How do coaches really become masterful?

(With the excitement around the IAC’s triad program Path to Mastery, where members can form triads, get important resources for practicing and expand their coaching network, we thought it would be fun to revisit an important topic that certifiers Nina East, MMC, and Karen Van Cleve, MMC, discussed some years ago.

For information on the Path to Mastery, visit
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- Natalie Tucker Miller)


How do coaches really become masterful?
by Nina East, IAC-CC and Karen Van Cleve, IAC-CC

It’s often said that when you hear masterful coaching, you’ll know it. When you listen to truly great coaches, they seem to sense what is going on with the client before the client even knows. They come up with the perfect question or perfect exercise, seemingly out of thin air. They help the client shift their entire perspective, and it seems so easy for them.

Because it appears to be so effortless for the masterful coach, you might get the impression that coaching is easy, and therefore should be easy for everyone. But that would be wrong. The truth is that masterful coaches have done things quite differently than those who do not reach the masterful level.

In the book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell studied what it takes to become masterful – at anything. What is surprising is how little talent and luck have to do with whether someone becomes a world class expert, regardless of the field they are in.

While natural talent or affinity affects whether you end up being drawn to a particular field –if you have a natural talent for engaged listening you may have been drawn to coaching without thinking about it –it will not determine whether you are a “success” as a coach or become masterful. And though opportunity and luck play a role in your journey toward mastery, they are not reliable indicators either. Talent and luck are not enough.

The key distinction, according to Gladwell, is that world-class experts have already put in 10,000 hours of practice BEFORE they “burst on the scene.” Yes, you read that right. Ten thousand hours. Gladwell provides many examples in his book, but here are just two we think you will be familiar with.

When The Beatles “burst on the American scene,” they had already banked more than 10,000 hours of performance time. Performance time, not just practice time. They credit those hours – which sometimes came in the form of 8-hour performances – as perhaps the most important factor in their success. Playing those long sets required them to improvise and entertain at a level far different than if they were playing a couple of one-hour sets. Long hours of being on the spot and having to do their best forced them to get better.

Another example is Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft and clearly a world-class expert in computers and programming. He was lucky that he attended a high school that invested in computer access – but so was every other student who attended that school. He was fortunate that the university he went to kept their computer center open 24-hours a day – but every other student also had that same access.

What set Bill Gates apart is that he USED that opportunity and access to log hours and hours of computer experience. In one 7-month period he logged 1,575 hours working on programming. That comes out to 8 hours a day, 7 days a week. There’s no doubt Bill Gates was blessed with a great mind and some great opportunities. But the real difference is that he put in tens of thousands of hours “practicing” before he “made it.”

Now think about your own expectations of mastery. If you are new to coaching and you think that taking a couple hundred hours worth of classes will bring you to mastery, you will to be disappointed.

How many hours have you coached? How many hours have you studied or practiced?

The masterful coaches – the ones who really are the best of the best – have easily put in 10,000+ hours of real-time coaching. They have coached individuals in private sessions, they’ve coached in front of hundreds or thousands, they volunteer to coach whenever the opportunity comes up (such as in a coach training class). Masterful coaches become masterful not because of an innate talent or some lucky opportunities. They become masterful because they have honed their skill via extensive use and experience.

This is actually part of the reason that the IAC does not award the designation IAC-Certified Coach, true mastery, simply because someone has graduated from a specific coach training program or school. That alone, or even with a couple hundred or thousand hours of coaching, does not define mastery. It would not be enough to assure that the coach has become masterful.

The IAC, instead, recognizes that many people drawn to the coaching industry have already spent many hours honing their skills via their other work and training. It might not have been called “coaching,” but if they were using the fundamental skills of coaching – the Coaching Masteries® – then they have probably already logged many hours of experience.

We don’t require coaches to measure or report this because, honestly, it would be virtually impossible. But when we observe masterful coaching from someone who has no official “coach training,” we always find out they have thousands of hours of experience using these same skills in different venues.

When you have 10,000+ hours of real coaching experience, then of course it’s easier to know what’s really going on with the client, or to ask the client the exact right question that opens the entire issue up for them. By then you’ve seen thousands of examples and tried thousands of questions in different situations. You know what works and what doesn’t – and you know how to tell if it will work with this particular client. That’s why it seems like you know what’s going on with the client before the client even knows. That's why it seems like you can come up with the perfect question or perfect exercise, seemingly out of thin air, and why it looks so easy for you.

Your call to action is to get as much experience as you can as a coach – and use that experience to improve your skills. Seek feedback from clients and mentors. If you’re in a class and the instructor asks for a volunteer to be the coach, raise your hand. Don’t worry about embarrassment or failure – focus on how well and how easily you will be able to help your clients because of the experience you are getting.



Nina East, IAC-CC, is the IAC®’s Lead Certifier and the founder of, a site for women professionals and business owners who are enthusiastic about personal growth but don’t have the time to read all the books they buy.  




Karen Van Cleve, IAC-CC, ACC, has been an IAC Certifier since 2005. She is also a Results Coach for the Anthony Robbins coaching organization. She speaks on a variety of coaching topics and provides personal coaching for a wide range of clients. Her website is   




Please send your questions on the IAC Coaching Masteries® and the certification process

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