not only in the United States, but also worldwide.
When coaching was still in its infancy in the mid-2000s, there were only a handful of coach training programs that could promise to fully equip an aspiring coach with the knowledge, skills, and confidence to take on clients of their own. According to some estimates, there are now over 1000 ICF-accredited coach training programs offered around the globe, with more being created each and every year.
Although each program has met the academic rigor and Code of Ethics established by the ICF, not all programs are created equally. For an aspiring life coach looking for the right certification program, it can be an overwhelming task to try and choose among all of these schools to find just one that has the right balance of value, reputation, skilled instructors, and real-world applicability.
In this overview, we’ll first cover three of the best life coach certification programs available today. These three programs are well-respected the world over and each has a proven history of excellence in the coaching industry.
Finally, we’ll go over some of the key factors to look for in a life coach certification program to ensure that you select the program that’s right for you.
Top 3 Life Coach Certification Programs
#1: Coach Training Alliance
Overview: When discussing which coach training program has the most respected reputation for excellence, one program comes to mind above all others: Coach Training Alliance. It’s the program we recommend most often to aspiring life coaches.
CTA has a proven track record for preparing coaches for solving real-world challenges, but what sets CTA apart is that it is also uniquely focused on the business side of running a coaching practice.
The truth is, all ICF-accredited training programs will educate students on the art of coaching: advanced communication techniques, meeting ethical guidelines, establishing trust, active listening, etc. All of these skills will make you a better, more professional coach.
But what about building a coaching business in the first place? How do you get the phone to ring all day with potential clients looking for exactly the skills you can provide? This is the part most coaches need the most help with, and CTA is committed to making sure you’re fully prepared for the reality of owning your own business.
Creating an office, setting your rates, getting referrals, crushing your marketing…more than any other program we’ve come across, these are the business skills CTA is uniquely focused on delivering.
Anyone with a certificate can coach a client that is sitting across the table from them. But in order to build a sustainable business that will still be around 5, 10 years from now, you’ll need the business acumen to bring your dreams to reality. This is the advantage of a CTA education.
Method of Delivery: 100% Online
Program Length: 6 Months
For anyone starting a new business, especially in the economy we find ourselves in today, keeping costs down at the outset will be a critical success factor. While there are plenty of programs that cost 2x or even 3x as much, we believe Coach Training Alliance offers the best value for an ICF-accredited education in today’s marketplace.
If you’re interested in learning more, CTA is now offering free introductory workshops every week. As you might imagine, these have become quite popular among new coaches as you’ll be given the opportunity to have your questions answered and even be able to take part in a live coaching session with a mentor coach. Click here to sign up.
#2: Institute for Professional Excellence in Coaching (iPEC)
One of the most comprehensive all-around coach training programs available is offered by the Institute for Professional Excellence in Coaching, also known as iPEC.
A bit of background on iPEC’s humble beginnings: the organization was founded by Bruce D. Schneider, the author of the popular book, Energy Leadership: Transforming Your Workplace and Your Life from the Core. At 18, he was involved in a car accident that nearly ended his life. While the other driver died immediately, Bruce survived and he viewed this miraculous turn of events at a second chance in life. Over 40 years later, the company he founded has helped thousands of coaches kickstart their coaching careers.
From beginning to end, you will complete nearly 400 hours of training, both in-person and online. The face-to-face portion is the cornerstone of an iPEC education. These three intensive, three-day training sessions take place at one of iPEC’s 20 training locations worldwide, and they include activities such as role-playing, group work, writing, videos, coaching simulations, and modelling. Additionally, you’ll get the opportunity to coach and be coached by others attending the event, providing the kind of hands-on experience you need to hit the ground running.
Another unique benefit of an iPEC education is its emphasis on choosing a niche specialty. After completing comprehensive training in the art and skill of coaching as a whole, you will also be provided a full library of resources on ten different specializations, including relationship coaching, sports performance coaching, couples coaching, and more.
