Origins of coaching: Origins of the species

Academics and experts are delving into the classical and British origins of coaching to help establish new models to suit the complexities of modern business.

For the past 30 years, the dominant model of coaching has been that of the sports model. And, as coaching has become an established business tool, coaching thinkers and writers have frequently referred to Harvard tennis captain-turned-guru Timothy Gallwey, and his series of books on The Inner Game, to point out that the modern definition and application of coaching stems from his work.

The most recent example of this is honorary vice-president and head of accreditation at the Association for Coaching, Carol Wilson, who, writing in reSource magazine, attributes Gallwey with kick-starting coaching “in its current sense”.

Fading enthusiasm

But elsewhere there is a feeling that enthusiasm for this sports model is starting to fade it will never disappear, but is likely to be tempered by an interest in the historical roots of coaching and an attempt to steer businesses from thinking that only one approach will do, particularly in executive coaching. This shift is driven by the sense that a sports model, with its connotations of goals and performance, does not suit every business need.

“Coaching is moving on from the sports model,” says Erik de Haan, director of the Centre for Coaching at executive education provider Ashridge.

“That model can be helpful in dealing with focused skills and with learning behavioural tricks and it can be useful for honing presentation skills for example, but already when it comes to assertiveness or influencing skills it falls short.”

De Haan is concerned that the sports model does not pay attention to underlying personal issues.

“Underpinning even the simplest of leadership issues are emotions, anxieties and personal traits, which need a deeper and more sensitive approach,” he says. “In other words, a more sophisticated model that draws on psychotherapy or organisation consulting, and which respects ethics and boundaries.”

Individual approach

He looks at this model at the beginning of his newly published book Relational Coaching, where an early chapter delves into the origin of the word coach (see ‘History lessons’ below). Moving on from these antecedents, de Haan makes the point that organisations should be looking at a more individual approach to coaching and be aware that undergoing personal learning with another professional can be a raw and uncertain experience.

At Sheffield Hallam University, professor of coaching and mentoring Bob Garvey has also been researching the historical roots of coaching and mentoring to get to their meaning. His work will be published in the forthcoming book Coaching and Mentoring Theory and Practice.

But, like de Haan’s work, this is no esoteric study. Garvey wants to provoke debate on how agendas and power in coaching and mentoring have evolved and how we view the learner. He warns against complacency. “There is too much at stake,” he says.

Garvey worries that some current models of coaching treat the learner as someone who “buys in” to a brand or philosophy and so is in danger of being regarded as the weaker person.

He asks if a fresh interest in the concept of mentoring, with its threads of revealing learning and self-understanding, would be more effective than the current preoccupation with working towards goals, as a stand-out feature of sports-derived coaching.

“The Grow model, for example, is great and I use it, but one of my philosophies about coaching and mentoring is that you need to have a repertoire of techniques,” he says. “To use the vernacular, it is a ‘rag bag’ subject.”

Garvey’s research has found that mentoring is often voluntary, emphasises the relationship between both parties, and is concerned with “social integration”, such as helping the subject to fit into an organisation, whereas coaching is seen as paid for and educational.

“Coaching has now taken on an American sporting emphasis,” he says. “But we need to ask if sport can translate into business. Sport, which is about going faster and becoming more skilful, is much simpler than modern business, which has to take many complex issues such as ethics and relationships into account.”

History lessons

In his new book, Erik de Haan researches the origin of the term ‘coach’ and says it derives from 15th century horse-drawn transport, with the symbolism that a coach takes people to where they want to be, and later a type of university educator.

Bob Garvey has looked at the origins of both coaching and mentoring to ascertain how they have adopted their current meanings. He found that the earliest mentions of mentoring in literature were about 3,000 years ago, when Homer wrote about a friend and adviser to Telemachus, the son of Odysseus. He traces the concept of mentoring through history, including the court of the French king Louis XIV, where the royal heir was tutored by a mentoring expert and author called Fenelon.

Coaching has more British roots, and Garvey says it was first mentioned in 1849 in a novel called Pendennis by William Makepeace Thackeray, which describes young men travelling by coach to Oxford University to meet their tutor.

Comments are closed.