Do you know the difference between a sponsor, a sober coach, and a therapist? What are the pros and cons of a sober coach?

Sober Coaching: is a rather new concept in the field of recovery. On the continuum of recovery support, it is somewhere between utilizing a sponsor and a therapist for help in becoming and staying sober. It is based on the premises of the coaching phenomenon that started a couple of decades ago; coaching was an alternative to therapy for people who didn’t feel they needed in-depth counseling for healing, but needed some type of support from others. Sober coaching is based on this type of helping process. Let’s examine the differences between a sponsor, a sober coach, and a therapist.

Sponsor: A sponsor is someone who usually has a set amount of recovery (often at least a year), and who works with other people in recovery to help them along the path of recovery. While not exactly a friend, they are supports who offer their guidance and wisdom from their own recovery to help the sponsee who may need guidance in how to become sober, stay sober, and continue to focus on recovery. A sponsor typically can be a sounding board, a compatriot, and a non-judgmental person who understands the difficulties of sobriety and who has been able to stay clean and sober. There is no training to become a sponsor; it is not a professional helper, buy a lay person who offers aid based on his or her own recovery process.

Sober Coach: The sober coach is a person who utilizes the premise of being a companion to the recovering individual who needs continued attention and support on his or her recovery path. It is a para-profession; it is not a licensed provider and does not require any college education. Sober coaching is based on the view that if the coach was able to be successful in his/her own recovery and life, he or she therefore has the skills to help others. There are training programs which offer a certificate in sober coaching.

Therapist: There are different types of therapists such as clinical social workers and counseling psychologists. These professionals are educated and trained through Master’s level degrees. They may also have specific certifications along with their Master’s degrees such as specialized training in addictions. Therapists offer work in a variety of realms including dealing with past concerns, underlying issues, sobriety, as well as aiding in day-to-day recovery needs. There is a very broad spectrum regarding the work that therapists do, including addictions treatment. Therapists are licensed and have to take continuing education courses in order to stay abreast of issues in their fields of study.

Sober Coaching:

   Pros:

  • Helpful for those who want a “paid friend” – someone who is there for them and works with them on concerns of sobriety and everyday living. They tend to focus on the here-and-now realities of all aspects of life – how to get through the day in a sober, healthy manner.
  • They are like a personal trainer, but for recovery purposes.
  • They focus on strength-based techniques.
  • A sober coach works on both a short-term or long-term basis, depending on what the client needs.
  • They should be certified through a specific program and while anyone can do this certification, most coaches are in recovery themselves.
  • They may be able to help their clients find a professional counselor to help if there are more critical needs than what the coach offers.

Cons:

  • They are not trained counselors or licensed and they may be giving advice that is unproductive and even perhaps, unethical, due to the lack of professional training.
  • Because they are not professionals, they do not receive insurance payments and people will need to pay them out-of-pocket which may become expensive.
  • There can be significant boundary issues as they are not held to any specific standards (other than the certification) and as a “paid friend,” the boundaries may blur between relationships.
  • Years ago, substance abuse treatment centers used people in recovery as therapists – they had no professional training yet worked as counselors. This was often found to be quite detrimental to both the clients as well as these counselors for the counselors did not understand clinical needs and there were sometimes inappropriate boundary issues. This category of paraprofessional may have these same limitations.
  • As one online program relates, they tend to work with wealthy people because of the insurance issues. Sometimes this coach can be a type of status symbol of the wealthy.
  • There are issues regarding the definition of the role of sober coaches – this is an aspect that needs attention.

Summary: We believe that sober coaching may be an appropriate adjunct to utilizing sponsors, but the individual utilizing such services needs to be savvy in exploring whether this is the best practice for ongoing recovery or if a licensed therapist is more appropriate.

Need help finding a therapist near you? Check out Recovery Guidance for a free resource to find addiction professionals near you.

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Carol Anderson
Carol Anderson, D.Min., ACSW, LMSW, is a licensed clinical social worker with over 25 years of experience in the fields of mental health, addictions, and co-occurring disorders. Her other specialties include grief and trauma, women’s issues, chronic pain management, holistic healing, GLBTQ concerns, and spirituality and transpersonal psychology. Dr. Anderson has been educated and trained in the fields of education, social work, and spirituality, and she holds a Doctor of Ministry degree (non-denominational/interfaith) specializing in spirituality.

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