Personal Coaches

by Daryl Lease

AS BEST I can remember, I lost interest in improving myself sometime in the late 1980s.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I used to try to keep up with all the new and exciting ways to become a better person. Really, I did.

On visits to the mall, I would leaf through the how-to-be-a-better-me books in the best-seller racks.

And I would be unfailingly polite whenever folks droned on about the latest self-help epic that had revolutionized their lives.

I was making the effort.

But I began to give up on bettering my own self around the time that hugger fellow, Leo what’s-his-name, emerged on the scene.

It was at that point I ran for cover. Frankly, there were--and are-- quite a few people I wouldn’t want to get a hug from.

If improvement meant getting squeezed on a regular basis, I decided I would rather leave my self in its current unimproved state.

So, the multibillion-dollar self- help industry has been lurching on without me in recent years.

In fact, I’ve thought very little of the help-your-selfer crowd until this week.

I had assumed that, by now, everyone in the country would be in tip-top shape, self-wise. If nothing else, I figured we’d have pretty well exhausted our supply of charlatans and would-be gurus.

Imagine my surprise when I learned this week that, in our efforts to make ourselves better people, we’ve moved way beyond hugging to something far more intimate.

We're actually paying people to run our lives now.

Indeed, it’s so. The hottest trend in self-improvement these days is something called the "personal coach."

For $250 a month (and sometimes much, much more), these coaches offer advice on every facet of a person’s life--including whether he or she ought to get married, have children or switch jobs.

Coaching sessions typically last a half-hour per week, either in person, over the phone, or by e-mail, according to a recent story in The Philadelphia Inquirer.

"I needed someone besides my wife to give me a little insight, the ability to focus, find a direction," explained one fellow who has hired a coach.

He said the arrangement was like having a personal trainer at a gym.

There are 6,000 to 10,000 personal coaches in the United States, according to industry estimates.

So far, they are unlicensed and unregulated--two facts that disturb psychologists and other observers.

"Anyone can call himself a coach--and have no accountability. That’s scary," says Ellen McGrath, an officer with the American Psy- chological Association.

Many of the personal coaches are graduates of "Coach University," which offers courses via the World Wide Web.

The university was founded by Thomas Leonard, a former financial planner. He launched the personal coaching movement in the 1980s when he began advising people on things like--I kid you not-- what color BMW they ought to buy.

Some of the university’s students decided they wanted to become coaches after they were customers of other personal coaches.

Tuition at Coach University is $3,000 for 36 courses bearing titles such as Listening, Challenging, Developing, Relating and Empow- ering, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

A cottage industry has sprung up around coaching. Coaches and coachees can purchase how-to tapes for $35, for instance, and there's even a line of CoachWear. (A whistle and lanyard, I assume, are free with tuition.)

Some coaches admit the services they offer aren’t really necessary or much different than what a spouse, a relative or a good friend could provide. "A lot of it, people already know what to do," says one personal coach, who used to make his living as a soap opera actor. "They just need someone to point them in the right direction."

Funny, isn’t it, that the right direction always starts at the cash register?

If I were a personal coach, I think I’d send these folks out to run some laps.

Heck, I might even give them a hug when they’re done.

Daryl Lease is a columnist for The Free Lance-Star newspaper in Fredericksburg, Va. An archive of his columns is available at