What Is Coaching?

If we were to look at the words we use the most on this website, the term “coaching” would naturally be the top one. In pure coaching fashion, it is interesting to pause for a moment and enquire about the meaning of the words we use. So we wanted to answer the question: what is coaching? 

The origins of coaching


The word coach was first used to describe a “large kind of carriage.” It got its name from the city of Kocs in Hungary, where wagons, carts, carriages and wheeled vehicles were designed in the 16th century. It also later applied to railway cars.

The word carried the sense of traveling from one place to another. At the beginning of the 19th century, Oxford University started using it as a slang for “instructor/ trainer”, “for a tutor who carries a student through an exam.” Around 1860, it was used in sports for the trainer of a team or an athlete, which is nowadays the most common definition.

From sports performance...

Fast forward to the 1970s. The Inner Game of Tennis introduced the idea that the self plays a huge part in sports performance. In this book, a Harvard-English-major-turned-tennis pro named Timothy Gallwey writes that the right approach to improve performance is not to focus on technique and practice, but rather to understand that “every game is composed of two parts, an outer game and an inner game”:

  • The outer game is facing an opponent in a match, which all sports coaches focused on.
  • The inner game is internal: competing self-doubt, lack of confidence or concentration, anxiety, etc.


Timothy Gallwey suggested that there are two selves:

  • Self 1 is the brain, the analytical and worrying self,
  • Self 2 is the body, the intuitive and physical self.


Self 1 instructs, Self 2 acts. The inner game is to let go of Self 1 (stop being so self-critical) to let Self 2 in control (the unconscious).

... To business performance

Timothy Gallwey’s approach was quite revolutionary at that time. It quickly spread to the business world, where organisations began to create workshops, trainings, and seminars on leadership and personal effectiveness.

By the 80s, coaching for performance had become increasingly popular. John Whitmore, who had trained with Timothy Gallwey, worked on a methodology inspired from The Inner Game of Tennis. The GROW model was born and his book Coaching for Performance: GROWing Human Potential and Purpose was a best-seller. Since then, GROW has been one of the most popular and used models in companies.

Positive psychology was also developed in the 90s as a result of the success of self-help, personal growth, and well-being. Psychologists and researches started studying what makes people happy, rather than what makes people unwell. Since then, many new concepts and models have emerged that apply to both psychology and coaching, like resilience, self-awareness, or emotional intelligence.

How the professional bodies define coaching

There may be as many definitions of coaching as there are coaches, so this question is definitely not an easy one to answer. To start with, let’s have a look at what the three main professional organisations say.

International coaching federation (ICF)

For the ICF, Coaching is:

“Partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential. The process of coaching often unlocks previously untapped sources of imagination, productivity and leadership.”

European Mentoring and Coaching Council (EMCC)

Interestingly enough, the EMCC doesn’t differentiate Coaching and Mentoring, and defines both under one unit:

“It is a professionally guided process that inspires clients to maximise their personal and professional potential. It is a structured, purposeful and transformational process, helping clients to see and test alternative ways for improvement of competence, decision making and enhancement of quality of life. Coach and Mentor and client work together in a partnering relationship on strictly confidential terms. In this relationship, clients are experts on the content & decision making level; the coach & mentor is an expert in professionally guiding the process.”

Association for coaching (AC)

The AC offers a different definition for Personal Coaching, Executive Coaching, Team and Group Coaching, etc. Here’s how they define Personal Coaching:

“A collaborative solution-focused, results-orientated and systematic process in which the coach facilitates the enhancement of work performance, life experience, self-directed learning and personal growth of the coachee.”

How we define coaching

Our own definition of coaching is inspired by the ICF and EMCC approaches. We see a lot of similarities between their two definitions, and that’s what we build our definition upon.

For us, coaching is a collaborative process supported by the coach who creates a safe space for exploration ; and led by the client who shares what is of importance to them in order to create positive, sustainable change.

We like describing coaching with the metaphor of taking a car journey together. The client is behind the wheel, while the coach is on the passenger seat. The client decides when to start the trip and the destination. As the co-pilot, the coach simply holds the map and invites the client to explore different roads and make stops along the way to enjoy the trip. The client decides whether they want to do that or not. They choose the speed and the roads to take, the same way they choose what happens during their coaching session.

Working on your own definition

It is essential for coaches to have their own definition of coaching, in their own words, rather than repeating the definition of the ICF/EMCC/AC, which would feel inauthentic and quite robotic. To work on how you would describe coaching, think about what coaching means to you, both as a practitioner and as a client:

  • What is the coaching process like?
  • What is the role of the coach? The role of the client?
  • What is the impact coaching aims to have?
  • What can the client get out of coaching? How is the coach helping them reach this?


Write down some ideas first, and then create a statement that you will be able to use whenever you are asked: “but what is coaching?”


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Association for Coaching. Coaching Defined. URL: https://www.associationforcoaching.com/page/CoachingDefined

EMCC. Glossary. URL: https://www.emccglobal.org/accreditation/glossary/

Etymology dictionary. Coach. URL: https://etymology.en-academic.com/9735/coach

Gallwey, T. (1974). The Inner Game of Tennis.

International Coaching Federation. About. URL: https://coachingfederation.org/about


Photo by Felipe Correia on Unsplash

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