Mentoring vs. Coaching: What’s the difference?

By Elise Gray – Blogging from the Mentoring Seminar at the University of Arizona

“As a thirty year old undergraduate, I am certain that in my life I have had many mentors as well as many coaches. I am not certain however at which point I was being coached and at which I was being mentored. For example, was my cheerleading coach in high school really just a coach? She often offered guidance, advice and emotional support while helping me to develop the physical and technical skills that I needed to succeed in the cheer world. She was paid to coach me and yet she also spent the weekends mentoring me in areas that had nothing to do with cheerleading. Without her presence in my life I would have had neither the technical skill to reach my goal of competitive cheerleading nor the insight and motivation to further my education. Given this line of thinking, I might be lead to believe that a coach can be a mentor and a mentor a coach and that at times, we may benefit from both.”

I often hear the terms mentor and coach used interchangeably when people are discussing professional, personal, or organizational development assistance and I wonder; what exactly is the difference and does it matter? Is there a point at which an individual would benefit more from coaching than from mentoring? As an undergraduate myself I think it is important that that students take advantage of any support offered to us in order to succeed. This support may include both mentoring and coaching. It is important to understand what coaching and mentoring are to align our expectations appropriately (and not be disappointed or frustrated).

Mentoring: Academic, Organizational, and Personal

Mentoring has been around since the time of Telemachus and it often makes us think of someone like Mr. Miyagi from the Karate Kid. We imagine that we will learn magical things from someone much wiser than we are. This idea is partially correct, although the wisdom we gain is not magical and some feel that it is not a transfer of knowledge, but a transformation that takes place within both individuals. Regardless, this relationship occurs when a more experienced individual takes interest in another who is less experienced but has a desire to learn and to become successful. Mentors provide guidance, opinions, and suggestions based on their own experiences and mentees are free to use this knowledge in a way that will best suit their future development. The mentoring relationship is mutual and provides benefits for both mentor and mentee.

Academic mentoring occurs between faculty and student or peer to peer in educational settings. In either case a mentor provides a range of support including social, emotional, and psychological. A mentor also provides guidance in subject knowledge, coursework completion and goal setting. Academic mentoring can be helpful for both undergraduates and graduate students as they are work to achieve their educational and career goals.

In organizational mentoring, the mentor is typically more experienced in the chosen field and is interested in guiding another individual down the path of success within the business. Mentoring takes place in this context to help someone reach their goal of being promoted or moving up the corporate ladder.  Many companies are now enlisting mentoring programs in order to help their employees and businesses along the path to success[1].

Personal mentoring involves the same dyadic, trusting relationship only it will be used in the context of helping someone find their way to happiness and success in their personal life rather than just professionally.   This may include emotional, psychological, and social support as well as guidance in decision making, coping, and skill building. Some may consider instructors in yoga to be personal development mentors.


Coaching is similar to mentoring with a few differences. In fact, coaching might be considered a subset of mentoring skills. And coaches may become mentors. Mentors seek to pass information and experience to a protégé and refer to a more intense, longer relationship. Coaches engage in shorter term assistance to help individuals build upon the skills, knowledge, and experience they already have. Coaches help people both personally, professionally, and academically to reach their goals and to create a challenging and supportive environment from which they can grow. Coaching does not involve the same degree of emotional and social support that comes from mentoring. Instead, coaches focus more on the chosen end goal of the individual that is being coached and provide the necessary skill building, training, and support to reach that goal.

Which is better?

Each of these relationships can be of value to individuals at various stages of development including academic and professional levels. Mentoring and coaching each take place in a one on one environment in which both parties must be truly invested and willing to learn and develop.   Most of my research on this subject points to the idea that to achieve the best possible outcome in terms of success and development, a coach or mentor should be able to take on both roles when necessary. Although mentoring and coaching are not one in the same, mentors and coaches should in fact be flexible and even interchangeable when the situation calls for it. This flexibility will provide the protégé the widest range of knowledge, support, experience, skill building, practice, and guidance in order to reach their desired level of success.

Want to Know More?

If you are interested in learning more about mentoring and coaching and the context in which each might be used, check out the following articles:

Guest, A. B. (1999). A Coach, a mentor… a what. Success Now, 13.

Starcevich, M. M. (2009). Coach, mentor: is there a difference. CEO Center for Coaching and Mentoring, Inc.

Kutilek, L. M., & Earnest, G. W. (2001). Supporting professional growth through mentoring and coaching. Journal of Extension, 39(4), 3-13.

Web Sites:


[1] Veale, D. J. (1996). Mentoring and coaching as part of a human resource development strategy: an example at Coca-Cola Foods. Leadership & Organization Development Journal, 17(3), 16-20.


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