The History of Life Coaching

The History of Life Coaching


It is impossible to put a precise date to the beginnings of life coaching as a discipline. Humans have always loved to gain enlightenment and knowledge and coaching inherently promotes these aspects. Nonetheless, the theoretical origins of life coaching may be traced to several disciplines that include business management and sports training. These targeted individual development techniques such as sensitivity training and primal therapy just like life coaching still does today.

Why do Humans Need Guidance?

While humans are highly intelligent creatures, life is a complex affair. Our complex brains are bombarded with myriad collision and chemical reactions that lead to a variety of impulses and emotions. These may result in either positive or negative effects depending on how we handle them. At the basic level, we hone and control our instincts and emotions through an understanding of a moral code and learning from and supporting one another.
The concept of helping each other has been part of our social fabric since prehistorical times. We learned that by working together we could significantly improve their chances of progress and survival. However, this could only be achieved through adapting or restraining our basic impulses which consequently resulted in a codification of a moral framework. It is from this agreement to have a moral code that civilizations and cities were built and spiritual beliefs, hierarchies, and politics and were founded. From the concept of moral code was born the idea that people need to strive to become better persons.

People from ancient civilizations such as Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Babylon got their guidance on how to become better persons from sages pondering self-improvement, knowledge evil, good, and love. With the drive for self-improvement activated by the sense of moral good, people sought the advice of these sages for guidance on how to become better persons. This is where the likes of Prophet Mohammed, Jesus Christ, and Buddha came in, teaching their followers how to improve the soul, body, and mind.

Coaching in the Modern World

Modern coaching has developed under three distinct generations of progenitors who have developed and transformed it into the structured discipline it is today. The three are the originator generation, the transmitter generation and the modern day generation that made coaching into the discipline it is today.

The Originator Generation

Life coaching at its core drew its ideas from sports coaching. The 19th century meaning of coach was any type of tutor who took one person from one level of proficiency to another.

Timothy Gallwey

Gallwey is generally considered to be the father of life coaching. He wrote the “Inner Game of Tennis”, considered the defining book that established the theory of coaching and coaching itself as a discipline. In the novel, he talks about the inner mental processes that determine the success of tennis players.

According to Gallwey, a tennis player has two opponents working against him in the game, the opposing player on the other side of the net, and the inner critic or opponent who is in the form of the ego-mind. The inner voice second guesses, criticizes and judges your every move and has come to be named The “Critical Voice” or the “Gremlin” by modern life coaches. The Gremlin is never a good voice to have in your head whether you are writing a dissertation paper or playing foosball.

The work of the sports coach is to take a holistic approach to improve a player by finding their Gremlin. Coaches thus delve into their player’s lives to dig out psychological and personal mind blocks that prevent them from giving their all on the field of play.

Werner Erhard’s “est” Training

Werner Erhard is considered the second most influential voice in the development of the life coaching discipline. During the 1970s, Erhard organized the Erhard Seminars Training that were abbreviated as est” held at the Esalen Institute in California.

The hour-long training seminars were intended to help one experience living by cultivating personal transformation and wellness. The intensive seminars were intended to bring clarity into a person’s life so that they can change situations they had been putting up with. The seminars promoted the ideas of possibility, transformation, accountability, and personal responsibility.

The Transmitters

Thomas Leonard

Leonard is deemed the first person to develop and practice coaching as a professional discipline. Leonard was an American financial advisor and Budget Director for Landmark Education during the 1980s. He noticed that many of his clients were emotionally stable and did not need therapy, though they clearly needed more from him that the usual tips on how to safeguard and invest their incomes. Calling himself a coach, he started offering services to help them plan and organize their lives and achieve their goals.

Since he had a background in many subjects such as personal development, psychology, est, finance, and business, he could provide good advice. Moreover, the networks he had built through Landmark Education also played a pivotal role in spreading the word about the new discipline of coaching heading into the 1990s. He soon shifted from a career in financial planning to focus on developing the methodologies and techniques of coaching that he compiled in the book “The Portable Coach”, an invaluable resource on life coaching.

Within a few years, Leonard was training a wide variety of people who needed coaching skills complimentary but different to those provided consultants, mentors and therapists. He established Coach University the first formal coach training program in the 1990s. The program provided its courses via a series of conferences online or if one preferred they could attend live classes. He was also instrumental in the setting up of the International Coach Federation (ICF). The ICF is a global body that provides accreditation of coaching schools, credentialing of coaches and published industry ethics and standards.

Graham Alexander, John Whitmore, and the GROW Model

Gallwey’s principles were effective and applicable to many other disciplines outside of coaching. In fact, Gallwey used the principles in the book to write about the inner game in skiing, music, golf, and work. In fact, The Inner Game of Tennis was so important in the evolution of the discipline as it was critical in the development of one of the most influential life coaching models – the GROW model.

Whitmore and Alexander were influenced by Gallwey in developing the GROW Model in the UK and Europe, which they called coaching. Graham Alexander drew on Gallwey’s Inner Game and Erhard’s est seminar training to develop a new model of coaching – The GROW Model. The GROW Model is a simple framework for problem-solving and goal setting. On the other hand, Whitmore tool Gallwey’s ideas and developed a business coaching context which he published in the book “Coaching for Performance” that also included concepts from the GROW Model. Coaching as a discipline took off when businesses such as IBM took it seriously and incorporated it into their corporate structure.

Coaching as a Distinct Profession

Once business coaching became popularized in the 1990s by companies such as IBM incorporating it, the profession took off. Coaching then became more than something for personal development for the individuals to a tool for developing executives, directors and whole teams of employees.

The big changes in the nature of work during the 90s also helped shape the coaching profession. With outsourcing, downsizing and the increase in the numbers of employees changing careers, the loss of personnel for organizations became a costly affair. Companies realized that ongoing training is great but coaching helps to solidify and consolidate what is learned in training and ensures that the effects are not diluted over time.

Coaching was also instrumental in helping people deal with hard times.

Between 1990 and 2004, coaching emerged as a distinct profession whose exponential growth made it a more visible component of the corporate landscape.

Life Coaching Becomes More Organized

Since the 1990s, there has been significant growth in the coaching discipline. The International Coaching Federation founded by a handful of people in 1992 now has thousands of members in more than ninety countries. Today there are tons of coaching organizations such as the Christina Coaches Network, the Biblical Coaching Alliance, the European Mentoring and Coaching Council and the more reno0wned Coachville. There are currently more than 300 training programs from only a handful that existed in the late 1990s. There are now more than sixty organizations that offer coaching certifications including graduate schools and universities that offer degree programs and courses in coaching.

Life Coaching Today

Coaching is becoming increasingly popular in today’s world because it is:

  • Client Centered – It is not about the coach giving opinions or explanations
  • Enjoyable – Most of it is a positive experience that leaves the client feeling capable and clear-headed.
  • Action Oriented – It more about progress and less about assessment.
  • Forward-Looking – It does not revisit past traumas.

While the need for enlightenment and self-improvement has been around since the dawn of humanity, life coaching is still in its infancy. While it is relatively unregulated, there are organizations such as the European Mentoring and Coaching Council and the International Coach Federation that provide standards for ethics and principles for coaches. The fact that many coaches are now accredited and have professional certifications and qualifications such as degrees, and certificated means that the discipline is only going to continue to grow and become stronger in the coming years.