Therapist v therapeutic… What’s the role of a coach?

words by Guy Little, Monday 7 October 2019

I can’t recall any coach telling me that they got into coaching because they wanted to be a therapist. Sometimes, however, coaches tell me that they feel like they are therapists to their players – listening to their problems and helping them out. I have reminded several coaches that they are not therapists, because they don’t sit down in comfy chairs for most of the day and they probably don’t ask the question all day long, “how does that make you feel?” (it’s ok, I know many therapists, including myself, who don’t do that!). Stereotypes aside, coaches have told me that they wear many hats – first-aider, guider, director, trainer, mentor (the list goes on), and therapist. The therapist hat, however, doesn’t have to be one of them, but a therapeutic hat may be a much better fit. So, what’s the difference between being a therapist and being therapeutic? This blog is going to tease out the difference.

Who is a therapist?

So, for start, a therapist is the term used to describe someone who is trained in talking therapy. They are generally psychologists, counsellors, or psychotherapists who have the knowledge and skills in specific interventions (models and practices) to assist people and their mental health in a range of ways (I’ll just use the term therapist in this blog to encompass all of these professionals). They are trained to help others work through mental health difficulties and illness (helping people shift out of the struggling end of the continuum), assist people with ways of coping (helping people stay in the middle area of the continuum or shifting to the thriving end), as well as helping people to thrive (and continue to thrive) in life. So, they are usually people who have had years of formal training to help others with mental health issues and challenges. Sounding less like a hat that as a coach you’d like to wear?

So, what does it mean to be therapeutic?

Well, first it means that you do not need to be a therapist! Many people have a therapeutic presence. I am sure you can bring to mind at least one person who, through their characteristics and behaviours, communicated that they cared for you…Big time. It could be in the way they just listened, the way they didn’t pass judgement on what you were talking about, or the way that they seemed to ‘just get’ what you were feeling. These kinds of things are at the essence of being therapeutic. Let me give you some background.

Caring Carl

Carl Rogers was a psychologist (a therapeutic therapist if you like) who was a pioneer and champion of the therapeutic. He taught therapists that the environment that they created for their clients can positively influence their clients’ thoughts, feelings, and behaviour and help them change. He suggested how you are with them is as, if not more, important than what (i.e., the therapy interventions) you do with them. 70 years later, we now know Rogers was on to something. Neuroscientists and psychologists consider that Carl’s therapeutic conditions are the same ones that help brains develop and grow in healthy ways.  See the story below to understand how one coach used Carl’s conditions to help someone.

Popovich’s Empathy

In a few minutes of caring conversation, legendary San Antonio Spurs coach, Greg Popovich, shows a new and vulnerable assistant coach that he understands his situation and will be there for him no matter what. Check it out here.

So, there we have it. Anyone can embody the attitudes and behaviour necessary to help another person out. We don’t need formal training to be a therapeutic person in another’s life – and it’s a hat that is a much better fit for those in a coaching role. It is good, however, to have some therapists’ numbers handy. Please have a look on our website to find a therapist near you, as well as the other resources such as mental health helplines and services.

Guy Little is the Tackle Your Feelings Program Psychologist.

Click here to view the sources for this article.

Need Support? If you know someone who requires urgent assistance or support, please contact:

Suicide call back service: 1300 659 467

Lifeline: 13 11 14

Kids Helpline: 1800 551 800

Emergency: 000

Support for AFL Players: If you are a current or past AFL Player and would like to know more about our specialised wellbeing and mental health services please contact the AFL Players’ Association at or Tel. 03-8651 4300 (Mon to Fri, 9am – 5pm).

Click here to read our disclaimer.