Frank Furedi

Professor of Sociology at University of Kent, and author of Politics of Fear, Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?, Therapy Culture, Paranoid Parenting and Culture of Fear.

Winning ways
Anna Moore

Jonathan Jay thinks it's going to be another good year for coaching - and as a 34-year-old millionaire, it has all been pretty good so far. In 1999, Jay spent his last £145 advertising a seminar on how to be a coach. Now here he is, director of the Coaching Academy, the UK's biggest coaching school, living in a panoramic Putney penthouse, all leather, suede and views of the Thames (if you can see past the plasma TV). Then there's his new book, Sack Your Boss!, and his TV commitments - Now I'm the Boss! (for Living TV) and helping families emigrate (for the BBC's Get a New Life). And let's not forget the coaching for businesses, for a day rate of £10,000. 'I think we need to reconcile helping people with getting paid for it,' he twinkles.
If the typical image of a life coach is a bit new age and touchy-feely, Jay comes as a surprise. Slick and charming, he looks and sounds every inch the entrepreneur - he printed his first business card at 11, and says, 'Me personally?' when asked a question, before delivering the smoothest reply. And he is at the forefront of UK coaching. Until his seminars in 1999, wannabe life coaches had to train in the US. Now it's impossible to count the number of courses available in Britain, some offering seminars, some online learning, some in FE colleges and others stamping certificates on their kitchen tables.

'In 2006, we intend to take coaching into all the nooks and crannies of British life,' says Jay. 'We're taking it to Edinburgh, Birmingham, Bristol, Brighton. We want to take it into the NHS, local government and local schools. I reckon we could have more impact on the state of education through coaching than Tony Blair could ever have.'

For Jay, coaching is the all-powerful panacea. 'You meet someone on the street who doesn't know what to do with his life and you know that if you had one hour with that person, he'd walk away knowing exactly what he wants and believing he can do it,' he purrs. 'There's nothing weird about it, nothing voodoo - it's very simple psychology. It doesn't take a genius to do it. Anyone can be a coach. And whatever critics say, coaching works. If it didn't, it would be an American fad that disappeared in six months.'

A lot of people agree with him. In 1999, life coaching was practically unknown in the UK. Now, a Google of 'UK life coach' throws up 4.5m sites. You'll find wardrobe coaches who'll do a mini-Trinny and Susannah for £200 a day. There are parent coaches to tell you how to get your two-year-old to eat peas. There are cancer coaches to help you through treatment, crisis coaches, career coaches ... the list goes on.

On top of this are the self-help books, one of publishing's fastest-growing genres. Each week sees at least one new title knocked out by a life coach elbow its place among the bestsellers. Then there's TV's saturation by self-improvement programmes. You can watch people being coached out of debt or obesity, a failed fashion sense, sloppy parenting or a dating drought.

According to the UK's Association for Coaching, an estimated 100,000 British people used a coach last year and the industry has been valued at £50m. This month, it enters the mainstream with the finalisation of its National Occupational Standards as set by ENTO, the national network of training organisations. For the first time, there will be official standards of good practice and training for British coaches.

Pam Richardson, leading life coach, author of The Life Coach and principal of the UK College of Life Coaching, is just as excited about the future as Jay: 'I can see coaching for newly qualified teachers, doctors, lawyers - newly qualified anythings. Now that the government are auditing stress, I can see a lot of coaching on work-life balance. We're living longer and have a responsibility to stay well, which means coaching on exercise and diet. Let's not expect the doctors to fix us! Parent coaching? Absolutely. I can't think of an area of the community that wouldn't benefit from it.'

Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at the University of Kent and author of (among others) Therapy Culture (Routledge) and Paranoid Parenting (Allen Lane), is one man who disagrees. According to Furedi, while we pour scorn on institutions and mock our politicians, the monarchy and the church, we are developing a slavish, unthinking devotion to a 'new priesthood of gurus' who have stepped in to fill the void. Life coaching is, he believes, at best a waste of money and at worst dangerous.

'There's a growing idea that ordinary human beings lack the competence and resources to cope with everyday life,' he says. 'More and more areas are being complicated and professionalised. Some of this is trivial - I find it idiotic that thinking adults would pay someone to go shopping with them - but some of it is intrusive.'

Take parent coaching. 'As parents, we learn through experience, through listening to our children and making mistakes,' Furedi argues. 'You wake up in the night and think, "Why did I say that?" You screw things up and change your behaviour. When a coach is telling you what to do, the relationship between you and your child is short-circuited; the coach is coming between you. You no longer trust your instincts or what your child is showing you.'

