Tips on Passing the Practical Skills Assessment (PSA) for the ADAPT Health Coach Course

Woot! This last Thursday, I passed my Practical Skills Assessment (PSA) for my health coach course with ADAPT (ADAPT HCTP)! It marks a significant milestone in certification as a health coach and one that was not easy for me to achieve. In hopes of helping others through this, I thought I’d give some thoughts on my own path to the PSA and hopefully it will give you insight into yours.

What is the PSA?

It’s a test of sorts, a demonstration of your skills in the 17 competencies of coaching, as defined by the National Board of Health and Wellness Coaches (NBHWC) and is 30 minutes in length. The 17 competencies can be found in this document (still branded ICHWC their previous name) and are listed below:

  • A. Be calm, present, and emotionally available
  • B. Show empathy
  • C. Establish rapport
  • D. Ensure client’s agenda, needs, interests and preferences drive the coaching relationship
  • E. Invite client to select focus of session
  • F. Explore the client’s vision of optimal health and well- being
  • G. Establish long-term goal(s) to be enacted by 3-6 months or by end of coaching agreement)
  • H. Establish or refine client’s short- term SMART goals or action steps for what will be accomplished between sessions
  • I. Actively Listen
  • J. Ask Open-ended Questions
  • K. Help client explore and articulate values, sense of meaning and purpose
  • L. Anticipate, plan for, and help client navigate challenges
  • M. Explore broader perspectives and inspire interest in new possibilities
  • N. Share information
  • O. Discuss and honor client’s preferences for self-monitoring
  • P. Facilitate process of self-discovery, learning and insight
  • Q. Prompt for, and amplify positive resources (including past successes, qualities, strengths, and skills)

Each competency is expected of a well trained coach. Not all competencies appear in every coaching conversation. However, for the PSA, we must exhibit *all* competencies in the 30 minute recording.

How is it graded?

Some time during the Practicum (second half of our year long course), a link appears in our course classwork that allows us to submit the PSA for review. For us in cohort 1, it was in week 42 of the course which was around the first week of April 2019 (our cohort started in June 2018). We have until December 7, 2019 to submit the PSA for review. After submitting it, we pick a reviewer and then pick a calendar time to meet up with them to discuss the recording and hopefully they will tell you that you passed (if you don’t, you can always appeal, or resubmit again for a fee). (NOTE 3/5/2020: by “pick a reviewer” , I mean we chose between reviewers anonymized by letter so we didn’t know which letter matched up with which mentor coach reviewer. From recent reports, this process has changed to be further anonymized to only choosing a time/date.)

Events, growth, and impressions leading up to my PSA submission

A little background before we get to tips – if you don’t want to read this part, just skip it and go straight to the tips!

By the end of the Practicum in June, my brain was filled with a lot of coaching and functional health information. Quite frankly, it was all a blur and I had not effectively integrated it all yet. Nor had I truly figured out what coaching was despite having attended all the lectures up to this point.

However, sometime shortly after the Practicum ended, it began to dawn on me what being a coach really was about and that it was nothing like I originally thought. This is probably a good topic for future post but in short, the word ‘coaching’ is used in a few contexts, and my experience of it was in the fitness world where it is very prescriptive. A client comes to me with a fitness goal or issue; I tell them what to do and fix it. Coaching in the context of what we were learning at ADAPT HCTP however was very different; we actually shouldn’t be prescriptive and try instead to engage the resourcefulness, intelligence, and creativity naturally present in our client to develop their own solutions.

The result was that learning to become a coach in this context meant I was essentially doing completely new things in the realm of my experiences. In order to deploy the competencies, you need to adopt coaching language and a way of thinking, sensing, and observing, both of which I had never done before, or I was extremely deficient in skill. I had to undergo tremendous growth as an individual to suppress those parts of me which wanted to teach so badly and habitually (due to my years spent as a swim coach/personal trainer).

In theory, that should have happened in the 12 months of the course itself. However, it did not. It happened in the 3-4 months following the course end and it felt like a massive sprint and transformation as I sought out every bit of help I could find in working through my own barriers as I, at the same time, integrated new ways of speaking, thinking, sensing, and observing into my psyche.

