life coaching

The History of life


How did the idea of life coaching catch on? What was the tipping point, as Malcolm Gladwell might put it? Drawing inspiration from the work of Vicki Brock, who conducted the first large scale, systematic review of the origins of coaching, we can characterize three different "generations" of coaching.


THE ORIGINATORS (1960s-1970s)

When did we start talking about our lives using metaphors from sports? What's next–do we need our own cheerleaders?


Well it's true, the life coaching metaphor draws inspiration from the practice of sports coaching. A "coach" meant any form of tutor from about the 1830s. It was probably an extension of the idea of transporting people from one place to another associated with the original meaning for "coach," which was a vehicle (a word borrowed into English in the mid 16th century). And we do talk about other types of coaches, such as voice coaches. But certainly the most common use in contemporary society has been its application to sports coaching.

Etymology of coach Coach: A horse-drawn carriage (Oxford English Dictionary)

The Inner Game of Tennis

And indeed, life coaching drew important inspiration from the application of sports coaching to other areas. Timothy Gallwey's book the Inner Game of Tennis (1974) has been widely cited as a significant influence in the development of coaching (Brock 2008, O'Connor and Lages 2007).

Gallwey talks about how in the game of tennis, the opponent on the other side of the net isn't the only one working against you. You also have an inner opponent, or inner critic, which takes the form of your ego-mind. This is the voice that judges, criticizes and second guesses your every move. Instead of helping you to improve, it actually hampers you.

Inner game of tennis

Instead of listening to your inner critic, you need to:

  1. Learn to observe yourself from a detached point of view, to assess what you have to do objectively and without judgment.
  2. Program new learning using images and examples.
  3. Let it happen.

Gallwey's principles can be applied to many domains—and in fact he has done so himself, by writing about the inner games of golf, music, skiing and work. In relation to the evolution of coaching, Gallwey's book was central to the creation of the GROW model, probably the most influential model of coaching around, as we'll see later.

Brock's work, which was the first comprehensive study of the history and origins of coaching, revealed 82 people who were influential in the development of coaching. But of these, only a few had a strong influence. Gallwey was one of these, cited by a good number of respondents as being significant to coaching.

Timothy gallwey

Werner Erhard's "est" Training

Werner Erhard has been the second most important influence on coaching, according to Vicki Brock (the first being Thomas Leonard, who we'll meet below). In her survey of 1310 coaches, Erhard was second only to Leonard in being named as key to the development and spread of coaching.

So who is Werner Erhard? In the 70's, Erhard ran "est," or Erhard Seminars Training at the Esalan institute. These were intensive self-empowerment workshops. They were part of the broader human potential movement which developed in the 60's and was about cultivating wellness and personal transformation.

Est training

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O'Connor and Lages suggest Erhard was a "connector." Those of you familiar with Malcolm Gladwell will recognize connectors as part of his description of agents of change responsible for a tipping point. A tipping point is "the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point" where an idea catches on.

Connectors are great networkers. They know and link up a lot of people. Indeed in Brock's interview data, approximately 30% of those identified as key influencers of coaching had some connection to Erhard.

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So the contribution of Erhard as a connector was one important way coaching started to catch on. Those familiar with Gladwell's tipping point theory will know that connectors aren't the only agents of change. So-called mavens are also important. That brings us to the only person who was mentioned more for his influence on coaching than Erhard: Thomas Leonard.

Thomas Leonard

Thomas Leonard's story continues on from est and Werner Erhard. Erhard sold the intellectual rights of est to an employee-owned organization which eventually became known as Landmark Education.

Leonard worked as the Budget Director for Landmark Education in the 1980s. As a financial advisor, he found that people were often seeking more than just financial guidance when they came to him. It turns out finances are often just a small part of the problem, and what people are really craving is advice about their lives in general.

Thomas Leonard
Money Financial advisor as coach Life

So Thomas Leonard started being a life advisor, and calling himself a coach. When coaching others, he drew together knowledge from a number of different fields along with instruments used by est and Landmark. A coaching methodology began to take shape.

Life coach badge

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It is this ability to bring together different strands of knowledge from different fields which prompted O'Connor and Lages (2007) to call Thomas Leonard a "maven." In Gladwell's tipping point theory, mavens are individuals who have the special ability to accumulate knowledge from different sources and combine it in new ways. They often start "word-of-mouth epidemics" this way.

Leonard fits the description because he was capable of lateral thinking, transferring knowledge the financial field to the general self help field. He had a knowledge of many different disciplines, including business, psychology and personal development. And he was pivotal in the spread of coaching by word of mouth in the 1990s. According to Brock, "Leonard's contribution as a transmitter was codifying, popularizing, and globalizing the discipline of coaching." Her interviewees give Leonard credit for popularizing coaching.

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John Whitmore, Graham Alexander and the GROW model

Where Thomas Leonard was pivotal in the US, John Whitmore and Graham Alexander were influential in spreading coaching in the UK and Europe. European flags

Significantly, Whitmore and Alexander "transmitted" the ideas of originator Timothy Gallwey's book the Inner Game of Tennis. According to Brock, "Trained by Gallwey, Whitmore and Alexander brought the Inner Game approach to Britain in 1981 and called it coaching."

Alexander drew on Erhard's est trainings and Gallwey's Inner Game to develop a new model of coaching in 1985 which would become highly influential: the GROW model.

Whitmore incorporated Gallwey's ideas into a business coaching context with Coaching for Performance (1992), a book which Brock states was the first to see coaching emerge as a separate profession. He also popularized the GROW model in this book.

GROW model

(1990s and beyond)

For O'Connor and Lages, the real tipping point in the spread of coaching was probably the mid '90s when business coaching really took off. IBM was the first large company that made use of coaching, which "took coaching from being a personal development vehicle for individuals to a way of developing people in business."

  • The '90s saw big changes in the nature of work as companies downsized, outsourcing work to contractors, and changing the way people related to their jobs. Instead of staying in one job for a lifetime, people change careers on average three times.
  • The loss of good personnel for an organization can be costly, and ongoing training helps keep good people. But it turns out training is not enough because people often forget what they have learned when they return to "business as usual." Coaching helps consolidate and solidify learning from training, keeping its effects going.
  • Coaching also helped people deal with the stress and time pressures of these turbulent times,
  • The rise of flatter organizations that eliminated a lot of middle managers also saw a leadership vacuum. Business and executive coaching fills that role by providing an ongoing dialogic relationship with employees instead of just training or consulting.

Brock argues that the period from 1990 to 2004 saw coaching emerge as a distinct profession. She ways the period is characterized by an "exponential growth" of coaching and "coaching's visibility in the public sector."

Life coaching tipping point
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According to Merriam and Brockett (1997), professionalization of a discipline is demonstrated by the rise of professional associations, literature and graduate study. The '90s saw the emergence of professional coaching associations, training programs and publications.

So given all these factors, by 2000, according to Brock, coaching had reached its tipping point and become widely known.

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Life coaching emergence curve

Vicki Brock's Emergence of Coaching Curve




In all, coaching has a number of theoretical origins, including sports psychology, the human potential movement and business management. Its started to percolate into self help and business in the '70s and '80s but really took off in the '90s when key transmitters were influential in the ideas taking hold of the social imagination. Coaching in a nutshell




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