Fiona Campbell, a journalist and photographer, found this to be true. As a single mother of a one-year-old son, Campbell opted for life coaching to ease the parenting load. Her coach supported her through the 'sleep training/controlled crying' period. 'She didn't judge me, but supported me, which gave me the confidence to follow it through,' says Campbell. But other aspects weren't so successful. 'I wasn't happy about sending him to a nursery and was angsting over whether I should or not. I don't blame the coach, but she said it could be life-enhancing for little ones. Maybe it was just wrong for my son, who already had a very complicated life, with me, with his father, at his granny's. His father's family were very much against nursery at that age. Anyway, I sent him and it was the wrong decision - it was far too soon for him and he was completely traumatised.'

For Furedi, this highlights the most worrying aspect of life coaching - its disregard of friends, family and community, the people in our lives. Advice is only heeded when it's paid for: 'We don't trust each other as we used to. Life coaching stops us relying on traditional support networks.'

Top life coaches do display a depressingly cynical view of the people who love us. 'With friends and family,' says Pam Richardson, 'there's a trench mentality: "We may be wet and miserable, but we're all in it together." So if someone sticks his head up, everyone may grab on to his legs - because if he goes, they'd all have to go.'

Curly Martin echoes this opinion. Martin joined the personal-development path after being diagnosed with breast cancer, aged 39. She lived in London and worked as a business trainer, flying all over Europe. After her diagnosis, she gave up meat and sugar, moved to Bournemouth, where she could run on the beach, and started Achievement Specialists, which provides coaching and trains coaches. Last year, her book, The Life Coaching Handbook, was a number-one bestseller in the UK and US.

'Everybody has a hidden agenda,' she explains. 'If you become very successful, a family member may not like that because you're not going to be there on a Friday night for her. A friend may feel you're going to meet other people. There'll be some kind of sabotage stuff going on. A life coach is like a cheerleader on the sidelines of your life, to cheer you on for the good times and support you during your challenges.'

An alternative view would be that a life coach will never judge you. While friends may challenge and argue back, and see your life with all its history and habits, promises and peculiarities, the coach will just 'cheer you on'. 'In this respect,' says Furedi, 'it's no different to when a prostitute smiles at a client and tells him how good-looking he is.'

What if you didn't like a client? Martin blinks blankly. 'With telephone coaching you don't meet them, so there's no judgment.'

However, not all life coaches are quite so impartial. Fiona Harrold, described by the press as 'a guru who has got inside our minds', 'the queen bee of British coaching' and 'the most positive person alive', is known for challenging her clients and telling them what she thinks (she calls this 'feedback'). Harrold, author of bestsellers with titles like Be Your Own Life Coach: How to Take Control of Your Life and Achieve Your Wildest Dreams, first learnt self-help from her father, the most successful washing-machine salesman in Northern Ireland, who read his daughter How to Win Friends and Influence People at bedtime. She now has 25 coaches on her team and 20,000 subscribers to her website.

As an advert for coaching, Harrold's own life appears a model of efficiency. She lives in Fulham with the teenage son she raised alone, describes herself as 'fabulously, happily single', but has scheduled marriage for the near future. Though she doesn't know who to. ('I haven't got that person in mind right now, but definitely over the next two years.') Her home is as you'd expect - pristine, spacious, candles and cushions - her clothes look new age but expensive, and her speech is Ab Fab luvviness ('Darling', 'Wow. I mean? Really?' ) mixed with a lurking Belfast twang. According to Harrold, her life is devoid of drama and chaos. 'I don't have people in my life I don't want,' she explains, simply. 'The people in my inner circle are carefully chosen - I don't have a problem letting go of people.' Including her clients, if they don't make the grade.

'People come to me because they want to get things moving, they want me to give suggestions and point out what I see.' For example, there was the management consultant who wanted to be a guitarist. When that was sorted (he went freelance and took up guitar lessons), he wanted help around women, so Harrold found him a fitness coach ('He was a bit scrawny, then he bulked up and looked great...') and a style coach ('He dressed a bit nerdy so we handled that too!').

Sue Loveluck, who lives in Berkshire with her 14-year-old daughter, is a recent client of Harrold and can only marvel at all she has achieved as a result. 'I contacted her because I'd read one of her books and sent an email complimenting her,' says Loveluck, a headhunter. 'At that stage, I wanted to get my business to the next level. I was successful, but 90 per cent of my business came from one client and I wasn't developing, I was in a comfort zone.'

Harrold made practical suggestions to simplify Loveluck's life as a single, working mother. 'She helped eliminate the problems that held me back. I was driving my daughter to her private school, which took three hours a day, and when I told Harrold, she said, "Honey, just stop it!" She told me to talk to the bursar, which I did that week and they arranged transport.

'I also had a little dog that was always barking. I worked from home and it was like having a baby in the house. Fiona told me to solve that problem and in one week I found a dog minder. They are little problems, that you accept as part of your life - Fiona freed me up. She looked at what was holding me back and didn't let me come up with excuses. She made me believe I could do it.'

