ICF Certification Explained

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ICF became a de facto gold standard of coach training, credentialling and certification. Coaching industry has been growing by leaps and bounds lately. Health coaching, life coaching, business coaching, leadership coaching, spiritual coaching, and other coaching practices proliferated lately as mushrooms after a good rain. The coaching field is full of professional certified coaches who practice coaching well, and those who don’t do so. If you are an aspiring coach who wants to work with individuals, teams, and organizations, or want to start your own coaching business, you should be seriously considering getting credentialed by ICF as a way to stand out in this overcrowded field.
Before we dig in, I would like to acknowledge the fact that ICF is not the only certifying body. European Mentoring and Coaching Council seems to be a more popular choice for coaching certification in Europe. Center for Credentialing and Education with its Board Certified Coach (BCC) credentials cater more to coaching professionals who come from the therapy side of things.
No matter which path you choose, you are making the right choice and the right investment in yourself and your future becoming a certified coach.

According to the 2016 ICF Global Coaching Study, coaches spend an average of just 13.9 hours per week working as coach practitioners and report average annual revenues of $47,900 USD from coaching.

What Are ICF Certification Requirements?

ICF has a variety of requirements for aspiring coaching to become certified coaches with International Coach Federation. These requirements present quite significant barriers to the aspirant coaches, especially compared to those of the “sit-through-and-get-certified” courses. However, these barriers are erected for a reason. When a client is looking to hire a coach, they will be served well by hiring one that is ICF certified, as it takes away a lot of research about the coach they would need to do otherwise.

First, and most obvious requirement, is a completion of ICF approved training. There are a variety of approved coach certification programs you can take, however, in the nutshell, your coaching education should contain at least documented training hours for the Associate level credentials (ACC—Associate Certified Coach) and more than twice than that – coach specific training hours for the Professional level credentials (PCC—Professional Certified Coach). Of those hours, only 20 percent can be asynchronous. What that means is that even if you take one of the online coaching programs, for ACC, for example, you cannot have over 12 hours of self-study, or other activities that do not involve a live interaction with your instructor. Those hours spent with your instructor should be focused on ICF Core Competencies Second, and also quite an obvious requirement, is that you need to coach at the level of credentialling you aspire to. That is hard. While coach certification program provides you with training, only practice can build your competencies and give you confidence that you can coach at a level ICF is looking for from its applicants.

Third requirement is that any applicant should work with a mentor coach for at least 10 hours, of which at least 3 hours should be spent in one-on-ones with your mentor. The approach to mentoring might differ from program to program, however, it is reasonable to assume that you and your mentor will focus on improving your coaching competencies and prepare your recordings for submitting to ICF if needed.

According to the 2016 ICF Global Coaching Study, coaches spend an average of just 13.9 hours per week working as coach practitioners and report average annual revenues of $47,900 USD from coaching. (becomea.coach)

Fourth requirement is a specific number of coaching hours an applicant should have under their belts before they apply. Hours of coaching is an important component of any ICF credential. They show applicants experience, as we build competencies through practice, not through attending classes and reading books. Also, it is important to mention that at least 80% of these practice coaching hours should be paid. Yes, you should have real clients who pay you real money for your service.

The number of hours required varies greatly from level to level. For the Associate Coach certification, you need at least 100 coaching experience hours with at least 80 of those paid hours. For the Professional Certified Coach PCC level, the bar is even higher—it is 500 hours. Master Coach requirements are in a league of their own—one needs 2,500 (yes, it’s two thousand and five hundred) coaching hours.

And last, the requirement number five is the passing of ICF’s own Coaching Knowledge Assessment. The Coach Knowledge Assessment (CKA) is a tool that ICF uses to measure coaches’ understanding of the knowledge and skills important in the practice of coaching. The CKA tests coaches on their understanding of the body of knowledge that includes the ICF definition of coaching, Core Competencies and Code of Ethics. The assessment is not hard by itself, and you have plenty of time to complete it. It seems to be very matter of fact and grounded in your training Now let’s talk about different paths you can take to become an ICF credentialed coach.

What Are The Different ICF Paths

ICF Credentials are generally can be achieved through three distinct paths, ACTP, ACSTH, and Portfolio. Each coaching certification path is a multi-step process and has its pros and cons and requires different levels of effort, time, and financial commitment.