Given its comprehensive nature and in-person training component, iPEC is also one of the most expensive coach training programs on the market. All in all, you can trust iPEC’s 20+ years of training excellence to prepare you for your career as a coach and also to provide support once your career is off the ground.
Method of Delivery: Online and In-Person
Program Length: 7 to 9 Months
Founded in 1992 by the “Father of Coaching” Thomas Leonard, CoachU is known for being the first and original coach training program in existence.
The foundation of the program is the CoachU Core Essentials Program (CEP), which is a 77-hour comprehensive overview of what it means to be a coach, including coverage of all of ICF’s core competencies. This is CoachU’s version of Life Coaching 101, and it is delivered as a facilitated telecourse-based program.
If you’d like to add a personal touch to your skills training, there is also a version of the course that includes a 6-day intensive face-to-face program called the Core Essentials Fast Track Program (CEFTP).
After your basic training is complete, students have the option of enrolling in CoachU’s Advanced Coaching Program (ACP) Telecourse, which includes an additional 77 hours of advanced skills training. This is perfect for coaches who may feel perfectly adequate to start their own coaching practice after completing the CEP but would like to explore more niche-specific coaching avenues and brush up on their business savvy before opening their doors.
With students enrolled from over 50 countries, CoachU is truly an international, immersive experience. Founded in 1992 by the “Father of Coaching”, Thomas Leonard, it is the coach training program that started it all! To give you an idea of their scope, they estimate that coaches who’ve completed training at Coach U and Corporate Coach U are now coaching more than 200,000 per month. No small feat!
Method of Delivery: Online and/or In-Person, depending on your choice of program
Program Length: 6 to 15 months, depending on your choice of program
Cost: $3195 to $9290, depending on your choice of program
What to Look for in a Coach Training Program
Every coach training program offers its unique set of advantages and selling points that you’ll need to weigh against each program’s set of limitations and trade-offs. To avoid getting overwhelmed and succumbing to decision paralysis, it’s best to distill this wealth of information into five distinct factors to look for when deciding which training program is right for you.
Let’s discuss these five factors in detail.
Quick Tip: For a comprehensive overview of the life coach certification process, we recommend picking up a copy of Walks of Life, the best-selling career guide offered by the National Coach Academy. Trusted by thousands of young coaches, it’s the best guide we’ve come across for starting your career as a coach.
We’ll start with an easy one. Credentials are simple to identify and even simpler to assess.
Let’s cut right to the chase: either a program is accredited by the ICF or it isn’t. While there exist plenty of coach training programs that are not ICF-accredited–some may even be quality programs–it simply doesn’t make sense to choose one that doesn’t bear the ICF seal of approval.
Aside from the fact that the ICF is the most academically trusted organizing body in the coaching industry worldwide, it’s also the most recognized by potential clients. While we’re sure that the Certified Coaches Federation does great work in overseeing their member organizations, proudly displaying their logo on your website isn’t going to carry the same weight as saying you’re a member of the ICF network of coaches.
And even if a client never asks what accreditation your coach training program has (they won’t), knowing that your training program upholds the standards set by the ICF is the best way to make sure you’re receiving the most comprehensive and up-to-date education possible.
The media (and even some clients) will portray coaching as a sort of “Wild West,” since there is no internationally established set of criteria that reputable coaches need to abide by. Among coaches who are in the know, however, that simply isn’t true. The ICF provides these global standards and more, and with enough adoption, it will soon become the benchmark that the coaching industry needs.
To give you an idea of the size of the ICF network, here are the latest figures as of July 2023:
- 49,660 members worldwide
- Presence in 143 countries and territories
- 26,260 Associate Certified Coaches (ACC)
- 21,283 Professional Certified Coaches (PCC)
- 2,117 Master Certified Coaches (MCC)
- 50% of members reside outside of North America
In fact, late last year marks the first time that 50% of the global population of ICF-credentialed coaches lived outside of North America. Coaching is, without a doubt, a global profession, and gaining popularity across the globe every year.