In the past nine months, with Harrold cheering her on, Loveluck has flown to America to meet venture capitalists, expanded her income by 30 per cent and is now setting up another company. 'Fiona helped me to start acting like a CEO. She advised me to stop reading those trashy celebrity magazines and to cut them out of my life - which I did.' She also turned her attention to Loveluck's appearance. 'She'd say, "You're too suburban, honey!" and "Go to Liberty, darling, the sale's starting!" As I came to see her, I started changing my image from black suits to Ted Baker and Joseph. Although she was critical, it never felt negative because I knew she was on my side.'

However, not all of Harrold's clients are so obedient. Those who consistently fail to carry out the agreed weekly tasks, she 'lets go'. 'They're mostly people who've done a lot of therapy and acquired the habit of talking without doing anything,' sighs Harrold. 'It's a disastrous habit and people don't need to use me for that when they could get a counsellor for a fraction of the price. And I find it boring. I don't need that nonsense. I've got plenty of fabulous people who want to crack on with their lives and don't want to look at their navel endlessly.'

All coaches are very particular about this counselling/coaching distinction - and with good reason, since coaches can charge a lot more. The idea is that counselling will go over your past, your feelings, your unconscious mind, while coaching will find out what you want for the future and help you take the steps to get there.

But while the cost of counselling varies and is often free, coaching usually starts at £50 for 45 minutes - and that's cheap. One session with Curly Martin costs £250. Four sessions with Harrold - plus email and emergency calls - costs between £700 and £1,500.

Professor Stephen Palmer has thought about the high price of coaching, and one of his concerns is that it reflects neither training nor experience. Coaches who set up last week after a few months of online learning - or not even that - start high. One of the most distinguished faces of British coaching, Palmer is president of the Coaching Association, and also a professor of psychology and founder director of the Centre for Coaching and Centre for Stress Management. He also coaches online, by phone, even by text.

'I think the whole culture of counselling is that it's a voluntary activity - you see it a lot in the voluntary sector,' he says. 'Coaching has never been voluntary so people expect to pay for it.' Research by Palmer and his students has shown that British people also tend to view coaching in a more positive light than counselling. 'It's the stiff upper lip,' he says. 'People are far less prepared to say, "I'm going to see my counsellor" because it may suggest there's something wrong, they're not coping. There's embarrassment around it. But life coaching is seen almost like a sports-coaching model. It's a positive thing to make your performance better, to help you achieve your life goals.'

Not surprisingly, UK counsellors don't agree. Philip Hodson, fellow of the BACP (British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy) believes TV lies at the root of the coaching explosion. 'There are so many coaching programmes because it's much easier to accommodate on television than counselling,' he says. 'It's a quick fix. It's skimming the surface, shunning one of the most important developments of the 20th century - the unconscious mind. Counselling is tough on the attention span.'

It's unarguable that watching coaches turn toddlers into little angels and knock 10 years off frumpy, menopausal women is enough to send thousands of viewers in search of a similar service. But Palmer believes this isn't the primary reason we want coaching. 'It's been a gradual change, but we've become less and less stoical as a nation,' he says. 'There have been huge changes in the way we've raised our children, and now, from a very early age, we've learnt that whingeing and throwing a tantrum will get us what we want. We're impatient. We believe we can have what we want. That's why we have road rage, air rage, trolley rage. We have higher expectations and get stressed very easily. So when we're thwarted by life, the universe and everything, we don't accept it. We're more likely to go to a coach.'

But while Palmer thinks his duty is to bring his clients back down to earth and help them develop 'realistic goals', most coaches seem to see their jobs as cheering on their clients whatever they're after. For example, says Palmer, 'If a client told me he wanted to go to the moon, I'd ask him if he had a million pounds, then try to come up with something more realistic.' This is the opposite of Pam Richardson's approach. 'If someone says, "I want to fly to the moon," I won't say, "Get real!",' she says. 'I'll say, "Have you booked your place? Are you fit enough? How are you going to make it happen?"'

Life coaching is starting out, it's in its infancy, but there's no doubt it's here to stay. At present, there are so many training schools and accreditation systems, and so little regulation, that each coach has a different definition of what they do and the proper way to do it. Some believe they are there to direct you, others just to cheer you on. Some wish to make your wildest dreams come true, others want to wake you up to reality. But in all cases, a coach is someone you pay so that, for 45 minutes a week, they are as interested in your life, your kids, your career, your clothes, your cancer as you are. 'Once this would have been seen as the height of alienation,' says Furedi. 'Now, we celebrate it.'

Fiona Campbell came to the end of her life-coaching course with many of the same problems she had at the beginning - but considerably less money. 'It is shockingly expensive,' she says. 'My coach was a lovely person, but at the end of three months I still had a career that was a bit of a mess and I was still a single mother. Life is tough. Nothing's going to change that and you have to deal with your own life. Life coaching is lovely and life-enhancing and it focuses solely on you. But it's probably best for people who don't have problems.'

First published in the Observer, 22 January 2006