Coaching — A Potted History

Coaching is always progressing, adapting and flexing to evolving demands. It’s come a long way, but there’s always scope for a refresh about where it’s come from and where it’s heading. 


Kevin McAlpin

The concept of coaching has been around for as long as the human race. Right from the earliest days, the older or more skilled taught the young how to hunt, cook, and paint pictures on cave walls — indeed any way to be useful and effective members of their tribes or communities.

This type of practical, skill-related coaching still exists in most societies to this day. However, a more sophisticated form of coaching, aimed at inspiring greater understanding or awareness can be seen emerging in the earliest philosophies and religions, ranging from the lessons incorporated in Aesop’s Fables to the lessons incorporated in the Parables.

Coaching Primer

Throughout history and literature there are examples of coaching in action but surprisingly the practice (at least in terms of executive development) appeared to fall into disuse in the late twentieth century. These were the days of the full-blooded management training programme. Remember when most management development programmes lasted at least five days? The major British management training colleges advertised general ‘open programmes’ to which managers and executives from all walks of life and business would come to be put through a pre-set and unalterable programme irrespective of their individual needs. In the USA programmes were often considerably longer and the five to eight week ‘total executive development experience’ was not uncommon.

This approach to development was not without its merits and both authors of this potted history have been involved in such forms of training and have seen it bring about immediate benefits to those being trained. But there are problems inherent in this approach and they are both economic as well as more subjective in nature.

Narrowing the Open Programme

The economic issue became apparent with the downturn of the economy in the 1990s when the organisations that had hitherto supported lengthy ‘open programmes’ found that they could no longer afford to go down this costly route and started to demand more tailor-made solutions from training providers. This initially took the form of requiring customised programmes that were aimed at addressing specific organisational issues as opposed to the more general ‘sheep dipping’ approach.

At the same time both organisations as well as their managers started to see the benefits of a more individualised approach to personal development. This is mirrored in society where we have gone from a situation based on the collective where the emphasis was on community and the nation, to one focussed on the individual where we all have to manage our own careers and lives.

While generic skills could be taught, there were a host of issues ranging from complex to highly personal or confidential matters that demanded something different to training. People needed something that enabled issues to be discussed in depth and solutions arrived at by debate, reflection and discovery over a period of time. This was in stark contrast to the pre-packaged solutions so typical of most training programmes.

But coaching still took time to catch on. In the late 1990s one of the authors — a leading executive coach — was asked what he did for a living. He replied with some pride that he was an executive coach. “Oh so you take people to the seaside?” came the reply. The coach initially thought that the other person was teasing him and was just about to compose a sarcastic reply when he saw to his amazement that the question was genuine. What made it even more amazing was that the questioner was a senior HR professional. Since then, things have moved on.

Seeding the GROW Model

As the idea of coaching developed, organisations started employing psychologists to understand employee motivation and development needs, as well as for recruitment, selection and assessment. Sport also had a strong influence on the rise of coaching. Tim Gallwey’s 1974 book, The Inner Game of Tennis, related to a more psychological approach to peak performance. He stated that the opponent in one’s head was greater than the one on the other side of the net.

In 1992, Sir John Whitmore, a motor racing champion, published Coaching for Performance where he developed the most influential model of coaching — the GROW model (goal, reality, options, will). For more on this model, go to the end of the article. Gurus such as Stephen Covey and Antony Robbins also fuelled the appetite for personal development and awareness.

In the 1990s the US went into recession and corporate downsizing became the rage. It may have seemed good in theory, but did not take account of human needs. This left managers and leaders in highly stressed environments without support, which in turn added to the need for individuals and organisations to continuously develop. This need for performance maximisation has also contributed to the upsurge in coaching.

The industry has also changed from one where coaches were brought in as often for poor performers as for high performers (often dealing with performance issues where the manager did not want to hassle or conflict) to today, where the vast majority of coaching is aimed at high level performers rather than remedial cases. Coaching today is for the high performer, top talent and those leading an organisation.

Many large private, public and voluntary sector organisations (as well as small and medium sized businesses) use executive coaching as a standalone development solution or dovetail coaching with other organisational development programmes.

The Role of the Coach

Executive, business or performance coaching can be simply described as helping someone to learn in order to improve their performance. It is usually a one-to-one activity and is not about issuing instructions but is about helping, showing, giving feedback, explaining and encouraging.

