In order to tell you about the origin of coaching, I suggest starting with a trip to Greece and going back in time about 2400 years. We can then rise to the shoulders of the giants Socrates, Plato and Aristotle!
The Origin of Coaching
Although they did not use the word “coaching”, their assumptions are the ones of the current coaching, so it can be considered that it is in these philosophers that its roots are deepest. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle had a common goal, which is the same as coaching: live a life most worth of being lived.
Plato considered that the search for a fulfilled life as a person, with what this supposes for its own happiness and of others, was very difficult to do alone. He said it was much better when one had “someone” – currently, the coach – who would help us to know better and to develop the habits that allow us to be fulfilled. The Platonic conception of what education is – and which in our day is coaching – is based more on taking away rather than on giving knowledge. Each man has within himself a part of the truth, but to be able to discover it he requires someone to give him a hand.
According to Aristotle, true happiness is achieved when people develop all their abilities. Our goal in life is to pursue well-being through the practice and development of virtues, that is, our values and behavioral patterns. Aristotle wrote that one thing is ‘what we are’, while another, quite different, is what we can ‘become’. In coaching, the focus is also for the coachee to discover and develop his abilities and thus, to have a happy life.
Socrates created the Socratic method defined by open questions to stimulate insight and self-consciousness. This method consists in making use of simple and almost naive questions that aim to reveal the contradictions present in the current way of thinking of another individual and thus help him to redefine his theirs by learning to think for himself. He made his interlocutors discern on their own failures and weaknesses of reasoning. In coaching, the basic methodology also goes through the open questions, with the purpose of the coachee discovering the truth by himself, connecting with his essence, extracting his best and broadening his horizons.
Although these philosophers have been well-known throughout history, the application of these ideas had little expression until a few years ago.
But before that, let’s go on a new trip to discover the first use of the word coaching. Let us then go to the eighteenth century, to Oxford. At that time, the University Nobles of England went to classes in their carriages, led by coach drivers. By 1830, the term “coach” was used informally at the University of Oxford to name the private tutor, the one who leads and prepares students for their exams. Today we use the term coaching to describe a trip, but one that is much more in-depth, as it takes the coachee to exceed his goals, visions and dreams in his personal and professional life.
I propose one last trip, now to Harvard, forty years ago. So let’s get to know whom many consider the father of current coaching – Timothy Gallwey. Let’s watch how he trained his tennis students. Instead of giving them technical instructions, he helped the player to remove or reduce internal obstacles to his performance. And the player had an unexpected natural ability to learn! Timothy Gallwey then published The Inner Game of Tennis, which, thanks to his success outside the world of tennis, was quickly followed by The Inner Game of Golf, Inner Skiing and later by The Inner Game of Work. This proposal of a change of approach was not well received by the teachers, because they felt like they were being questioned, but it pleased the students a lot. Timothy Gallwey was emphasizing the essence of coaching – awakening people’s potential to maximize their performance. Basically, it followed the natural and innate way of learning, which is often disturbed by the instructions we receive. Timothy Gallwey’s books coincided with the advent of more humanistic psychological models when compared to the behavioral model, which assumed that human beings were like a shallow board in which everything was printed from the outside. For Timothy Gallwey, people are like seeds, each holding within all the potential to be a magnificent tree. We need encouragement and light to get there, but the tree is already inside us.
The transition from sport to business was swift. John Whitmore, currently well known for the GROW model, went to learn from Timothy Gallwey and together they created The Inner Game in Britain. There, sports clients began to wonder if they could apply the same method to their business affairs, and so coaching was born in business about thirty years ago.
Since that time, we can see that coaching has developed exponentially and extended in several contexts. The coaches sought various concepts and techniques for systemic psychotherapy, namely the work of the Palo Alto team and Milton Erickson, as well as cognitive and behavioral psychotherapies, also focused on the present and the future, focusing on quick solutions. The Neuro-Linguistic Programming created by Bandler and Grinder is also a source of numerous techniques used in coaching. The International Coach Federation (ICF) has been professionalizing this activity for the past twenty years, defining good practices, the code of ethics and the skills required for a professional coach.