To find an ICF-accredited program, you may use the ICF Training Program Search Service (TPSS), which can be found here.
Mode of Delivery
Unlike the ICF credential, choosing among the different modes of delivery offered by coaching schools isn’t quite as cut and dry, and will depend largely on the student’s individual personality, learning style, budget, and schedule.
The three primary modes of delivery are distance learning, face-to-face, and mixed delivery. In recent years, the availability of distance learning options has dramatically increased, allowing students from all over the country (and the world) to access world-class coaching education.
You might already know which delivery method you prefer, but let’s go over the benefits and drawbacks of each style to give you a better sense of what works best for you.
Best for Students Who:
- Don’t live near or can’t get to a coach training location
- Prefer to learn at their own pace
- Can’t afford the higher cost of face-to-face training sessions
- Work full time jobs and need the scheduling flexibility
- Have family commitments that don’t allow for much time away from home
- Already have face-to-face coaching experience and just need certification
- Some students may miss the “human element” of a face-to-face environment
- Not ideal for students who may not be self-starters
- Requires more technological proficiency
Face to Face
Best for Students Who:
- Learn best when taught by a live person
- Live near a coach training facility
- Are able to afford the higher cost
- Would like an opportunity to network with like-minded peers and instructors
- Need active encouragement from peers and coaches
- Prefer the human connection offered by face to face learning
- Need to witness coaching first hand before taking on a real client
- Usually more expensive than distance learning options
- Requires travel, often including airfare
- Offers less flexibility as you must be available at a pre-determined date
- Will often require extended absence from your work/family life
As with most choices, there is usually a happy medium. For many students, this is the mixed delivery option.
The advantages and drawbacks are obviously also mixed, as they incorporate elements of both distance learning and face-to-face instruction. Usually, programs that offered mixed delivery will be predominantly distance learning with an element of face-to-face coaching–usually a multi-day seminar at one of the training program’s facilities scattered around the country (and possibly overseas, as well).
While more and more programs are switching to fully remote learning, plenty of programs today still offer mixed delivery. Many students prefer the more academic portion of their life coach training to take place at home and on their own schedule while still having the opportunity to have the full coaching experience face-to-face.
If you can believe it, the cost of a life coach certificate will vary anywhere from $9.99 all the way up to $15,000.
Yes, the range is that huge.
The reason for this disparity is that a coaching certificate is only as good as the school or instructor granting it. Anyone can put up a life coaching course on a site like Udemy, charge a couple bucks for it and promise students that they will become Certified Life Coaches upon completion of their program…and they’d be absolutely correct in saying so.
The real question is, how much is that certificate worth? Ask yourself: will completing a $10 Udemy course truly prepare me for a career as a life coach? Will clients feel comforted knowing that I completed this course? Was this truly the best value for my investment?
Obviously, in the case of a $10 online course, the answer to these questions is a resounding “No.” In fact, it’s these dirt cheap “certification” courses that sometimes give coaching as a whole a questionable reputation. After all, there’s no way to get your MBA or M.D. through a $10 course, and even if there were, no one would feel qualified claiming expertise in medicine or business after taking one.
In fact, some programs even offer “free” coaching certification, but we don’t have to tell you that a free certificate is worth about the value of the paper it’s printed on. (And well, we ended up telling you anyway.)
If you can afford it, you can go to the opposite extreme and spend the $12,000 on an iPEC certification, call yourself a certified life coach and plaster the iPEC logo all over your marketing materials. (And after paying that tuition fee, no one would blame you.)
Instead of blowing your entire startup budget on a certificate, you may find it more prudent to find a reputable (yet affordable) training program, achieve your ICF credential, and still have plenty of money left over to market yourself and your business.
Regardless of the cost of the program you choose, achieving your life coach certification is an excellent investment. Seeing as how the average life coach in the U.S. earns just shy of $70k/year, your tuition fee will simply end up as a small upfront cost to a very lucrative career as a coach.
