Where does coaching come from?

The term coach originated in the nineteenth century – the first recorded mention is in a novel by Thackeray in 1849. It is therefore a much more recent concept than mentoring, although it is possible to find links with a variety of ancient philosophies. A coach at this time was a form of tutor, working with a group of learners at English universities on their academic studies or in sport. Quite what the association was with the Eastern European word coach (which referred to a specific kind of high quality horse-drawn conveyance for gentlefolk) remains unclear, but the word is presented as a pun in the novel. (This should not be interpreted that coaching started as a joke!) According to Prof Bob Garvey[1], who has researched the roots of coaching, in some sports, such as rowing, coaching was initially considered by some to be unsporting, because the players were being given shouted instructions from the bank.

While the initial association with academia linked coaching with Socratic dialogue (essentially a method of enquiry that tests assumptions until they become absurd or untenable), the association with sport steered it towards an emphasis on performance. There is little or no mention of coaching as dialogue for more than a century, but the concept of sports coach continued and was widely accepted over this period.

The modern day perception of coaching arose from several sources. In 1974, Timothy Galwey published The Inner Game of Tennis, which incorporated new thinking in sports psychology to suggest that coaches achieved more when, instead of telling people what to do, they let them work it out and experience for themselves. Central to Galwey’s concept was that failure to perform well is typically less about innate ability and more about removing interference, much of which was internally generated within the learner. This approach was built upon and extended into the world of business by another sportsman, Sir John Whitmore, with his book, Coaching for Performance (1988).

Since then, coaching has been influenced by a wide variety of disciplines, from cognitive behavioural therapy to transactional analysis and more recently neuroscience. It has also evolved to address a much wider range of issues – indeed, one of the most common classifications of coaching approaches is Skills – Performance – Behaviour – Personal transformation, with the assumption that the difficulty of the change and the level of competence and knowledge required by the coach increase algorithmically from one type to the next.

[1] Garvey, R (2011) A short, fairly interesting and reasonably cheap book about coaching and mentoring, Sage, London

© David Clutterbuck. All rights reserved

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