If you are an aspiring Associate Certified Coach ACC or a Professional Certified Coach PCC coach, all three paths are available to you. Only the portfolio path leads to the Master Certified Coach MCC credentials.


ACTP stands for Accredited Coach Training Program. ACTP Path is the hardest from coach certification and training perspective and takes longest to complete, however it takes care of a lot of administrative stuff. These are all-inclusive coach certification programs.

Accredited Coach Training Program - ACTP

First and foremost, if you enroll in an ICF Accredited Coach Training program, you really don’t need to worry about a sleuth of ICF requirements for your coaching certification. They are all baked into an ACTP program . Any ACTP program provides you with enough training hours to cover the ICF PCC level training requirements (125 contact hours at a minimum).

Secondly, ICF require every ACTP program to include mandatory mentor coaching program. As described above, it helps students to build their coaching competencies. At the same time you will work with your mentor to record and have grade at least 2 of your coaching sessions recordings at the PCC credential level. Here is the first pitfall of an ACTP program. In order to graduate, you absolutely need to be coaching at the PCC level, otherwise you will not be eligible for the ACTP graduation. Mentor coaching is a required path of any ACTP. Any mentor coaching program should last no less than 3 months and has no less than 10 hours, of which at least 3 hours of mentoring should be spent in 1-on-1 mentoring.

Thirdly, because of the second point, you do not need to submit your recordings and coaching sessions transcripts to ICF for grading. It makes it more comfortable for the student to work with their school mentor to record a session at a PCC level. This does not mean that the schools take a more lax approach to your grading, absolutely not. However, it means you will have more flexibility in working with your mentor to achieve the desired outcomes.

You will still need to have enough paid hours of coaching to apply for a specific level of ICF certification. This is a primary reason a lot of ACTP graduates apply for the ACC level, while meeting all other PCC level requirements.

Tandem Coaching ACTP program meets and exceed all rigorous ICF standards. You can verify our credentials and standing with ICF in their Training Program Search Service (TPSS) here.


ACSTH stands for Approved Coach Specific Training Hours. It differs from the ACTP path described above in a few significant ways.

We consider ACSTH accredited programs “a la carte” training programs, which may or may not offer start to finish coach certification programs. A ICF requires a minimum of 30 student contact hours for ACSTH program accreditation.

Graduates from an ACSTH program may apply for the Associate Certified Coach (ACC) Credential or the Professional Certified Coach PCC Credential using the ACSTH application path if they meet the credentialling application requirements.

Firstly, as mentioned above, ACSTH programs can vary in length . They can give you as little as 30 contact hours. So while choosing an ACSTH program, you need to be clear on your goals for the program. Remember that an ACC credential requires at least 60 hours of training, therefore some ACSTH programs might not be sufficient alone for you to achieve your goals.

Secondly, ACSTH programs do not have to include mentor coaching hours. It might be a good and might be a bad thing. It is bad in a sense that you need to find a separate mentor coach, pay additional money, and go through it outside of your training program. On the positive side, you might enjoy finding a different mentor, who can give you a different perspective on coaching in general and your capabilities and competencies.

Lastly, if you choose the ACSTH path, you will have to submit your coaching session recordings and associated transcripts directly to ICF, where it will be assessed by a qualified assessor. You don’t have to worry about it if you worked with a qualified mentor and you produced the recordings of the necessary quality. It does, however, introduces some uncertainty to the process.

Portfolio Path

Portfolio path requires you to engage with ICF most. Everything you do will be scrutinized by ICF for compliance with their rigorous standards. Due to the rigor of the process, this is the most lengthy path–ICF takes 18 weeks to complete the processing of your application.

ICF Portfolio Path CCEYou will follow the portfolio path if you counting Continuing Coach Education (CCE) units and/or non-approved coach training toward your training requirements. You will need to have required coach-specific training hours with robust documentation. What it means you need to prove that you have completed a comprehensive training program that includes the ICF definition of coaching, Code of Ethics and core competencies. The program should also be organized in a scope and sequence that encourages your growth as a coach.