Area of Focus
While most coach training programs will offer a general life coaching course, there are programs that specialize or offer concentrations in one of ICF’s 15 niche categories. Those categories are:
- Coaching Other Coaches
- Health & Fitness
- Life Vision & Enhancement
- Small Business
- Therapeutic/Alternative Services
If you have a pretty good idea that you’d like to focus in on one of these areas, it’s a good idea to enroll in a program that at least offers supplementary materials on that area.
You might be tempted to enroll in a program that is 100% focused on your niche, but unless you a) already have some coaching experience in and outside of your target niche, and b) have witnessed others coaching in areas outside your target niche, it’s probably wiser to enroll in a more general program to gain a wider exposure before committing to a narrower career path.
What you think (or even know) you’re interested in now might not be what piques your interest 6 or 12 months from now. Learning what coaching is about first-hand and engaging with clients face-to-face may challenge your long-held beliefs and widen your perspective and points of interest.
To give yourself the best chance at landing in a role you’re best suited for, keep your options broad at the start of your journey and refine later on.
Refining Your Niche
Let’s be clear: choosing a niche and absolutely crushing that niche is the best way to make it in this industry. In a client’s eyes, there is no replacement for a coach who specializes in exactly the issue you are facing. However, restricting yourself to that niche before even attaining your initial certification would be to unnecessarily limit your scope during a time when you shouldn’t be setting any boundaries on what your career could look like.
Once you’ve achieved your general coaching certification, you could (and absolutely should) find an area of focus and educate yourself further down that path. This is precisely why Continuing Coach Education (CCE) exists.
From countless conversations with coaches, what I can tell you is that the first niche you choose to specialize in will likely not be your last — and that’s okay! The goal is to start broad, niche down, and then refine and pivot depending on your own specific life circumstance.
You may have started your coaching career working with college students looking to choose a career path, perhaps because that’s exactly who you were not too long ago. But as you get older, get married, and maybe even start a family, your priorities will change and you shouldn’t be afraid to let your areas of specialization evolve right alongside your own life trajectory.
That is another beautiful aspect of a career in coaching: it can grow with you as an individual, and you are in the driver’s seat.
This one is harder to glean from a website or promotional materials, but finding the right culture fit is exceptionally important when choosing a coach certification program to enroll in. Some programs will tend to go at a slower pace than others, while other programs will try to cram as much material into every day as possible. Some instructors will come from a corporate background, others from an academic background. Some programs are small and intimate, with specialized attention to every student. Other programs are larger and students are more independent.
When it comes to culture fit, there is no objectively better or worse option. It all comes down to where you feel most comfortable and how you learn the best.
How do you go about assessing the culture of a training organization? This one is a bit tricky, but a great start would be to call their admissions department and strike up a conversation with someone who works for the program. Right away, you’ll be able to learn some important information about the program.
Did the person on the other line invite you for a one-on-one phone or Zoom session to learn more about the program, or did they simply redirect you to their website so you can learn more on your own? Did the individual use a lot of academic jargon and emphasize all of the program’s credentials, or did they speak more from the heart? Was the conversation excessively professional and sterile, or did you feel at ease and comfortable from the get-go?
Before committing your time and money to a life coach training program, make sure you feel comfortable with the program’s culture and “personality.” Finding the right fit will go a long way to ensuring you get as much out of the program as possible.
Length of Program
Most life coach certification programs take between 6 to 12 months to complete.
The exact length of time will depend on several factors, such as your individual pace of learning and if you choose to study any advanced techniques or specialized areas of focus in addition to your basic training. Here are some examples of program length to give you an idea of how different programs can vary:
- iPEC: 7 to 9 months
- University of Miami CPC Program: 11 months
- Newfield Institute: 11 months
- New Ventures West: 12 months
- Coach Training Alliance: 6 months
- Georgetown’s Certificate in Leadership Coaching: 8 months
- Columbia University’s Coaching Certification Program: 8 months
- Life Purpose Institute: 3 to 6 months
- Institute for Life Coach Training: 9 months
- Coach U Core Essentials Program: 6 to 15 months
- The Coaches Training Institute (CTI): 5 months
As a general rule of thumb, you’ll want to stay away from any program that can be completed in under 3 months, as well as programs that take over 12 months to complete.