Coaching recognises that most development takes place on the job and that often real learning requires a demanding task or problem to be tackled. The process requires regular and effective contact between coach and client and a recognition that all sorts of occasions – ranging from a change in the ‘coachee’s’ job to gearing up for a specific project – may require this sort of intervention.

Coaching recognises that the coachee already has the vast majority of answers/facts and the coach’s role is to stimulate that knowledge/learning and allow the coachee to unlock and achieve their true potential. As a coach, leader or manager it can be as simple as asking your colleague one single question so they can engage their brain and learn. One question is all it takes for the coach to be inspirational.

The Six Roles of an Executive Coach

At the International Coach Federation European Conference in Italy in 2003, Robert Dilts ran a seminal session titled ‘From Coach to Awakener’. He stated that coaching is the process of helping another person perform at the peak of his or her abilities. It doesn’t presuppose that people are broken – on the contrary, it helps them identify and develop their strengths. It starts from the assumption that people have the answers and that the coach’s role is to help that person to overcome internal resistances and interferences, give feedback on behaviour and give tips and guidance.

But Dilt added that a coach plays five further roles:

Guiding and Caretaking

Guiding is the process of directing another person along the path leading from where they are presently to where they want to be, providing a safe and supportive environment without unnecessary distractions or interferences from the outside.


Teaching relates to helping a person develop cognitive skills and capabilities and the emphasis is on learning. It focuses on the acquisition of general skills, rather than on performance in specific situations. A teacher helps a person to develop new strategies for thinking and acting.


A teacher instructs, while a coach provides specific behavioural feedback, in order to help a person learn or grow. Mentors, on the other hand, guide us to discover our own unconscious competences, and strengthen beliefs and values, often through their own example.


Sponsorship involves creating a context in which others can act, grow and excel. Sponsorship is about the development of identity and core values, awakening and safeguarding potential within others. It involves the commitment to the promotion of something that is already within a person or group, but which is not being manifested to its fullest capacity.


Awakening goes beyond coaching, teaching, mentoring and sponsorship to include the level of vision, mission and spirit. An awakener puts other people in touch with their own missions and visions and thus the coach needs to know his/her own vision and mission and purpose.

The following list of Core Coaching Competencies is taken from a longer list issued by the Association for Coaching and illustrates just some of the key areas of knowledge, skills and behaviours that are generally required of a coach.


Core Coaching Competencies

As a coach you need:


  • What the coaching process involves
  • What models of coaching can underpin your role as a coach
  • What personal and professional capabilities the coachee needs to develop
  • How to manage the coaching relationship
  • How to set boundaries
  • How people learn and how to adapt to different learning styles


  • Listening
  • Communicate at different levels
  • Ask searching questions
  • Influence with integrity
  • Give feedback without causing offence
  • Be empathetic
  • Demonstrate confidence in oneself and also the coachee
  • Facilitate goal setting
  • Be challenging
  • Be compassionate
  • Always act with integrity and in the best interests of the coachee


  • Encourage self-discovery
  • Act as a role model
  • Be non-judgemental
  • Use humour appropriately
  • Illustrate that you value diversity
  • Show tact and diplomacy
  • Always maintain confidentiality
  • Seek to build client’s confidence and self-esteem
  • Show other sources of support to client
  • Critically evaluate one’s own effectiveness


The GROW Model for Coaching

The GROW model, originally conceived by Graham Alexander and brought to the fore by Sir John Whitmore, is possibly the best known model for coaching. Whitmore, made his name in the field of high performance coaching in the sporting arena but the technique is flexible enough to be applied virtually anywhere. Like most models it provides a structure for the coaching conversation that is designed to ensure some form of outcome.

Goals — at this stage the process focuses on the goals that the coachee wishes to achieve, not only from the specific coaching session, but also in the longer term.

Reality — this is a time for exploring the real nature of the problem, ensuring that the session is not side-tracked by false assumptions and for gathering information that will shed realistic light on the issue. It is not a time for problem solving.

Options — this stage of the process is to explore the possible options of behaviour or decision that will lead to the right solution.

Wrap Up or Will — at this stage the focus moves onto what the coachee is going to do in terms of specific steps to reach the goal. It is also a stage of examining the potential obstacles that may arise and of discussing ways of overcoming them and of agreeing the resources needed and the nature of further support.


Coaching Success

Staying ahead of the curve is only achieved by being flexible, adaptable and proactive. Coaching is the best way to nurture an action-orientated, outcome-focused performance in your people, with the most efficient ROI.

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Tim Gallwey. The Inner Game of Tennis. 1974.