Few individuals have done more to promote the field of personal life coaching than Oprah Winfrey. A virtual life coach to many in her own right, Oprah has introduced a slew of personal life coaches and motivators to her viewers over the last 25 years. These days, life coaching is as popular as ever, with tens of thousands of business and personal life coaches worldwide, many of whom consider coaching a full-time job. Here's a closer look at the fast-growing industry.

What is life coaching?

Life coaches often define their livelihoods by describing what life coaching is not.

Life coaching is not psychotherapy, as most life coaches are not trained mental health professionals. While life coaches may occasionally work with individuals who have anxiety, depression, or other more serious problems, they focus on the present rather than delve into the past.

"The difference between life coaching and therapy is that psychotherapy is about helping people heal their wounds and coaching is about helping people achieve the highest level of their fulfillment or happiness or success, whether they're wounded or not," psychotherapist and life coach Phil Towle told the Spokesman-Review in 2007. Life coaches may help high-achieving individuals establish a better work-life balance, improve relationships, or lose weight. In short, they help clients figure out what they want and how to get it through weekly sessions conducted via phone or email.

When did life coaching become popular?

Dr. Winthrop Adkins, a former professor of psychology and education at Columbia University Teachers College, introduced "life skills training" to high school dropouts in New York during the 1960s as part of the war on poverty and later founded the Institute for Life Coping Skills. Executive coaching became more common in the 1980s, while personal life coaching as we know it today started to gain momentum in the early 1990s. In 1992, financial planner Thomas Leonard founded Coach U, an online training program for life and business coaches. Three years later, Leonard helped found the International Coaching Federation (ICF), a non-profit organization of coaches that offered training certification.

The internet contributed to the industry's growth, making personal life coaching more accessible for both coaches-in-training and clients alike. The 9/11 terrorist attacks, which led some people to reevaluate what was important in their lives, put life coaches in even greater demand. Leonard, who died of a heart attack in 2003, told the New York Times in 2001, "It will be as common to have a coach as it now is to have a personal trainer." Indeed, some employers have started to offer coaching sessions to employees as part of their benefits package.

Who needs a life coach when I've got friends?

Chances are you serve as a de facto — and free of charge — personal life coach to someone in your life. If you're going to pay someone for their coaching services, you probably want to know that they have the training and experience to offer support that your best friend can't. As one means of legitimizing personal life coaching as a profession, the aforementioned ICF offers Associate, Professional, and Master credentials based primarily on an individual's hours of client coaching experience. Receiving a Master Certified Coach credential, for example, requires 200 hours of coach-specific training, 2,500 hours of client coaching experience, 10 hours of work with a qualified mentor coach, reference letters from three qualified coaches, an oral exam, and a $575 application and exam fee. The organization nearly doubled its membership from 2003 to 2006 and now has more than 19,000 members.

Being certified is not a prerequisite for joining the ICF, however. The Institute of Coaching, an affiliate of the Harvard Medical School, opened in 2009 with the goal of "enhancing the integrity and credibility of the field of coaching." The institute is dedicated to establishing a scientific foundation of coaching by evaluating and measuring the effectiveness of current coaching practices.

Where can I learn to become a coach?

Leonard sold Coach U to Sandy Vilas in 1996, but it remains the self-proclaimed leading global provider of coach training programs. The school boasts that it has trained over 30,000 coaches in 61 countries and has a yearly enrollment of more than 1,000 students. Coach U offers several different programs, including the Core Essentials Program and a Becoming a Coach Weekend Workshop. Tuition ranges from $2,500 to more than $6,000. Classes, which are offered online, include Guiding Principles, Listening, and Situational Coaching. Similar accredited coach training programs include the Coaches Training Institute and the Academy for Coach Training. The University of Sydney offers a graduate certificate in Psychology of Coaching.

How much does a personal life coach get paid?

Rates for personal life coaches vary depending on the coach's credentials. According to Coach U, most coaches charge $300-$500 per month, with services typically including a half-hour phone call each week and occasional email interaction. Executive and celebrity coaches may command much greater fees.

This article was first published on Mental Floss in 2011.