Can we find a distinction to pull mentoring and coaching apart? And if we can, could we recommend one or the other for different athletic purposes?

By Jaymes Shrimski | Photos by Xuan Nguyen and jesse orrico/Unsplash

The human mind is an incredible thing. Ask it a question and rather than chewing on the initial prompt of “do I know this,” it will steam on ahead looking for an answer as if it were certain it could find one.

I found my mind steaming along, running from blank to blank, in an attempt to differentiate coaching from mentoring; I even coughed up a few seemingly logical examples, none of which were on the money and so none of which will be named. Rather than curdling our brains through paragraphs of seemingly logical examples, we will proceed with etymology and continue through a good browse of coaching and mentorship resources to find an answer and proffer which method to use and when.

Definitions

Let’s begin with mentor since it is the older word. Ripping a page out of The Complete Handbook of Coaching, we find that “[t]he word ‘mentor’ comes directly from Ancient Greek and means ‘of the mind.’ According to the Oxford Dictionary, the term ‘mentor’ was first used in English to describe a developmental process in a letter from Lord Chesterfield to his son in 1750.” Moving into a period where most parents would simply call or “Facetime” their children, we find work by the authors of The Coaching Manager: Developing Top Talent in Business, Hunt and Weintraub, which tries to detach mentoring from coaching by suggesting “mentoring typically involves a more ongoing relationship.” Typically. But we will get to that.

Tearing yet another page out of The Complete Handbook of Coaching, we are told, “[a]ccording to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word ‘coach’ derives from a town called ‘Kocs’ in Hungary, where horse-drawn carriages were made. The meaning of coach as an instructor or trainer is purportedly from around 1830, [where] it was Oxford University slang for a tutor who ‘carried’ a student through an exam; the term coaching was later applied in the 1800s to improving the performance of athletes.”

But in truth, delineating what-is-what comes with difficulty. What one calls coaching, another might call mentoring. Many readers will go over the two definitions and come up with “sounds the same to me” assumptions and that comes as no shock

A Question of Purpose

Understanding the origins of the words, it would be easy to suggest that “mentoring is what a parent does for a child and coaching is essentially cheating.”

But in truth, delineating what-is-what comes with difficulty. What one calls coaching, another might call mentoring. Many readers will go over the two definitions and come up with “sounds the same to me” assumptions and that comes as no shock as the editors Cox, Backirova, and Clutterback suggest, “these definitions are difficult to dispute but they cannot differentiate coaching from counseling or mentoring or even training, because essentially their purposes are the same.”

Notwithstanding what has been said, there are convincing, if inconsistent, articles on the internet that have managed to drive a wedge between coaching and mentoring. Putting all of the context that we bring to our daily lives, let us hold onto their definitions as if they were undoubtedly true–at least for a bit.

Coaching is task-oriented while mentoring is relationship-oriented

Across the Snakes and Ladders game the internet had me play to understand the difference between the two words, this point is the sharpest. One suggests that the focus of coaching is “[the development of skills for] concrete issues, such as managing more effectively, speaking more articulately, and learning how to think strategically.” This is devoid of the relationship aspect of mentoring that is differentiated as follows: “Although specific learning goals or competencies may be used as a basis for creating the relationship, its focus goes beyond these areas to include things such as work/life balance, self-confidence, self-perception, and how the personal influences the professional.”

Taking this clearer, neater idea as true, I see a clear difference between a coach and a mentor in my athletic experience. The towering, brick wall of a man that urged me to tuck my elbows in as I did bench presses such that I could eventually press my bodyweight may have been a coach while one of my best mates and trained physical therapist messaging me regularly with ideas for injury prevention is a mentor

Taking this clearer, neater idea as true, I see a clear difference between a coach and a mentor in my athletic experience. The towering, brick wall of a man that urged me to tuck my elbows in as I did bench presses such that I could eventually press my bodyweight may have been a coach while one of my best mates and trained physical therapist messaging me regularly with ideas for injury prevention is a mentor.

The coach here had me focus on the specific task of increasing my capacity for lifting weights while my mentor imparted the importance of incorporating injury prevention into my workouts; there was a communication of values in play.

Coaching is short-term while mentoring is always long-term

Central to this message is that a coach will impart the skills and knowledge necessary and then leave the athlete—ideally with his new skill in tow. A mentor, on the other hand, will be there to continuously guide the athlete with what to do next. So, with my previous example, the coach left me on my own as soon as he saw my elbows were tucked whereas my mentor regularly checks in with me and passes on new techniques he’s learned.

And now we get to that (as promised). Though we have chewed on our terms with unparalleled ferociousness, we seem to have landed in a classroom where we can raise our hand, answer anything we want, and have the professor nod and say, “there are no wrong answers.” After all, can’t a coach decide to be more of a mentor and check in with you? Could you and they not strike up a conversation about a shared interest and in doing so develop a relationship, the likes of which the resources of the internet use to suggest mentorship?

Understanding what you want in your athletic endeavor is crucial in differentiating between a mentor and a coach

To Each His Own

Reading the small body of research that differentiates mentoring from coaching, we arrive at the conclusion that they simply mean different things to different cultures (even within a single team or organization). But what we do have is two different styles: hands-off and hands-on.

In my view, I would rather learn a new sport or skill from a hands-off kind of coach. If I were to take a crack (and crack my shins) at muay thai, I’d want the teacher (intentional use of a third word) to instruct me on how to throw a kick and give me room to try it out. But, in the field of injury recovery, I’d rather have a teacher with whom I can regularly check in and receive guidance from in all things preventing my ankles from falling out of their respective sockets.

This, of course, is shaped by my own reasoning, the fact that I meet up for beers with my mentor every time he’s in town and the fact that my gym coach pretty much laughed at me the time I fell off the pull-up bar.

Reading the small body of research that differentiates mentoring from coaching, we arrive at the conclusion that they simply mean different things to different cultures (even within a single team or organization). But what we do have is two different styles: hands-off and hands-on

Know Yourself

Thus, in the evaluation of whether one is to receive coaching or mentorship, proceeding with what I think is the more apt hands-off versus hands-on styles of teaching, understanding what you want in your athletic endeavor is crucial. Knowing how you learn best is a must. In either style, a relationship is formed and it should be one that is conducive to self-improvement.

I highly doubt that Sir Alex Ferguson and Gregg Popovich return home after a long day and wage the existential battle of am I a coach or a mentor. But, they certainly wonder whether they should just hand a team frameworks to figure out or guide them through each step.

I’m going to assume that neither you nor I played for the 1986-2013 Manchester United or the current San Antonio Spurs lineup, but nonetheless, holding onto what drives us to outperform ourselves athletically is important. For tasks that are on the possibly injurious end—rock climbing, any form of therapy, horseback riding—perhaps a hands-on guide is necessary. But for things where you develop your own style—running, tennis, chess—you may want someone more hands-off. Naturally, finding a teacher that fits what we’re looking for in teaching style—though often a task of trying and pivoting away from what doesn’t work—is key.

After all, going out for beer with your athletic instructor isn’t the measure of success, it’s the improvement of your performance and well-being.

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