The extra work I did was:

Engage a coach as both a mentor/teacher as well as a personal coach. This was a key element in my ability to toss all my barriers to becoming a coach and adopting all the new thinking and language. There were parts of me that I had to resolve and I seriously doubt I could have done it myself. Some of the main things I worked on were 1) totally detaching myself from the client, 2) touching my heart for better sensing and communications, and 3) expanding my curiosity for better evoking.

Hung on my wall for daily reminder and inspiration!

Attend mentor coach classes. Tijen Genco, a coach and educator, holds an excellent series of mentor coach classes regularly, as long as she has an interested group of students. I consider these advanced topics in coaching and we worked extensively on things like cognitive distortions, sensing of emotions, picking up on key words uttered by the client that offer a clue into their psyche, and working on their aspects of being versus doing. In our current class, we are now working on complex reflections. I felt an exponential increase in my skills because of her teachings.

Attend PSA prep classes offered by ADAPT HCTP. After the Practicum part ended, our course offered a series of PSA prep classes, each 6 weeks long. They go through the typical stages of a coaching conversation, with an emphasis on hitting the competencies. I took two series back to back and there were not only a good review, but also were great at shifting my mindset on needing to focus on generating the PSA recording.

OK! Now on what I had to do to generate the PSA recording and some tips on how to get there:


I experienced a TREMENDOUS amount of stress in the weeks leading up to the coaching conversation where I recorded my passing PSA recording. The causes of this stress were:

Declining practice client base. Many of my previous clients were dropping off and I needed more. I also felt that I was not as skilled in coaching as when I started with my first set and restarting with them was difficult as I did not address their issues, nor their pre-contemplation states effectively.

Talkative client base! Many of my remaining clients were talkers! While I felt I managed their talkativeness during sessions and got good results, their sessions often went over the 30 minutes that I needed to contain a recording within.

Time was running out! I was feeling the stress of looking forward to the December 7 deadline and feeling like it was coming up fast. With the number of practice clients I had, the actual coaching conversations themselves were coming relatively infrequently at every 1-2 weeks per client. So having less versus more opportunities to record a PSA recording was worrisome. I did some mental math between now and December 7 and it didn’t feel comfortable knowing that I had only a certain amount of tries before the deadline.

The fluid nature of coaching conversations versus the clear structure of a good PSA was confounding my ability to create a good recording. I was feeling my coaching ability was growing by leaps and bounds. However, I had a growing sense of unease as my coaching conversations were getting much better, but when I looked back at them, they were not PSA passing material. I attribute this to studying advanced concepts through Tijen’s classes as well as reading Robert Hicks’s book The Process of Highly Effective Coaching, which presented a looping, non-linear way of looking at coaching conversations. This looping structure helped me understand better what could happen during a session and made me feel a lot more comfortable if a client begins to backtrack and what to do about it, which happened a lot with my talkative clients! So, it didn’t make me feel better about generating a PSA recording because while a looping, more non-linear conversation could exhibit all of the competencies, the risk of it going over 30 minutes seemed much higher. I also chafed at the relative constrained and linear nature of a good and clear PSA passing session. If a client decided to go off track, which happened a lot and my skill was not such that I could manage this in the allotted time of 30 minutes, I’d lose yet another potential session as a candidate for submission. This happened multiple times.

So clock watching during sessions was also a source of stress, and constant disappointment as the session went beyond the 30 min mark and I resigned myself to finishing up the session sometime after. Thankfully I felt that my sessions were still good coaching sessions, but just not PSA submit-able. I never sacrificed my client’s needs for the need of recording the PSA.

In general, this high stress as I entered into coaching sessions really detracted from my ability to coach and also then being able to hit all the competencies too. I found that when I coached without stress, with a more open and relaxed demeanor, my sessions went a lot more smoothly on all metrics. Makes sense right?

Therefore, the solution is – remove the stress! Easier said than done. Ultimately, it came down to these things that lowered stress and also created a more orchestrated condition for getting the PSA recording:

Purge your anti-coaching demons. Hopefully you’ve already managed out all non-coaching behaviors by now. This is critical to passing. By the time you try for a PSA recording, you’ll want to already have dealt with all your anti-coaching demons. If you haven’t, you should consider not even trying for a recording until you do. If you exhibit any non-coaching behaviors at all, stop reading right here and go fix that first before coming back!

