Do you want an instructor, a mentor or a coach?

by Amy  - August 23, 2021

Somebody once told me that the fastest way to see improvement is to find somebody who knows how to do what you want to do and learn from them.

I don’t remember who it was who said that. It has been helpful to me.

When my kids were small I decided I wanted to learn how to play tennis. Ta-dah tennis instructor. When I wanted to do an Ironman I hired an Ironman specific coach. Then I added a cycling instructor and a swimming instructor.

I think there are three main categories of person that can help us progress in our adult goals. Instructors, Mentors, Coaches. None is better than the other – and for sure there is some overlap. Picking the right one for what we want is a key to being happiest with our results – in my opinion.

So let’s break this down and explain what each one is.

What is an instructor?

An instructor is a person who teaches us how to do something. And it doesn’t actually need to be a single person. This could be a class. A book, a youtube article. This is to answer … how do I. If you are starting a new job or a new project at work and you want to learn a new software program you can find / hire an instructor to show you how to use the software.

Yes, yes …You could also just mess around with it for a lot of hours and figure it out yourself.

What is a mentor?

A mentor is somebody who has done what you want to do who is willing to share with you how they did it. You are learning from their actual experiences.

A mentor can be a friend. A mentor can be somebody you pay in a mastermind. A mentor can even be somebody you haven’t met who shares their stories — like in biographies, podcasts, movies and articles.

Ben Franklin is a mentor to many people who still read about his life and model their days around his ideas. He’s been dead for a long time. It still works.

What’s important about a mentor is two things. First if you are going to follow their advice look carefully that they really match what you want to achieve or create. If you want to build a business and have a happy family life but you choose a mentor who is a single person and maybe even has a few divorces — that’s an incomplete match.

In triathlon I have mentored many people who want to finish triathlons. They want to do races that I myself have done and I achieve results similar to mine. I can give them personal examples and advice based on what I experienced.

The second thing that’s important about a mentor is that they are willing to honestly share their experiences and what they did.

I once hired a mentor who wanted to teach me only part of what she was doing to run her business. I could tell by watching what she was doing that she wasn’t sharing with me what she actually did and I asked her about it and she admitted it. That was not a great experience for me — a cautionary tale.

A Coach

A coach is a partner who works with you to help you unlock your potential and achieve your goals.

Sometimes a coach will know a lot about what they coach and other times a coach may not actually need to know specific technical skills in order to help. A business coach should understand about business but maybe not a specific type of business (that would be a mentor). A sport coach probably understands a lot about the sport they coach where as a sport performance coach may specialize in the mindset challenges that fuel success and not the specific rules of the game.

Some general things that many coaches specialize in include: observation, active listening, creating a safe space for the client to focus in order to find clarity on what they want to do and create action plans.

The coaching relationship is almost entirely client – centered.

A specific difference is that coaching must have interaction between the coach and the person being coached.

You won’t be coached by a book, or a podcast or an app or a training plan. Coaching is a relationship. I suppose artificial intelligence apps could change this but I haven’t used one that works well yet.

Coaches are available for almost any specific specialty from teen coaches, relationship coaches, sport coaches, mindset coaches, money coaches, business coaches.

Why separate these?

I am a coach. I started my coaching as a triathlon coach which is mostly actually acting as an instructor. I taught people about the sport of triathlon. I gave them workouts. My athletes regularly saw tremendous improvement primarily because they began to be consistent with their workouts.

One of my mentors – Michael Gervais – often says that when you are working on mastery there are two things to focus on: craft and mental skills.

Separating the craft from the mental skills clicked with me because I know I was very good at teaching the how to. I was a great instructor. Mental skills – that’s a different type of training that I wanted to be able to do and share. This is what I separate between instructing (craft) and coaching (mental skills).

In 2020 I took an intensive life coaching certification which really taught me how to be a coach. How to work with people to achieve goals. How to believe they can do something they’ve never done before. How to build confidence and trust in yourself. How to recover from mistakes. How to actually be a coach.

What does this matter?

You are here on this page because you are curious about coaching, probably.

If you want and instructor and you hire an instructor … it’s a great transaction.

Everybody is happy. Whoa … what a concept!


If what you crave is a mentor and you get an instructor … that’s kind of a sour grapes deal. That’s not as much fun for anybody.

I see this a lot in many industries. I think it is usually just a miscommunication on both sides of the discussion. I thought I’d do my part to clear it up.

Specifically, in triathlon often new athletes hire coaches when they actually want instructors. So coaches will incorporate how to clinics to bridge the gap.

Sometimes how to questions are actually coaching questions. How to go faster or how to run longer. Those answers include choosing to decide to do those hard things — that’s coaching.

And more generally in life sometimes we think we want more instruction where we may just really need some coaching. Which by the way … is what I do.

I hope you enjoyed this discussion. These are my ideas. I’d love to know what you think.

I talk about this in an episode of the Mile after Mile Podcast too.

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Amy Stone (she/her/hers) is a life coach who helps adults in blended families. She is a mom, step-mom and a step-grandma. Other random fun facts include that She is a 7-time Ironman triathlon finisher and many many marathons and shorter races. She created

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