Where Did Coaching Originate? Here’s the Full History of Life Coaching

history of coaching

If you’re relatively new to the coaching world, it seems like life coaching suddenly popped up out of nowhere!

Now, life coaches are everywhere, and there are more people than ever looking for coaches to guide them through their personal development or hard life transitions.

But life coaching isn’t anything new. It may be more prominent now, but in fact, the life coaching industry has roots as far as ancient Greek philosophy.

With more and more people having access to coaching online, it’s only normal that life coaching is getting more widespread. However, there were people out there blazing a trail for life coaches today before you ever watched your first coaching video or read your favorite coaching book.

So where did life coaching originate, then? How did it become the behemoth of an industry we know as life coaching today? Let’s explore the history of life coaching and how it has evolved over the last thousand years.

Why It’s Important to Know About Life Coaching History

You are a life coach today, so why does it matter where life coaching began? Why is it important to understand at least a brief history of life coaching?

A glimpse into the history of life coaching can help you understand the true meaning of the word. As you’ll soon see, the word “coach” actually originated from a metaphor, and understanding its original meaning can give you another perspective on your purpose as a coach.

Having a more complete picture of coaching’s history can also help you get a sense of different coaching styles and philosophies. For instance, you may find out the origins of your current style, which could then lead you to study those origins more profoundly so you can improve your inner game and coaching practice.

Learning from those who teach coaching today is important, but going back to your roots and reading up on original philosophical texts can provide you with a completely new perspective. You can make your own interpretations instead of learning someone else’s interpretations. 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 more easily see where we’re headed. 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

So where did life coaching truly begin? How did it evolve from its beginnings to where we are now? Read on to find out about the origin of the term and how life coaches evolved from there.

The origin of the word “coach”

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

The meaning we use today originated at Oxford University in 1830. Back then, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, this word was a slang term 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. In essence, the word we use today to describe the personal coaching process is a metaphor.

The sports coaching term “coach” transferred from there in 1861 as “special instruction or training for an exam or an athletic contest”.

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

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

Going way back: 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” (and lived way before the word even existed), their teachings have a huge influence on how coaches help their clients and run their life coaching business today.

For example, the Chinese philosopher and poet Confucius wrote about personal morality as well as sincerity. 

But one method has had a particularly huge impact on coaching philosophies today: the Socratic Method. This method, which is credited to Socrates, helps students stimulate their own critical thinking and find the answers within themselves by asking them the right questions.

It’s important to also credit Plato, who inspired Socrates in his own 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 strong hold on New England.

But Emerson wanted the people of America to have their own culture. He described 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 own occupation 

Although no one back then described Emerson as a “coach”, the way he expressed his thoughts would ultimately help people change how they viewed themselves within society to level up as whole people.

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

Fast-forward more than 100 years – at this point, the word “coach” was mostly used for sports coaching. But the author W. Timothy Gallwey would bridge the gap between sports coaching and personal development.

Timothy Gallwey’s book is called The Inner Game of Tennis: The Classic Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance. As a leading innovator in sports psychology, Gallwey held powerful insight into how the minds of athletes need to work to perform at a high 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.

But even though his book was targeted at athletes, Gallwey ended up giving lectures to business leaders across the U.S. much more often than he would actually lecture athletes! Lots of his teachings about non-judgmental observations, mental focus, and relaxed concentration applied just as much to these business professionals as to any type of athlete. His teachings are about helping people realize their full potential.

Branching out from Emerson and Gallwey’s Teachings 

From Gallwey’s book and lectures came flooding a ton of other creative thinkers who had their own ideas for unique coaching techniques. These thinkers developed ways that people could shift their mindset to improve their performance in several aspects of their lives. Coaching opened up into many different forms.

Some focus areas included:

  • Executive performance and business management
  • Building small businesses
  • Self help and going through life transitions
  • Personal relationships
  • Diet and exercise
  • Love life and dating
  • And so much more!

All of these branches of coaching had one thing in common – they all strived to help people become the best version of themselves, just as Emerson spoke of more than a hundred years 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 was a firm believer in the Socratic Method.

He also believed that people aren’t broken. Instead, he believed they were full of potential, and had the potential for personal transformation. He believed that the Socratic Method of questioning, listening, and understanding yourself could help people take action, move forward, work on self improvement and become the best version of themselves. (Basically, the methodology of life coaches today!)

He founded the International Association of Coaching (IAF) and the International Coaching Federation (ICF) in 1994. Both of these organizations still exist today.

These organizations established the standards for coaches, and, to this day, you can still get certified at both of their coaching schools.

Where Are We in Coaching History Today

life coach history

Today’s coaching practices have their roots in the history described above, but they also take inspiration from other spheres. For example, some methods pull from linguistics, anthropology, psychology, and sociology.

More and more people are also beginning to see the importance of coaching in several aspects of life. Business coaching is more and more prominent in the corporate world, but also in other aspects of life, such as:

  • Trauma and PTSD
  • Money management
  • Spirituality
  • Divorce
  • Recovery

It’s also easier than ever to get started and become a coach today. With certifications available online, you can start your coaching business from anywhere; as long as you have a working computer and an Internet connection, you can video chat with your coaching clients. There’s no need to pay rent and get a fancy office or pay for airfare to travel and get certified to become a life coach.

And with the evolution of all-in-one coaching software, the cost of life coach training is much lower than it used to be! It’s also much easier to get the word out there about your coaching practice, thanks to tools like Facebook ads and social media marketing.

The Personal Coaching Industry Is Booming

All in all, it’s a great time to be a coach. You have access to amazing technology, but you also have the privilege of standing on the shoulders of giants. 

Almost all of the world’s research is at your fingertips. You can easily study the history of life coaching and both old and new coaching philosophies. With so much potential within your reach, you have the possibility of becoming a trailblazer yourself and paving the way to the future of life coaching.

The coaching industry has grown exponentially in recent years, which means it’s never been a better time to become a life coach.

One thing is certain – you can’t become a trailblazer if you’re stuck sending invoice reminders or emailing back and forth to book with your clients.

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

history of coaching
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.
April 5, 2023

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