It wasn't a great time for Anne Pence.
The 56-year-old single mother from Baltimore had issues with past relationships, her house was damaged in a fire, she was unhappy with her job and was struggling to find answers for her daughter with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.
"I was drowning. I knew I had to work on certain areas of my life that I desperately wanted to change," Pence says of that period three years ago.
Pence began working with Terry Schaefer, 61, a Baltimore life coach. Pence felt hopeless, but Schaefer describes her and many of his clients as temporarily "stuck." His clients pay on average $750 a month to change their situations.
In the late 1990s, after leaving his job as a clinical social worker, Schaefer became a life coach. At the time, few people knew the meaning of the term. In recent years, life coaching has taken off as an alternative to therapy, which some feel carries a stigma. Instead of dwelling on the past, life coaches say, they focus on the present and the future.
Life coaching is a growing profession. The number of coaches nationwide has nearly tripled in the past 10 years, according to the International Coach Federation, the leading professional association for coaches. In June, its membership count was 18,600, up from about 6,790 a decade ago. The Maryland chapter of the International Coach Federation, which formed two years ago, has about 90 members.
In 2012, professional coaches took in $2 billion ($707 million in North America), according to the International Coach Federation. On average, professional life coaches charge $240 per session. Personal growth and work-life balance topped the list of clients' concerns.
"Coaching helps people get clearer about what they want or need out of life and move forward. It's really organic — working with what a person already has inside and what they're longing for, rather than bringing up the past," says Chris Holmes, president of the Maryland chapter of the International Coach Federation.
Many people who seek life coaches are opposed to therapy, Holmes says, because they don't want to reflect on the past. Mental health professionals contend, however, that they do much more than revisiting past history, and in essence, they provide life-coaching services through positive psychology. In most cases, people need more than a coach, says Thomas Truss, a Baltimore psychologist.
"The critical difference between someone going to a coach as opposed to someone who does therapy is your goals are significantly different," says Truss. "The issues we bring to light involve past issues, and some people don't want to deal with that. It's a question of timing and whether they're willing to work with what's really wrong."
Dr. Marilyn Martin, a Baltimore psychiatrist, says she sometimes sees clients who have been referred to her by a life coach. "If somebody is working with a life coach and they develop panic attacks and that keeps them from doing the recommendations the coach is giving them, or when they are depressed and they don't have enough energy or motivation to follow through on the steps the coach is recommending, then they should see a mental health professional," she says.
During sessions, coaches usually ask questions to unravel what clients might be seeking or hoping for in life. They help their clients set goals and often give assignments to help clients reach those goals. These tasks are generally aimed at short-term goals and can range from writing a resume to talking to a spouse about a particular problem. At the next session, the coach follows up with the client on the assignments.
When Pence sought out Schaefer as a life coach, she was looking to make major life changes. In three years, Pence has met Schaefer only once in person, but she talks with him on the phone every week. She has changed jobs, is no longer in the bad relationship and has found creative options to help her daughter.
Angie Nys of Mount Airy was also looking for a life coach during a time of changes. About a year ago, Nys left her personal-stylist business and Florida and moved to Maryland to care for the estate of her father, who had just died.
Nys, 56, found Helen Whitehead to help plot her next course of action. Whitehead assisted Nys in pinpointing her strengths and weaknesses, and also helped her develop resumes and determine which direction to take her career. Eventually, Nys decided to go back into styling, with a better understanding of what she wanted in life.
People seek life coaches for different reasons, but most are at a standstill in their lives — looking for ways to move on to the next level. Most of their clients are in their 40s and 50s.
"People are just asking, 'How do I get the most fulfillment out of my life?' " says Whitehead, who is based in Mount Airy.
Two years ago, Whitehead, who is 48, began asking herself those questions as she started looking for a change from her career in human resources. She decided to become a life coach and became certified through the Coaches Training Institute.
There are a plethora of organizations that offer coach-training programs. The certification process, which can cost $10,000 or more, takes about 12 months to complete, including a six-month practicum when students are required to take on paying clients. Once certified through one of the organizations, the life coach can seek credentials through the International Coach Federation for additional fees ($100 to $575, depending on the credentials).
There are no legal requirements for becoming a life coach. Many professional coaches, however, choose to undergo the training and certification to prove legitimacy to their clients, says Carla Hamby, program adviser for the Coaches Training Institute.
Professional life coaches say the time and money spent to become certified and credentialed is worth it because they enjoy helping people find the right direction.
"They usually come to me and say, 'I'm at a crossroads and I don't know what to do next.' We talk about what their values are and we figure out some clues and find the steps to take to move forward," Whitehead says. "It's very fulfilling."