At the beginning of each school term Andrea Molloy used to set goals, neatly recorded in her rounded print with its fat Os and squeezed Es. Girl Guides' badges, grades and sporting teams were visualised, noted and achieved from the time she was a new entrant. It was a standing joke at home.

As a professional life coach, the 28-year-old former journalist spends her days writing goals for far less motivated people who pay her up to $400 a month to kick-start their careers or help them to balance their work and personal lives.

She works from home, an inner-city apartment decorated in conservative navy and cream, bar the surfboard leaning in one corner. Clients are ushered to an overstuffed sofa while Molloy puts the kettle on. An oil-burner merrily pumps a musky fragrance into the air and classical music plays softly. Molloy sits down, green eyes sparkling, as if she is in for a treat. Her demeanour is half favourite sister, half best friend.

Mark Sutherland is not your friend, nor would he encourage such familiarity. Where Molloy is gentle and encouraging, he is scary, or "challenging" as he terms it. He swears and declares the whole life-coach lark to be bullshit. He compares his job to sex.

"What I'm looking for is what turns you on," he says with a smirk. "Do you have an orgasm every day when you get to work? No? Why not?"

Sutherland calls himself a performance coach, which hints at his sporting background and disdain for the New Age faddiness which has attached itself to life coaching. After 20 years spent pushing top athletes up their personal mountains, the 40-year-old says he has the motivational skills sought by businessmen and women looking to enhance their workplace effectiveness and pay packets.

His office, a ground-floor nook in his Birkenhead home, looks like a locker room. A Swiss ball is stored in one corner and paraphernalia from the three Olympic Games he has attended covers the walls.

Sutherland sits at his desk, hands clasped behind his head, and grins like someone who loves a challenge. "Life is a really simple game," he says. "We make it harder than it is because we're all searching for something deep and meaningful." The next sentence is left unsaid: "And that's bullshit."

It is a measure of the runaway popularity of life coaching that two people with nothing else in common can make a handsome living teaching the rest of us how to better manage our lives. There are around 80 life coaches in New Zealand, at least 800 in Australasia and thousands of pepped-up people all over the world armed with questionnaires, catchphrases and empathetic voices.

Theirs is a high-energy galaxy in which your life is something that needs to be "spring-cleaned", "tweaked" or, in cases of extreme disorganisation and lethargy, "redesigned". They seem to have a genuine desire to help, keeping watch over the messy, lazy and poorly organised like fond older siblings.

W HILE there are schools that teach life coaching and certify their graduates, and a professional body to lay down industry standards, there is no requirement that someone who sets themselves up as a coach should take a course or join the International Coach Federation (ICF). Even if they decide to get training - generally a three-month course covering ethics, goal-setting, active listening and how to "manage" progress - the quality varies.

Then there is the troubling matter of professional boundaries. When is a coach a motivator and when is a coach a counsellor?

The idea that people with little training in human behaviour might try to counsel agitated clients bothers Sutherland and Molloy, who refer their troubled customers to the appropriate specialists.

"People step over the line," says Molloy, who trained with the Australian Life Coaching Academy and is an ICF member. "Even if you think you might have the experience, or a good rapport with people, I quite firmly believe that you just can't call yourself a life coach. I'm not going to go to an accountant who is not a chartered accountant."

Founded in 1992, the ICF has 5000 members in 30 countries. There are 180 members in Australasia; 40 work in New Zealand. The president of the Auckland chapter, Eloise Tzimas, admits the profession's credibility could be hurt by the proliferation of coaches who are not trained and do not abide by the federation's code of ethics. Work to tighten ICF membership criteria, which allow untrained life coaches to join, is under way.

Life coaching, which originated in the United States about 10 years ago, started to take off when Cheryl Richardson, author of the bestseller Life Makeovers, became a frequent guest on The Oprah Winfrey Show.

Richardson compares life coaching to hiring a personal trainer. Where the personal trainer helps clients to exercise and eat right to stay healthy, the life coach helps them to clarify broad goals and then work towards them. She asks clients to identify three goals in three months and then list 10 things that drain their energy and prevent them doing what they want to do.

In the US, coaching is usually done by telephone with coaches charging from US$200 to US$500 ($421 to $1053) monthly for one half-hour session a week and an occasional email in between. Executive coaching can start at US$200 ($421) an hour.

Coaching reached New Zealand about five years ago, but there have long been motivators, such as Sutherland, working for corporations to increase staff productivity and satisfaction.

Many multinationals and a growing number of larger New Zealand firms send their senior executives to coaches, or bring coaches into the office for workshops.

But now that coaching has become trendy, there are concerns among qualified coaches that people who began their careers as counsellors or psychologists, or even something totally unrelated to human behaviour, are marketing themselves as coaches because it is the sexy new term.

Ask an experienced life coach about shonky practitioners and, after a bit of prodding, they will admit they have heard of them, know where they are, and would rather they didn't call themselves life coaches.

"Some people tend to hop on the wave and try to ride it," says Tzimas. The advantage of seeking a coach who is an ICF member, she says, is that they are accountable to the body. If they flout the rules, they can be expelled.

Despite the murky weather - blasting wind and the occasional icy prickle of rain - 30 people have found their way to a hotel conference room on a Monday night to learn how to become life coaches. Drinking cups of tea and coffee and skimming the glossy brochures laid on every seat, they are a varied group: old, young, professional, self-employed.