What isn’t Coaching?
Conducting a coaching process may seem very simple. However, by supervising different coaching processes, it can be concluded that most coaches do not follow all the coaching principles – instead they sometimes end up doing mentoring, therapy, consulting or training.
Since coaching is still very recent as an autonomous discipline and little known by the general public, customer expectations help the coach forget to follow the principles of coaching. Indeed, in many companies, clients often have the expectation that coaching is synonymous to mentoring, consulting or training. People who ask for life coaching also expect it to be similar to psychotherapy many times.
In fact, in all these activities, there are at least two points in common with coaching:
- There is a supportive relationship from the professional to the individual or the team in development.
- The goal is to improve performance.
Although coaching techniques are already integrated in all of these activities, coaching has particular principles that set it appart from them.
Let us then analyze the differences between coaching and other personal or organizational support activities, in order to better understand what isn’t coaching.
Therapy: Therapy deals with dysfunctions and conflicts within an individual, or his relationships and with healing of suffering. The focus is on how to deal in a healthier way with the current emotional difficulties arising from the past and improve overall psychological functioning. In coaching, on the other hand, the focus is on personal or professional success and, to this end, supports personal and professional growth based on the change initiated by the individual himself. Instead of focusing on the past, it works with the present, projecting the future (Lages et al., 2007). Instead of focusing on suffering, it focuses on creating strategies to achieve specific goals. The emphasis in coaching is on action, responsibility, and moving forward.
Consulting: Consultants are hired due to their expertise. The assumption here is that the consultant will diagnose the problems, prescribe and sometimes implement solutions. With coaching, the main assumption is that individuals are capable of generating their own solutions, and that the coach’s role is to support and facilitate that discovery. Consulting is also more focused in the organization as a whole and not only on individuals, whereas coaching focus mainly on the individual or the team, even if the final goal is to solve organizational problems.
Mentoring: A mentor is a specialist who provides wisdom and guidance based on his own experience. Mentoring may include counseling’s methodology and coaching’s methodology. Coaching, by contrast, does not include counseling and focuses on how the individual or team can define and achieve their own goals. The effect of coaching is, thus, not dependent on a more experienced professional who conveys their knowledge. Coaching requires expertise in coaching, but not in the subject being addressed. This is one of its greatest strengths, as it strengthens the coachee’s confidence in himself.
Training: Training programs are based on objectives defined by the trainer, achieved through a linear and pre-established learning path. On the contrary, the goals in coaching are defined by the coachee, and the way to get there is less linear, being also established by the coachee. According to several authors (Krausz, 2007; O’Connor and Lages, 2007; Rego et al., 2007), training is based on a process of learning and acquiring knowledge, whereas coaching aims to develop emotional intelligence skills and it’s a process of individual change.
Sports coaching: Although the word coach is used to refer to a sports coach, and coaching has started in this field, in sports, teaching is the most common practice, not coaching. Generally, the sports coach is seen as a specialist who guides and directs the behavior of the individual or the team based on his greater experience and knowledge. Sports coaches also tend to focus on behaviors that are poorly performed, unlike coaches, who focus on identifying development opportunities based on the individual’s strengths.
Coaching concepts emerged in environments where knowledge reached its peak: in the philosophers of ancient Greece, at Oxford University and at Harvard.
Currently, coaching is increasingly democratized, being used mainly in high performance companies, both by professional coaches and by the leaders themselves who use coaching’s leadership style. Throughout these almost fifteen years in which I have been practicing coaching, I am constantly dazzled by its expansion in Portugal and in the world. Coaching is increasingly a way of relating to others, of thinking and being. There are already teachers, parents, doctors and sales professionals using coaching skills and coaching ways when needed.
As John Whitmore states: “Coaching as a business practice is here to stay, although the word may disappear when its values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors become the norm for everyone.” We are curious to see this happening!
English translated excerpt of the 1st chapter of the book “Coaching: Going Further Inside”, ICF (International Coach Federation), co-author and Executive Coach Isabel Freire de Andrade
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