Coaching vs. Mentoring

There is a real difference between mentoring and coaching. While my experience being coached is very limited, being confined to the 9th grade basketball team, coaching tends to be extremely directive. There’s the coach’s way or the highway. Quarterbacks don’t even call their own plays anymore, calls are sent in from the coach. As a sports fan for decades, I’m very familiar with coaching and I’m confident in saying, coaching is NOT mentoring. It is a very hierarchical relationship in which it is assumed that the coach knows best, has nothing to learn, and everything to teach.

Mentoring is quite different – it consists of advice, guidance, and counseling. At heart it is a similar to a consulting engagement, with the mentee/entrepreneur being the client. The mentor’s job is to ask the right questions at the right time to help the entrepreneur understand, or better understand, the particular issues under discussion.  Mentors can learn a great deal from entrepreneurs as well as other mentors, in fact that is a motivating factor for me.

Coaching is a monolog; mentoring is a dialog. But both are focused on helping either the athlete or the entrepreneur be the best that he can be and for the venture, be it the team or the company, to be successful.

Coaching also tends to be either one-on-one, or more commonly, one to many (in football their are position coaches, like the receivers coach, linebackers coach, etc.).

The team mentoring as practiced at MIT VMS is quite different. There may be one entrepreneur, two or at most three, but there are always at least two mentors.  In mentoring much more responsibility is put on the mentee to present their business concept or issue. That’s not true in coaching; the coach defines the issue and drives the engagement.

Here are the dictionary definitions, courtesy of Apple’s dictionary:


verb [ with obj. ]

train or instruct (a team or player): he has coached the Edmeston Panthers for six years.

• give (someone) extra or private teaching: he was coached to speak more slowly and curb his hand gestures.

• teach (a subject or sport) as a coach: a Washington realtor who coaches soccer.

• prompt or urge (someone) with instructions: he had improperly coached the witness to testify more credibly.

Note how one-way each example is: coach to player; never player to coach.



an experienced and trusted adviser: he was her friend and mentor until his death in 1915.

• an experienced person in a company, college, or school who trains and counsels new employees or students.

verb [ with obj. ]

advise or train (someone, especially a younger colleague).

Very big difference between advise and teach. That doesn’t mean that mentoring is not educational, it certainly is. And entrepreneurs certainly do learn, from stories, anecdotes or even direct advice. But the manner of interaction is as different as being a soldier vs. being the client of a consulting company. Soldiers receive commands; consulting clients receive recommendations.

Finally perspective is very important. As another post quotes computer scientist Alan Kay, “Perspective is worth 80 IQ points.” The various perspectives of a mentoring team are worth arithmetically even more. There’s a very strong multiplier effect of bringing different perspectives to the same issue in real time.

Author: Mentorphile

Mentor, coach, and advisor to entrepreneurs, small businesses, and non-profit organizations. General manager with significant experience in both for-profit and non-profit organizations. Focus on media and information. On founding team of four venture-backed companies. Currently Chairman of Popsleuth, Inc., maker of the Endorfyn app for keeping fans updated on new stuff from their favorite artists.

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