From Lousy to Pretty Darn Good: The Fine Art of Recovery Coaching

I once got referral from a therapist about “Beth”—a 19 year old who had relapsed after in-patient treatment for drug addiction, including alcohol, pot, and meth. I was told that Beth was on several medications for bi-polar, ADD, etc., that she lived with her divorced mother, was unemployed and currently drinking and smoking pot, and had a history of cutting. Would I be willing to coach her?

Beth doesn’t sound like an ideal coaching client, does she?


Help with Addictions

People call me when they know someone who needs help with recovery from addiction. I coach people to decide whether they want to stop using alcohol or other drugs, or make a plan to cut back. I coach people to decide if they want to use 12-step or other social support, whether they want to go to treatment, or make changes on their own. I help those who stop, cut back, or are coming home from treatment, to stay on track and achieve goals that are now options in recovery.

I saw a lot of red flags with Beth. I’m a professional coach, a recovery coach, and so I screen every client. The screening standards I learned is that to be considered coachable, the potential client must be able to participate in the generation of solutions and strategies and be able to engage in self-discovery. They also need to be able to relate to the coach as an equal partner, or, if they are young as Beth was, and not inclined to see adults as their equals, to understand that equality is inherent to the coaching relationship and over time recognize and cultivate the power of their equality. Beth agreed to meet by phone. The first time we talked she was scraping out a pot pipe, hoping to get a buzz.

Getting High—Choice or Compulsion?

We talked for a few minutes about the futility of trying to get high on the residue from a pot pipe, and also about the difference between choice and compulsion in regard to drugs. We set a time to talk about the possibility of working together. Neither of us were sure that coaching was suitable or a good idea, Beth because she already had a therapist and a psychiatrist, me because I didn’t know if she was coachable.

To Coach or Not to Coach?

Many coaches assume that a person who uses alcohol or other drugs addictively is simply not coachable. They think coaching is about helping people get from good to great, and they forget that addiction affects all levels of society. Addiction is not restricted to any class, race, religion, or level of intelligence. There are many high functioning people who drink too much, or use other drugs excessively. How can a coach know who is coachable? By screening each prospective client.

A Place of Her Own


I teach my Recovery Coach students to screen all their clients. Here is how I screened Beth: When we met I asked her what she would most like to change about her life; what, if she achieved it, would make her feel satisfied with her life. Beth thought for a moment and said that if she lived in her own apartment, rather than with her mother, she would feel much better about her life. I asked her what would need to happen for her to live on her own. Beth said she would need to take her own meds (her Mom was waking her up to take them on time) and get a job.

Beth was jazzed about getting help to move to her own place so we talked about how we might work together. We discussed what was expected in coaching and agreed to give it a try. I let her know that I would not be able to coach her if she came to calls intoxicated, missed calls, or did not seem to benefit from coaching.

Progress Report

That was four years ago. It took a few months to get her on her feet and employed. Today Beth lives on her own and has three full years of abstinence and participation in Alcoholics Anonymous. She is an excellent employee and last year she finished a yearlong trade school with high marks. She still has a psychiatrist and a therapist; I am still her Recovery Coach. I am proud to have coached her from lousy (using drugs, sleeping all day, unemployed) to pretty darn good (drug-free, industrious, employed). Beth loves being clean and sober and having a Recovery Coach. We are working on the next phase of her life. I think of it as the phase from pretty darn good to great.

The Personal and Professional Potential of Addicts

The ICF defines coaching as “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.” Active addiction drastically interferes with reaching personal and professional potential. Recovery Coaching helps people deal with the barriers caused by active addiction and move forward personally and professionally. Those who resolve their addictions have the potential to get from lousy to great. It may take time to get to great, but it is entirely possible, and with the help of a trained Recovery Coach, it happens more quickly with fewer setbacks.

The Advanced Skills of Recovery Coaching

To be effective as a Recovery Coach it is important to have advanced skills in coaching to increase motivation and confidence. People whose lives have been affected by addiction often have below average self-esteem. Their motivation can waiver along with their confidence. Persons facing addiction or in recovery need to be coached by persons who are effective at finding and leveraging strengths and can be patient with those whose beliefs about themselves change from day to day and week to week.

Coaching From "Who Me?" to "Free at Last"

It is also important to be able to coach change effectively all the way from denial (“Who me?”) to thinking about it (“Yes, but…”) to setting recovery goals (abstinence, harm reduction, etc.), and on to planning, action, and maintenance (“I’m free at last”). And sometimes relapse and starting over. Relapse is common in persons trying to change their habits with alcohol and other drugs, yet there is promising clinical evidence that coaching reduces relapse.

Developmental Coaching

Those who want to work with addiction recovery clients must also be prepared to coach both general development and awareness. People who have spent years living in active addiction often have gaps in their development. They may be very good on the job but a poor communicator at home. Or they may have great interpersonal skills but be lousy at handling money. Recovery Coaches work with their clients to leverage their strengths while identifying the places where they struggle. We also coach to increase awareness of choice and responsibility so our clients can identify and meet their needs, rather than turning to addictive substances when uncomfortable feelings come up.


Professional Recovery Coaches are highly trained coaches with advanced coaching skills that make it possible to help persons facing addiction make significant progress towards good and great lives. We screen our clients for coachability and only work with those who can identify achievable goals and co-create the coaching relationship. Recovery Coaches have advanced coaching skills in building motivation and confidence, and in coaching for awareness and development.

Learn more about me and my experience as a coach.

Learn more about Recovery Coaching and upcoming trainings