Any program that requires less than 3 months from start to completion simply isn’t going to have enough time to cover enough material required to prepare you for a fruitful career as a coach. Even if a program somehow is able to get through the material, letting some time pass in between classes is an integral part of learning. As an analogy, you can imagine a bodybuilder completing 10,000 bicep curls in one day, compared to spreading them out to 100 every day for 3 months. The mind is a muscle in much the same way; it’s the space in between sessions where much of the learning actually happens.
On the flip side, some coach training programs last more than a year. There isn’t inherently wrong with that, and if you feel like you need to space your lessons out and you’re the kind of person that prefers a slower pace of learning, you can absolutely opt for a program of this length and still receive an excellent education. Where you should be careful, however, is falling into the trap of getting too comfortable in your classes instead of going out there and getting real-world experience.
Working with real clients is the most effective education any coach will ever receive, and there comes a point in a coach’s education where more lessons, more practice, and more theory has diminishing returns. Your real education begins the day you graduate!
A Word on University Coaching Programs
By now, you’ll have noticed that coach training programs are divided into two camps: programs offered by standalone, coaching-specific institutions, and programs offered within a larger university setting. We’ve discussed some of these throughout this article. Here’s just a partial list of colleges and universities offering a coach certification program:
- Columbia University
- Duquesne University
- Rider University
- Rice University
- City University of New York
- American University
- University of Miami
- University of Texas at Dallas
- University of Wisconsin-Madison
- William James College
- Kingstown College
While programs offered in college and university settings typically cost more than standalone coach-specific programs, this is usually because they offer a higher degree of in-person learning. This makes sense, as colleges and universities already have the physical infrastructure to support in-person training, and the added benefit of live, face-to-face instruction is a major selling point of these programs.
What you shouldn’t assume, though, is that training programs offered within university walls are somehow more legitimate or comprehensive than their alternatives. Just like programs not housed within a university setting, these programs are all ICF-accredited, and as such, they all must follow the educational standards and ethical benchmarks set forth by the ICF.
As coaching finds itself more and more in the mainstream, you’ll start to see more colleges and universities offer coach certification as part of their course offering. Just remember that choosing one of their programs should come down to personal preference and style.
Are you more motivated when physically surrounded by others completing the same program as you? Do you feel inspired when you feel immersed in a place of higher learning, like a college or university? Are you feeling “screen-fatigue” and can’t wait to step back into a real world classroom? Are you okay with relocating to a new state and have the proper budget/flexibility to make this transition work for you? If these considerations sound like you, a university-run coach training program might be a good fit.
A Trend Toward Formal Training
Given the cost and time commitment of completing a certification course, you might feel tempted to skip the process entirely and go straight into coaching based on your own life experiences. Years ago, this is exactly what many coaches decided to do, and they ran coaching practices without ever having completed any kind of formal training.
“I’ve lived through enough hardship and triumph to be able to coach anyone on practically anything,” would be the prevailing mantra of untrained coaches. “No matter what challenges a client comes to me with, effective coaching starts from lived experience.”
Due to this common mentality, the coaching world used to have a sort of “Wild West” reputation to it. Anyone could call themselves a coach, and there was no governing body around to stop them.
In recent years, however, this reputation has started to shift quite dramatically. A 2020 study conducted by the ICF found that nearly 75% of coaches now say they have completed some kind of formal training. In 2022, that figure has surely grown.