Select the right client. The ideal client is one that has a relatively simple problem they are trying to solve. They are not trying to get information from you, they are not so entangled that they cannot respond properly or with insight into their own feelings. They are ideally past pre-contemplation and at least in contemplation or beyond. They have minimal red flags, and you’ll want to know what to do if they show up. Most important for me was that they not be talkative!!! I finally found someone who was very straightforward and didn’t chit chat a lot, was very directed and wanted to move forward. It helped a lot!

Prep the client beforehand. This is something even the mentor coaches recommended which is to take some time before the session to go through some basic things before starting. Tell them that you’re trying to keep to 30 minutes. Ask them to not be so talkative but to make a point and then that’s it. Remind them to be authentic still and just respond naturally and to not create answers to questions artificially. Even ask them to come to the session with something to work on, so that time is saved from the need to spend some minutes looking for something to be coached on. To be honest, I actually didn’t have to prep my PSA client beforehand, although I did try with others.

Recommend doing a session that is not the first session with this client. While a first session with some long term goal or visioning might exhibit all the competencies, it is likely easier to hit a PSA session when the session is beyond the first one, and you are into the tactical side of things on where the client is trying to reach a goal already set. One of the competencies I commonly missed was the referring to their long term goals. Now that my client had already set her long term goals in our first session together, it was straightforward – and not time consuming – to simply refer back to the goals versus spending extra time talking about them.

Engage a mentor coach to help guide you on what you’re missing. It was invaluable to have engaged a mentor coach. We would go through what areas I still needed growth in. Sometimes we would drill and I would get feedback. I also submitted some recordings for feedback and we would spend a session going over her feedback. I also had actual coaching sessions to help remove internal barriers to success in becoming a coach. These were things like my overwhelming desire to teach, the inability to sense feelings, the fact that I was thinking way too much and intellectualizing things versus feeling and using intuition.

Discover what competencies you tend to miss in coaching conversation. My mentor coach also helped me figure out what competencies I would be most in danger of missing. While she could have done so in a coaching session or two, I actually figured out mine by submitting what I thought was a decent coaching session. Then she marked which competencies were there and which were not.

For example, in the recording I had reviewed, the competencies that were present were: A, B, C, D, E, I, L, M, N, P. My missing competencies were: F, G, H, J, K, O, Q. These ended up being the ones that for some reason I would not hit either rarely or not at all.

These missed competencies are the ones you’ll need to focus on hitting. To be honest, to hit some of these can feel very contrived. It may seem like you’re constantly reinforcing the client in what it seems like they already know. Ultimately, there is value in using as many competencies as you can in every conversation – something I learned by “forcing” myself to hit my missing competencies. However, it is also noted that you don’t need to hit all competencies in order to have a great coaching session.

These then formed the basis for my cheat sheet – see next section.

Create a cheat sheet of commonly missed competencies in your coaching. Once I knew which ones I would miss and was working on them, I created a cheat sheet. Here is mine (many thanks to classmate Sandy “Autoimmune Maven” Swanson for sending me her cheat sheet from which I generated this one). You’ll see which competencies and then some suggested queries that I like to use or those that I resonate with as suggested by the course.

A tip – be as concise as possible and use a super big font size to facilitate being able to read it quickly and not having to search for a particular competency.

I printed this out and put it on a document holder next to my screen with the Zoom call on it, which I did on an iPad – see next section for my tech setup for the PSA.

Prepare the hardware! Here is my tech setup for the PSA:

I run Zoom on my iPad. It’s on a free standing tablet holder. The document holder to the right, holds my cheat sheet which I can glance at without taking my eyes off the Zoom call. I have my computer below for note taking, and a clock app on my iPhone which helps me see where I am time-wise. My phone is sitting on a simple stand.

Prepare the location! That tech setup above was down in my basement. I am usually upstairs in a more common area but it can randomly get busy when other people walk in, sometimes talking loudly. Instead I wanted a place where I could have a call undisturbed and with much reduced background noise. I have had in the past instances where people would come into the area while I was on a call and talking loud enough not only to intrude into the call but also disturb me enough where I could not coach effectively. So not only bad for coaching in general, but also even more bad for trying to get a PSA recording!

