Do you know the difference between “coaching” and “mentoring?”  Most people don’t.  As a matter of fact, most people use the two terms interchangeably as if there is no difference.  Well, there happens to be a big difference.

You could go to Webster’s Dictionary but I don’t think you’ll find much help there.  As a matter of fact, just in case you’re curious, I went to the dictionary for you, and here’s what I found:

Coach  – A private tutor; a person who instructs.

Mentor – A wise and trusted counselor or teacher.

You see?  Not a lot of help. It’s nice to see that a coach should act as a private tutor, but shouldn’t they also be a wise and trusted counselor like a mentor?  A mentor should be a wise and trusted counselor, but shouldn’t they also teach?  The two terms sure do sound alike, but there is one, significant difference.

I would be in the dark on this issue if I were not involved in a deep personal coaching and mentoring experience of my own.  When I was twenty-one I coached my first basketball team.  It consisted of a group of boys who were about five years younger than I was.  I made my mistakes, but we became a good team, won most of our games, and those around me embraced me as a good coach.  I also, accidently became a mentor.

When I first met my team I was greeted by a bunch of happy, smiling kids.  One of them was a little more withdrawn than the others, but I just assumed he was quiet.  It turned out he was from a broken home with little to no adult male influence and was struggling.  I played a lot of basketball growing up, knew how to teach defense and run a motion offense, but I didn’t know a lot about growing up in a broken home.  When his mother came to me and told me how badly her son needed a mentor I eagerly accepted the assignment.

My first move was to go right up to this boy and offer him this mentor type relationship.  I was politely rejected.  It seems I might have been a natural as a coach, but not much of a mentor.  As the season wore on, the player who needed more than a coach began to trust me more.  This didn’t come from my requests to be his mentor, but rather through my actions.  Finally, one day my player asked if I could help him with a homework assignment that was giving him problems and we turned a corner.  For the next three years I mentored this young man until he went off to college and no longer needed my guidance.

You could say I was bitten by the coaching bug because over the next thirty years I went on to coach fifty-two more teams.  Over the years, we won a whole lot more games than we lost, won various tournaments and championships, and if you asked those who played on my teams I believe they would tell you that I was a pretty darn good coach.  I would hope they would tell you I was an even better mentor.  In the end, it’s these mentoring relationships, many that that go on to this day, that I am most proud of.

Even though Webster’s Dictionary may have trouble determining a difference between coaching and mentoring, try doing both and you’ll quickly see the difference.  A coaching relationship is something you are assigned.  A mentoring relationship is something you earn.

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