Coaching students via text and learning from them with TopHat Coaching

by Harriet Dodd of TopHat Coaching Ltd

At the start of 2022, Tophat Coaching Ltd partnered with Katikati and a group of six volunteer clients at the University of Cambridge in a first step to test the platform’s use in coaching via SMS texting. The idea behind the six-month test was to see if texting on the Katikati platform could offer a coaching experience that was both effective and affordable. The initial work was a success.  It was reviewed by the clients and coaching supervisor, Claire Pedrick MCC.


Tophat Coaching provides coaching to individuals and teams in non-profit organisations and businesses. Coaching can have a profound impact on clients as they think together  with their coach and take steps to move towards the possibilities for change that they identify.  Typically, it is an investment only accessible to those with sufficient funds. We have been asking the question: how can affordable and effective coaching be made accessible to individuals and groups beyond the reach of most coaching offerings? Remote text coaching is one such avenue we have considered.

Why Katikati for text coaching?

Two things drew us to Katikati. Firstly, the platform provides for a safe and confidential exchange between client and coach in real time.  Using an SMS texting channel which people can use with so called ‘dumb’ or feature phones makes the low-data exchange affordable. Secondly, the platform presents opportunities for economies of scale.  With appropriate access restrictions, the Katikati platform can accommodate multiple coaches working with multiple clients in one community. 

In addition, with client consent, the transcripts that are held on the platform offer a potential wealth of data that can be used, without compromising the confidentiality of the clients. Katikati facilitates analysing such data with the ability to tag themes and topics that arise across conversations. In addition the record provides for appropriate oversight for quality control and client protection.

Why SMS and why not other channels such as Skype or WhatsApp? 

SMS is by far the most accessible channel. It does not require the user to have a smartphone, funds for mobile data or a strong network connection. With a toll-free shortcode it can be free to the user and for sensitive topics, offers an anonymous channel. SMS also remains a very relevant channel today: according to SlickText 5 billion people send and receive SMS daily. We believe it remains the most affordable way to exchange information.

What about AI or chatbot coaching?

Whilst AI coaching and well-being apps could provide excellent complementary support to bespoke coaching, it is in its infancy and can only be accessed through smartphones. Its designs are still rooted in northern cultures that limit its usability.

Results/Learnings so far

This pilot ran from February till June 2022 and like all good experiments this first stage has taught us a lot. As we expected it has raised further questions to answer. 

On the positive side

  1. Text coaching was effective 

There is unanimous feedback from all the clients who used the platform that the coaching was helpful:

"I particularly enjoy being urged to give full, honest answers to myself"
"We covered 3 different areas I wanted to improve upon"
  1. Coaching was accessible via SMS:

SMS was a relevant and appreciated channel, offering privacy to the clients to engage in coaching wherever they were.

"It is through text message so it is very easy and accessible"
  1. Clients would recommend it

100% respondents answered that they would recommend this to those who cannot access face to face coaching.

  1. Katikati works well

The platform was easy to navigate and use. Some small improvements are in hand to make it still better.

Where there is more to do:

  1. Challenges to coaching skills

Texting presents new challenges to the coach and client. Misspellings, short forms (e.g. LOL) and delays in responses greatly impact the pace of exchange. Comments made by the coaching supervisor highlighted ways in which deliberate wording and tonal variation (using capitals perhaps) is needed to improve the focus of conversations.

"It is often harder on text to get things across, but it is still helpful"
  1. Exploring the data

With a small pilot cohort anonymous analysis of the data proved difficult. It was however quite easy to see emergent themes that could have formed the basis for an interest group discussion with the students.

  1. UK-based clients were a great first place to begin

The clients were articulate in their feedback and very helpful. As the target group extends beyond the UK, more work is needed with a new larger group to test the coaching. We need to reach:

  1. Clients are not joining to help with a pilot project but who have a valid interest in accessible coaching
  2. Clients from different cultural groups with lower command of English
  3. Additional coaches who have an interest in this project


Intimate, personal and meaningful conversations are possible over text and sometimes the texting itself is an enabling factor.

"I enjoyed the ability to read back (compared to speaking), as well as to have less pressure to answer quickly if I want to think through a response"
"I could type for as much as I wanted whilst still being aware of how to condense my thoughts"

Given how well student-clients responded to this remote coaching service, this might be an excellent service to offer a UK based community where well-being needs are seen as increasing. To hear more from TopHat Coaching’s experience, feel free to reach out to Harriet Dodd, Director TopHat Coaching at:

If you are interested to try out Katikati, get in touch with us by clicking on 'Contact Us'.