Release yourself and embrace the structure for a clean and smooth PSA session. This may apply only to me, but as mentioned I was really enjoying the freedom of a more relaxed, looping, non-linear structure. The PSA on the other hand felt so constricting and confining in its very linear nature. And, yes, again I acknowledge that a non-linear coaching conversation can exhibit all the competencies; however, as a student, it was daunting for me to wrap my head around creating the perfect PSA and doing it with my newly acquired skill of managing a non-linear conversation. So I strove to try to keep the session in a more linear fashion, moving from stage to stage and finally to a good conclusion, as recommended by the PSA prep courses.

Now if only the client would cooperate haha!

Take some time beforehand to prepare yourself. As a coach you’ll likely want to do this before any session, but it was doubly important for me to arrive at a possible PSA session totally relaxed, engaged, and not stressed. So I have this song which I often meditate to, in order to prepare for a session, called Ardas Bhaee by Mirabei Ceiba. I throw on some headphones and let it loop a few times while I close my eyes and take in the song. I also try to clear my head and sink my awareness down into my heart and letting the vibrations of the music touch me there.

I also spent some minutes reviewing the cheat sheet and doing some mental rehearsing of how the conversation might go, and thinking about how I might insert queries related to commonly missed competencies. I reviewed in my mind how the conversation would unfold and how I would be ready to ask the queries related to commonly missed competencies.

By remaining calm, open, and ready, I was confident on my coaching skills to carry me through the parts of the conversation I felt good about (the competencies that appeared more naturally) and thus I could focus on making sure I exhibited the missed competencies.

Engage the client initially to establish rapport, competency C. This is a small but important point for ADAPT HCTP. Some coaches advocate a more direct entry into the session. International Coaching Federation tends to advocate for this, and it is also an individual coach stylistic feature as well. A direct opening would be something like “What would you like to be coached on today?” without any preamble. To be honest, I tend towards the more direct approach and many of the mentor coaches do this as well, and it also depends on what school they came from, and also situationally dependent on the client.

However, ADAPT HCTP aligning with NBHWC competencies tends to advocate for a less direct entry into what the coaching conversation would discuss. So a session opener might be less direct like a greeting first, like “How did things go this week?” and then a query like “I’m interested in hearing what you have in mind for our session today.” This more clearly shows you establishing rapport, whereas in the other example, dependent on your tone, delivery, and circumstance, might come across as not effectively establishing rapport. To be safe, I would advocate for the softer opening to clearly exhibit competency C.

Relax and let the conversation begin! Now that you’re ready and calm, begin the session and let if flow. Don’t stress. Engage the client and evoke well. Gently guide to a focus for the session. Reinforce when they are doing something in line with their stated goals and/or vision. Remind them when they are exhibiting strengths to bolster their confidence in their own abilities. Glance occasionally over at the sheet to make sure you are hitting the competencies one by one and that you are not missing any.

Honestly if you have been reviewing the cheat sheet prior to this session for preparation, you may not glance at it much at all. It turns out that while I had it there, I really didn’t reference it much at all and only glanced at it a few times.

Take gentle note of the time on the clock. If you’re flowing well, you’ll be well within the time. It turns out that my session could have ended before the 30 min mark. I did hit a potential danger point when the client asked to brainstorm over a particular problem. Thankfully I didn’t get dinged on my solution to her brainstorm query, with respect to competency N on sharing information. But it was worrying to me that I might have said too much. It was this little activity that took the PSA session past 30 min.

Note that so far, there have been many people with passing PSA recordings whose time has exceeded the 30 min limit by a few minutes. I think that if it goes beyond 35, you’ll likely be cut off at that point. HOWEVER it doesn’t mean you won’t pass; if you’ve exhibited all the competencies by then, you’ll be fine. Remember also that you can designate which 30 min in the session should be graded.

If time is going over and you’re not nearing the end of a session, don’t stress and keep going. Remember to always hold the client in the highest regard, far above the worth of trying to record a good PSA. If the mentor coaches see that you are rushing a client to the end to hit 30 min and it is obvious that more needs to be worked on, you’ll fail that way for sure.