But each is looking to change direction and there is a perceptible buzz in the air as Linley Rose begins her pitch on Results Life Coaching, an Australian method developed by businessman David Rock in 1996.

"I think this is just the most worthwhile thing I've ever done in my life," says the immaculately groomed Rose, who has been a coach for the past nine months. As she speaks, heads in the audience bob in agreement. When she asks a question, answers shoot from all parts of the room.

It takes three months and nearly $4000 to become a Results coach. Most teaching is done via teleclasses, but there are three "face-to-face weekends" for students to get together with their tutor, who flies in from Australia.

About 300 people in New Zealand, the US, Britain and Australia were trained as Results coaches last year. At the end of the course, 70 per cent immediately picked up clients.

Pointing to a whiteboard full of words describing the ideal life coach - humour, empathy and good listening skills among them - Rose warns of the coach's responsibility to the client. Their job is to question, not provide answers, she says. Heads bob.

Coaching is meant to help people recognise their hidden desires and how to fulfil them; while advice is telling people what they should do, she says. More bobbing. She is preaching to the converted.

W HILE listening to life coaches talk about their job can be a bit like listening to recent religious converts talking about seeing the light, there is a practical edge to the New Age waffle. Once you get past the buzzwords and saccharine stories of how people turned their life around in just three months, you are left with a deceptively simple system. Someone who is not satisfied with their life talks to an impartial observer. Together, they sort out what needs to be done, and as they reach their goals, satisfaction increases.

Wedding planner Kate Rainger, 37, first sought help from a life coach four years ago, when her small business was growing beyond her ability to manage it and, as a result, her personal life was suffering. She got business guidance and contacts from her first coach and motivational help from a second one.

"I realised I was being very negative. I was running around thinking about what we didn't have, rather than what we did."

Rainger admits she is "one of those people who tries everything" but would not hesitate to see a life coach again if she felt overwhelmed or low.

Mary-Jane Higgins, 61, says coaching made her more confident, healthier and helped her beat the nail-biting habit. The former schoolteacher, now training to become a coach, says the best thing about being coached was the chance to reflect and find her own solutions to problems.

"It's made a tremendous difference. It's made me feel that my life is more rounded and whole and I have the courage to do things I wouldn't have otherwise."

S UTHERLAND set up his performance coaching business 12 years ago, and has worked for Telecom, BNZ and Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, among others. He is not a member of ICF and sees no need to join. "When it comes to going to Coach University, nah, I'm not interested."

His experience comes from two decades spent coaching top athletes, including Olympic gold medal-winning canoeists Ian Ferguson and Paul MacDonald, ultra marathon world record-holder Sandy Barwick and the 1999 New Zealand women's golf team, winners of the Queen Sirikit Cup.

Eyebrows raised above his rimless spectacles, Sutherland snorts at the notion of coaching over the phone or internet, a common technique for life coaches. He specialises in time management, stress-coping techniques and encouraging his charges to set "audacious goals". To do this he needs to see his clients' work environment.

His help - an hour once a week, plus homework, for as long as it takes to make a difference - costs a lot more than the industry average of $300 a month, but his clients, a who's who of this country's top executives and wannabes, can well afford it. Someone who makes $40,000 a year, a journalist for example, cannot.

Unapologetic about this elitism, Sutherland says the difference between champions, or hotshot business types, and everyone else is that rather than dreaming about what they want, high achievers actually get it. Even if that means spending money. They are dynamic, always on the lookout for opportunities, expert in their field, and they back themselves.

It is hardly ground-breaking, but then neither is the notion that by eating less and exercising more you can lose weight, and look how hard that is. His area of expertise, he says, is finding out what is stopping people from achieving to the best of their ability. Often it is poor self-confidence.

Molloy, whose beautiful skin and impeccable manicure bear testimony to her time-management skills, came at her new career from a different angle. She joined the life-coaching business in April, after returning home from Britain, where she worked as a publishing company publicist.

Marching celebrity authors from one television chat-show appearance to another, she was surprised by the depth of their insecurities and how much time she spent propping them up.

"Don't use the word empowering," she stage-whispers as she sets a coffee mug down on its coaster, "but that's what it is."

This one-time New Idea writer and Girlfriend editor generally talks to clients by phone, offering additional support by email, but she will meet clients for an hour each month if they prefer. They tend to be professionals in their late 20s and early 30s who have become bored with their careers, or have returned from their OE with no idea of what comes next.

Before their first session, Molloy's clients fill out a worksheet designed to help them identify the "energy drains" in their life, such as poor eating habits, a cluttered home, bad finances, family conflict, needy friends.

Then it's a matter of finding out what they want - which will probably not be immediately apparent - and convincing them to do it, she says.

Molloy works with clients for a minimum of three months, the time it takes to start seeing results. Each week, they are coaxed into doing one thing to take control of their messy situations - organising their workspace, going to the gym, researching new careers.

While it will be another month before her first clients can say whether her coaching has helped them, it has already lifted the effervescent Molloy to the status of minor celebrity. Once a week she heads to the TVNZ studios for her guest slot on Good Morning, before moving up the road to advise listeners of 91ZM's Lipstick Lunch.

"I love it," she says with a laugh, before apologising for talking too fast. "I get so excited."

* At the end of the interview, Mark Sutherland offered to coach Eleanor Black for a month. We'll report back in July.