Sunday, July 20, 2014

Coach, Teacher and Mentor

The word "Mentor" is often used in present day situations. The words "Coach" and "Teacher" are also used in similar contexts. Are they synonyms or is there any difference between these three words?

To understand the origin of the word "Mentor", we have to turn to Greek mythology. "Epics of Gilgamesh", "Iliad and Odyssey" and our own "Ramayana" and "Mahabharata" are reckoned among the oldest epics in the history of mankind. Homer's "Iliad and Odyssey" has the evergreen story of Helen and the Trojan War. Helen of Troy is considered as the most beautiful woman ever born in reality or fiction.  "Was this the face that launched a thousand ships? And burnt the topless towers of Ilium? Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a sweet kiss.....", says Christopher Marlowe in his poem titled "The face that launch'd a thousand ships". Odysseus, King of Ithaca was one of the men who wanted to marry this beautiful girl. When Helen's mother Queen Leda's husband (not father because Greek God Zeus is considered as her father)  and King of Sparta, Tyndareus decides that it is time for Helen to marry, Odysseus convinces him to make all the innumerable suitors to take a oath to accept the choice of Helen and support her husband when the need arises in future. Helen chose the prince of Mycenae, Menelaus. They lived happily for sometime and Menelaus even became King of Sparta. On the advice of the Greek Goddess Aphrodite, Prince of Troy Paris comes to Sparta and sees Helen. On a day when Menelaus is away in Crete, Paris takes Helen to Troy. Some versions say she was kidnapped and some others say she was seduced by the charms of Paris and went willingly. When Menelaus returned and found that his wife was gone, he sought the assistance of the former suitors of Helen to wage a war on Troy, as per their previous agreement. Having been the one to suggest such an arrangement, Odysseus was in the forefront of those who went to Troy to bring back Helen.

When Odysseus left for the Trojan war, his son Telemachus was an infant.  Odysseus did not return for twenty years and Telemachus grew up into a young man in the meantime. Telemachus went in search of his father and met his father's friend by name "Mentor". It is said that Greek Goddess Athena took the appearance of Mentor and guided young Telemachus at different times to search his father. Father and son duo return to Ithaca and ensure the defeat of the many suitors who had camped in their house seeking the hand of Penelope, Odysseus's wife and Telemachus's mother. Since Mentor encouraged Telemachus to stand up to all the suitors of his mother and find his father, the word "Mentor" has come to stay to denote a "wise and trusted counselor who imparts wisdom and share knowledge to solve personal problems".

The origin of the word "Coach" is said to come from Hungary. Hungarian city of Kocs is credited with being the first place to make carriages which are used to carry people from one place to another. In those days coaches were drawn by horses and were used as one of the earliest means of transport. The word coach is used even today in railway and other transports. "Sleeper coach" and "Luxury coach" are examples of such usage. In air transport also "Coach Class" is used by many airlines to denote "Economy class". This aspect of carrying people from place to place was later used to identify a person who could carry a less able student to pass an examination or a course, and was called a "Coach". In our childhood, coaching classes were a popular name for according special training to students who have failed in an examination to appear and get through a supplementary examination later on. This term is now used extensively in the field of sports. The word now denotes anyone who acts as a person to guide the youngsters in his charge to achieve excellence in their chosen fields or disciplines. Nowadays there are even teams of coaches and assistants to attend to the various requirements of the activity called coaching.  As defined by Cummings and Worley, "Coaching is a development process whereby an individual meets his wards on a regular basis to clarify goals, deal with potential stumbling blocks and improve their performance".

The word "Teacher" has its origin in the word "Teach".  "Teach" takes its form from "Index finger" and indicates to "show or point out" or "give instruction". On-line dictionary defines a teacher as one who teaches or instructs, as a profession. A teacher usually teaches in a public place where a number of students come to learn. If the teaching is done privately or at home, a person imparting education thus is called as a "Tutor" (man) or "Governess" (woman). A teacher of a higher rank doing the same job in a place of advanced learning like a University is called a "Professor". He is a person who professes (lays a claim to) as an expert in a particular field.

In the background of the above, the three words can be said to have the following characteristics and differences:

  • Coaching is an intervention that is highly personal and usually involves a one-to-one relationship between the coach and those coached. Teaching is a general activity of instructing or imparting education in a public place where a number of students enroll themselves. Teachers follow structured learning and process is based on a course curriculum. Mentoring is a personal developmental relationship in which a more experienced or more knowledgeable person helps to guide a lesser experienced or lesser knowledgeable person.
  • The relationships are called Coach and Coachee or more commonly client, Teacher and Student and Mentor and Protege or Mentee respectively.
  • A coach often has the freedom to choose his clients whereas a teacher instructs a class entrusted to him and does not enjoy this freedom. In mentoring, the relationship between mentor and mentee is more sensitive and is usually between two persons in the same organization or profession.
  • Coaching and Teaching can be at elementary levels whereas Mentoring generally happens at a higher plane.
  • Coaching and Teaching are formal processes whereas Mentoring is more of an informal process.
  • Coaching and Teaching can be professional activities whereas Mentoring is more voluntary in nature. Coach and Teacher are paid a remuneration for their efforts whereas there may not be such payment in Mentoring.
  • Coaches have technical expertise while teachers have professional qualifications. Mentors are chosen on the basis of their experience and skills and are paired with a less experienced colleague in the organization or profession. Peer mentoring is often an informal activity and revolves around hand-holding in crucial phases of development.
The above characteristics are general in nature and cover the broad contours of the three activities. There can be many instances wherein a coach or a teacher may emerge as a mentor for a few of their wards or students. One such example is of the famous combination of Ramakant Achrekar and Sachin Tendulkar. Achrekar has been a coach for many but Tendulkar considers him as more than a coach, a mentor.

In Mahabharata, Krishna was a mentor for Arjuna. Shakuni was Duryodhana's mentor. Results are there for all to see. Among the famous Mentors and Mentees are Chanakya and Chandragupta, Aristotle and Alexander the great, Bobby Charlton and David Beckham, and more recently Rahul Dravid and Ajinkya Rahane.

To be a Mentor is not a matter of pride; it is a rare privilege and distinction. It is far-removed from arrogance; humbleness is its hallmark. To act as a Mentor is a wonderful opportunity to repay a small part of the investment made by the society in one's own development over the years.


  1. nice words to explain the difference

  2. Differences and the meanings of the three words have been brought out vividly and put in succinctly

  3. Great write-up as usual, but Odysseus tried to avoid the war by feigning madness. He was forced to go to war after Palamedes exposed his pretence.

  4. Very nice and informative indeed

  5. Rahul Dravid's humble, understated, signature style never made waves while he played the game, yet he made a statement each time he played for the country . Personal glory never figured in his career, and now his mentorship role has already paid dividends at Lord's.

  6. Very clear distinction provided between the three. It’s no nice to see examples from mythology to history, to the present day. Lesson for us once again that there’s so much wisdom available for us to tap.