Review the recording, getting a transcript helps a ton. Do an initial review of the recording yourself, with the competency sheet provided by the course. You can use the ICHWC sheet or the grading sheet. You can replay it and mark on the sheet when you hear competencies expressed. If you pay to get a transcript done, it is a lot easier and faster because, for me, reading the text is much faster than listening to audio. Then, while reading, you can mark the competencies next to each spoken section.

I use to create the transcript and pay to have time stamps next to each spoken section. They charge $1/min to transcribe. Timestamping is an additional $.25/min. For my PSA recording, it was $41.25 to get the transcript done by a real person and with time stamps. Although I picked the turnaround to be default, about half a day, they must not be very busy because I got the transcript back in only 3 hours which is close to their rush time (and an extra $1/min to rush). You can also try their machine transcription which takes minutes and is about $.10/min. I’ve never tried this but it might be great or it might be a total waste of time and money.

Have a coaching friend or mentor coach review it and give feedback either just feedback or as a mock PSA session. After I went through it and thought it was good enough, the amazing Sandy Swanson reviewed it for me, and then we hopped on Zoom to discuss. She generally gave me a thumbs up (whoo hoo!) and had some questions, where I could prepare for the eventuality that my PSA reviewer might think that I didn’t hit a competency or three. So going into Sandy’s mock PSA session, I took the transcript and had marked every competency that I thought I hit, and was prepared to argue me hitting any particular competency. I used the additional, expanded descriptions in the Satisfactory column of the ICHWC/NBHWC competency matrix to identify which spoken sections satisfied it and marked which description of each competency was satisfied. Then I was ready to do battle if need be!

Note that I only asked Sandy to review it; you can also have multiple reviews if you want more assurance. The PSA reviews, according to those who have gone through it and passed, can be somewhat subjective in many ways. It always is better if you can clearly show a competency, hence the cheat sheet and perhaps even having some key phrases ready to throw out there. If something is questionable, then you might have to go back to the drawing board or get ready to defend your exhibition of a competency.

Now armed with another person who thought my PSA was passing, I submitted it. Upon hitting the submit button, a tremendous weight lifted off my shoulders and I was feeling pretty damn good. In fact, my coaching sessions after submission – forget knowing if I had passed or not, just the very act of submission! – were pretty darn good overall. So something had shifted again, once the weight of the PSA submission was lifted.

The PSA review itself hopefully goes well. If you’ve hit all the competencies, you’ll be fine. Over and over again I’ve heard that all the mentor coaches WANT you to pass. I believe this to be true. If you’ve gotten this far with a PSA recording that has been reviewed and everyone agrees it is pretty darn close or already there, you’ll be fine. As mentioned previously, take your transcript with competencies noted with you and get ready to show the mentor coach that you did exhibit a competency where they thought you did not.

I heard from one mentor coach who said they listen to the recording and they can pretty much tell if it’s a pass without getting too much into the details of marking which competencies are there or not. So if you have good tone and flow, it will be a long ways towards passing.

As a part of the review, you’ll get the chance to elicit feedback from the reviewer on things to improve and where the conversation could have taken alternative turns. Use the session as a learning opportunity as well.

If you don’t pass – don’t fret. Just pay the fee and resubmit it again. Now you’ll be that much smarter and knowledgeable about how to get there. But given what I wrote above, you might do some preliminary work with a mentor coach or coach friends and save yourself the cost of a possible re-submission.

I have heard of some folks filing for appeal. I have not heard what has happened to those cases yet, but hopefully we can avoid this and also re-submission.

If you need to, just go back and repeat the tips again. You’ll get it next time around, I know it. This is not rocket science! Figure out you need to do and go do it!

The Final Review

I was completely stress free for two weeks or so between submission and the review, but as I came upon 2 days before the review, I was starting to get some inklings of anxiety again on the fear that I would not pass. I set those aside and resigned myself to my fate, knowing that I could always record a new one and just take whatever comes out of the review as a learning experience.

It turned out not to be necessary. My reviewer asked me what I wanted to do first and of course I said, “C’mon just tell me straight up – did I pass or not?” to which my reviewer replied YES! The final wisps of weight returning to my shoulders vaporized in an instant… Onwards to the 25 coaching hours for the log and full certification!

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