If you are taking a CCE or a non-approved training program and thinking of applying its training towards an ICF certification, you should have a conversation with the program organization to figure out if ICF would consider the hours provided by the program applicable for your certification.

All other requirements that are applicable to the ACSTH path apply here as well.

Which Coach Training Program Is Right For You?

As you are considering various programs, you need to make sure you are choosing among the ICF accredited programs. ICF provides Training Program Search Service (TPSS) to make it easier to find a program.

The type of program matters. Look at the path it offers. Decide how much time you can devote to studying and what you can afford from the financial point of view.

You might have a very clear idea of what coaching niche you might occupy. Or you might not. Life coaching exploded in popularity lately, and life coaching education and life coach certifications are abundant. You will have fewer choices if you want to focus on a specific niche or area, such as career coaching, or leadership and executive coaching.

Many people research how to become a Life Coach or Business Coach because they’ve been told that they ‘give a great advice.’ However, coaches aren’t in the business of giving advice. 

If you are looking to start your own coaching business, look for programs that might incorporate more information and useful material on the topic. Majority of the programs will cover basics of starting your own business and selecting a niche that best suits you.</p?

No matter which track you will choose, an ICF accredited coach certification program will ensure that you will build a solid foundation of your coaching skills based on the ICF core competencies.

How Can Tandem Coaching Academy Help

Why Getting Your Credentials With Tandem Coaching Academy?

Tandem Coaching Academy is the only ICF fully accredited coach training school that is founded and headed by a Master Certified Coach (ICF) and a Certified Enterprise Coach (Scrum Alliance)—Cherie Silas.

We offer a full suite of ICF accredited programs that will meet your educational, practice needs and will go easy on your wallet. In our ICF fully accredited groundbreaking programs, we teach you coaching techniques that you can use in a variety of coaching relationships and situations.

We also have always been on the lookout for the ways to make ICF accredited programs more affordable and available. We talked to our prospective students and realized that some of them lack means to go through the whole program. That is where the availability of the payment plans help. However, we also offer an entry level program Discover Coaching© that introduces the students to the core concepts and competencies and lasts only 10 weeks. These are 10 intensive weeks though. After the graduation our students are able to hold a coaching conversation, built on a solid foundation of the coaching arc. Some stop here and are happy with the results, and some continue with the full ACSTH or ACTP program on their journey towards an ICF credential.

What Is It Like To Learn Online?

You might wonder what online training looks like. Our classes meet weekly on a set day. Each class is 2 hour long. After a quick check-in, we spend an hour learning new material. We tie every part of our learning program to specific ICF core competencies. The learning is interactive and we encourage our students to share their thoughts, opinions, and experiences.

Tandem Coaching Academy - Professional Coach ACTPSecond hour of a class is spent in coaching practice. We do a lot of exercises that help you build your coaching competencies. We also practice coaching with real-life scenarios and topics. Our instructor gives guidance and feedback on every coaching conversation, helping you improve your coaching skills right there.

Separately we run coaching labs where you can come in and either practice your reciprocal coaching, thus logging some coaching hours, observe others coaching, or coach yourself and receive feedback from the instructor.

Between the training sessions, our students work on the assignments, listening to prerecorded sessions from our extensive library of real coaching conversation recordings.

What Makes Tandem Coaching Different?

Tandem Coaching Academy is the only Agile training academy with professional coaching program delivered by Scrum Alliance Certified Enterprise Coaches and focused specifically on incorporating professional coaching into agile careers. While we welcome students of every walk of life, we make sure we tie our teaching and practices to the circumstances Agile Coaches, Scrum Masters, and other agile practitioners encounter in their daily work and practice.

Cherie Silas, MCC, CECOur founder, Cherie Silas, MCC, CEC , is a top-level professional coach in both Agile & Professional Coaching arenas and she holds the Guide Level competency designations and achieved the highest coaching standards in both fields. She is also leading the way to professionalizing the field of Agile Coaching and setting the bar high for what it means to be a competent agile coach.

All our trainers, instructors, and mentors are holding ICF designation at the PCC level and above. Unlike some other coaching certification schools, all our programs are already fully and unconditionally accredited by International Coach Federation and guarantee the quality and rigor of education and practice one can expect of an ICF accredited program.

Continue exploring your path to coaching with Tandem Coaching Academy.

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