What in the World is Coaching

A Brief History of a Broad Practice

The word “coach” finds it roots in the 15th-century Hungarian word “kocs” (pronounced “koch”), which referred to a horse-drawn vehicle with steel-spring suspension that evolved into a fast, light vehicle eventually used across Europe. Therefore, the English word coach, the Spanish and Portuguese coche, the German Kutsche, and the Slovak koč and Czech kočár all probably derive from the Hungarian word “kocsi,” literally meaning “of Kocs.”

The term “coaching,” however, developed at Oxford University in England in the 1830s where it was used as slang for tutoring that would help students pass their exams. This slang, though, derived from the origins of the word: If you had to travel in those times, to get from Point A to Point B, you would take a horse-drawn coach. Similarly, if you were trying to pass your exams at Oxford University, you might “be coached” through your exams. For decades, the term remained local slang. Then, when England began to professionalize sports, and they were looking for a way to describe a professional who helped athletes improve, they borrowed this term and invented the role of the athletic coach.

Fast-forward 130 years to Phoenix Arizona, where a Dr. Milton Erickson used mysterious methods to transform his patients. Hoping to crack the code on his technique, a scholar named Jay Haley traveled to Phoenix to study his ways. Though it took him 12 years to crack the code, Haley compiled these breakthrough findings into a book, Uncommon Therapy, that revealed to the world Erickson’s novel coaching practice and thereby transformed the field of psychology.

Erickson’s work focused on the present by seeking to understand what clients want right now. His theory was that once we understand one’s present goals, we can also uncover the obstacles to that goal and thereby find a solution. While most psychologists in those days were rooting around in people’s childhoods with slow success, Erickson was accelerating the path to results. Since then, coaching has become the new standard for leadership, growth, and positive change.