The History of Life Coaching: Key Lessons & Insights

history of coaching

With the industry booming, it may seem like life coaching just popped up out of the blue, but actually, it has roots in ancient Greek philosophy.

Way before you clicked on your first coaching course or cracked open your go-to coaching book, there were people out there blazing the trail for today’s coaches.

So, where did it all start? And how did it turn into the massive industry it is today? Let’s take a trip through the history of coaching and see how it’s evolved over thousands of years.

Why It’s Important to Know Life Coaching History

You’re a life coach today, so why does it matter where life coaching began? Why is it important to understand the history of it all?

A glimpse into the past can help you understand the purpose behind this profession. It can also help you understand different philosophies and coaching styles.

For instance, you may discover the origins of your current style, leading you to study those origins more profoundly to improve your coaching practice.

It’s important to learn from those who teach coaching today, but going back to its roots and reading up on original philosophical texts can provide you with an entirely new perspective. You can make your interpretations instead of learning someone else’s. You can also approach life coach training with a more critical mind.

Knowing the history of coaching also helps us figure out where the coaching industry is heading. When we know where we came from, we can see where we’re going more easily. This can help you educate yourself for the future and take the steps required to blaze the trail forward.

The History of Life Coaching: From Then to Now

The Origin of the Word “Coach”

So, what does the word “coach” mean? In the mid-16th century, it meant a large four-wheeled covered carriage. It came from the French term coche and the Hungarian word kocsi, which meant “carriage.” Carriages were named that way because superior carts and wagons were designed in Hungary’s small town of Kocs. 

However, the present meaning of the word originated at Oxford University in 1830. Back then, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, this word was slang for a tutor who would “carry” a student through an exam.

If you think about it, this meaning still makes sense today. As a coach, you “carry” your clients from one state to another. So, the word we use today to describe the coaching process is a metaphor for what we deliver.

The term “coach” entered the sports world in 1861 as “special instruction or training for an exam or an athletic contest.”

Ever since then, coaching has evolved through different styles. Today, there are endless coaching styles you can adapt to your services.

Let’s explore what each time period contributed to what we know as coaching today.

The Ancient Teachings of Philosophers

Many ancient philosophers taught their students and spoke of things that coaches today will easily recognize. While these philosophers did not invent “coaching” (they lived before the word existed), their teachings greatly influenced how life coaches help their clients today.

For example, the Chinese philosopher and poet Confucius wrote about personal morality and sincerity. It is not far from what many clients seek today: finding their truth.

However, one method has had a particularly huge impact on coaching philosophies today: the Socratic Method. Credited to Socrates, this approach helps students practice critical thinking and find the answers by asking the right questions.

It’s important to also credit Plato, who inspired Socrates in his teachings. Plato is considered to be the father of transcendental philosophy, which had a resurgence in the 19th century.

Transcendentalism in the 1830s

Transcendentalism was a philosophical movement led by writers and philosophers in New England. The main spearhead of this movement was believed to be Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Emerson talked about an emerging framework for a culture that differed from European culture. Even though the Declaration of Independence was already 60 years behind, European culture still had a firm hold on New England.

But Emerson wanted the people of America to have their own culture. He described the following two mental states:

  • The higher state: Someone in this state rejects older ideas, thinks for themselves, and rejects societal influence.
  • The lower state: Someone in this state struggles to separate their identity from their occupation.

Although no one back then described Emerson as a “coach,” how he expressed his thoughts would ultimately help people change how they viewed their societal role and become more self-assured in their identity.

The Inner Game of Tennis: From Sports Coaching to Interpersonal Coaching 

Fast-forward a century, the word “coach” emerged in sports. Timothy Gallwey’s book The Inner Game of Tennis: The Classic Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance reveals how.

As a leading innovator in sports psychology, Gallwey wrote about how the minds of athletes need to work to perform at the highest level. His book teaches would-be athletes how to focus their minds, find a state of relaxed concentration, and build their skills using smart practice methods.

Even though his book was written for athletes, Gallwey ended up giving lectures to business leaders across the US much more often than he would teach athletes.

His theories about non-judgmental observations, mental focus, and relaxed concentration applied just as much to these business professionals as to any type of athlete. In a nutshell, his teachings are about helping people realize their full potential.

Branching Out From Emerson and Gallwey’s Teachings 

Gallwey inspired many other creative thinkers with their ideas for unique coaching techniques. These thinkers developed ways for people to shift their mindsets and improve their performance in several aspects. Coaching opened its doors to:

  • Executive performance and business management
  • Building small businesses
  • Self-help and going through life transitions
  • Personal relationships
  • Diet and exercise
  • Love life and dating

These coaching branches had one thing in common: they all strived to help people become their best version, similar to what Emerson spoke about a century before. 

Thomas Leonard and the Socratic Method

Remember the Socratic Method we mentioned earlier? Yup, we’ve come full circle! The first model known today as “personal coaching” was developed by Thomas Leonard, who firmly believed in these philosophies.

He also believed that people aren’t broken. Instead, he saw them as full of potential and a universal ability for personal transformation. He believed that the Socratic Method of questioning, listening, and understanding yourself could help people take action, move forward, and become the best version of themselves–basically, the methodology of today’s life coaches.

Leonard founded the International Association of Coaching (IAF) and the International Coaching Federation (ICF) in 1994, which are still prominent today. The IAF and the ICF established standards for coaching and went on to certify tens of thousands of coaches in the upcoming decades.

Where Are We in Coaching History Today?

life coach history

Today’s coaching practices have their roots in ancient history, but they also take inspiration from other fields. For example, some methods use ideas from linguistics, anthropology, psychology, or sociology.

More and more people are seeing the importance of coaching in aspects of life beyond business, such as:

  • Personal finance
  • Spirituality
  • Divorce
  • Parenting and family dynamics
  • Holistic well-being

It’s also easier than ever to start a coaching business today. You only need a laptop, phone, and internet connection to coach clients anywhere.

Life Coaching: A Booming Industry

It’s a great time to be a coach. You have access to technology our forefathers couldn’t dream of, and coaching training is more widely accessible than ever. Most of the world’s knowledge is at your fingertips, and with AI, you can create new coaching exercises or content in a flash.

However, running a coaching business has its challenges. That’s why we’ve created Paperbell, an all-in-one software to handle all your contracts, schedules, and payments on a simple platform.

Let Paperbell take over the admin side of your coaching business so you can focus on the big picture. Create your free account today.

history of coaching

Editor’s Note: This post was published in April 2023 and has since been updated for accuracy.

By Charlene Boutin
Charlene is an email marketing and content strategy coach for small business owners and freelancers. Over the past 5 years, she has helped and coached 50+ small business owners to increase their traffic with blog content and grow their email subscribers.
May 13, 2024

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