The Wild West of coaching is officially over, and the field has finally reached maturity. If you’re still tempted to be a part of the shrinking minority of coaches who forgo training, here’s one reason that might make you reconsider:
Your Clients Expect You to Be Certified
They may never ask in order to be polite, but most of your clients will expect you to be certified. The same 2020 ICF study found that 85% of people who receive coaching expect their practitioners to be certified.
That number might sound staggering, but it makes sense. Do you expect your therapist to have formal training? Or would you be willing to see a therapist that is just “winging it”? Just like any other profession, coaching is a highly-specialized, skill-based occupation that requires formal training in order to reach maximum potential for your clients and your practice.
Whether you potential clients ask you directly or not, if 85% of them expect you to be certified, you can expect them to be making sure you are.
Keep that in mind next time you hesitate to invest in your program’s tuition. Your cost for certification will pay for itself dozens of times over with clients trusting your services as a result of your training.
What Worked For You May Not Work for Others
If you’re like most coaches, you’ve been through some significant hardship in your life and have found a way to not only survive, but thrive in the face of it.
Given the triumphant arc of your life, you may be tempted to think that you’ve figured out the keys to overcoming adversity. And indeed you have – for yourself. This is something to be proud of and cherish, but it’s nevertheless important to remember that the choices you made were the best ones for your particular set of circumstances, and your particular personality.
Overcoming an alcohol addiction by quitting cold turkey may have worked well for you, but this shock to the system might prove dangerous or even downright impossible for someone else, who might fare better with a more gradual approach to quitting.
Dealing with a tragic divorce by “getting back out there” right away and starting fresh might have been exactly what you needed, but others may need more time.
Achieving work-life balance by quitting your stressful corporate job and working from home as an entrepreneur may have changed your life for the better, but someone else may have just needed a mindset shift and a one-to-one conversation with a supervisor.
Going through the process of certification will make clear that your job as a coach is not to steer your clients in the direction you took in life, but rather to help clients uncover their own core motivations and empower them to follow their own ideal courses of action, which may or may not be the same as your own.
Expanding Your Network
Imagine for a second that your potential client comes to you for relationship coaching. As you start to get to know them, however, you discover that your client is an adoptive parent struggling to foster a trusting relationship with their adopted son, who was mistreated and abandoned by his biological parents.
All of a sudden, the issues at play feel larger and more complex than anything you’ve ever experienced. However, you think back on your coach training days and recall that one of your peers was also adopted and went into coaching. You hear your client out, offer the best insight you can, then kindly and gently recommend they pay a visit to your old colleague, who may have a much deeper understanding of the complex issues at work.
Because life experiences are so varied and relationships are so complex, this sort of referral happens all the time within the coaching world. And just as often as you refer out to a colleague, you’ll be referred clients from others who know your own unique backstory.
This scenario is much more likely to play out when you’ve invested in expanding your coaching network. Naturally, the best place to start this process is by getting certified, getting to know your peers, and keeping in touch throughout your careers.
Done properly, referrals from other coaches can turn into one of your most effective marketing channels.
Business Support – You’ll Need It
You may be experienced at life, but are you a seasoned entrepreneur? Do you know how to get in front of your target market? Do you know the difference between an LLC and a sole proprietorship?
Some new coaches may have experience starting other companies, but the vast majority of you will need some kind of business support at the very beginning of your coaching journey. Most training institutions know this, and so they make sure to include basic business education as part of their curriculum. Some programs even make sure you can land your first client, or get hired in a new coaching job as part of their course offering.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that running a coaching business is all about coaching; it’s also about running a business, which takes a completely different skill-set to get right.
By now, you should have a good idea of what a reputable life coach certification program looks like. All that’s left is to find the right program for you–the one that checks all your boxes and puts you in the best position to maximize your potential as a life coach. The challenge there is that no one can tell you which program will bring the best coach out of you — only you can do that!
Regardless of the program you choose, always keep in mind that the true purpose of coaching is to bring the best out of everyone you encounter–including yourself. With this mindset, patience, determination, and hard work, you’ll be best preparing yourself for a long, prosperous and fulfilling career in coaching.