Coaching history

Life coaching has an amazing history…

While it may seem like the field has become popular in the last 10 years, the industry’s roots dig deeply into the soil of the 20th century. Some even say the philosophies of life coaching date back to the ancient Greeks and the famous philosopher Socrates.

“Coaching isn’t something new. It’s built on a lot of history. It’s not magic or hocus-pocus.”

Regardless of when the industry started, you probably want to know why understanding the history of life coaching is important.

The Harvard Expert: Vikki Brock

For this answer, we talked with Vikki Brock, a Harvard grad widely regarded as the authority on the history of coaching.

Vikki Brock, History of Coaching, Goaly Blog

“People need to recognize that coaching isn’t something new and that it’s built on a lot of history,” Brock said. “It’s not magic or hocus pocus or anything.”

For Brock, coaching is a tradition built upon hundreds — if not thousands — of years of important philosophies in the medical and non-medical worlds.

“It’s built on strong, interpersonal skills,” she said. “By understanding that it’s got solid roots, the individual who wants to get coaching may start from a more trusting place and be able to be more open.”

How did coaching get it start?

Great question…you can thank postmodernism for laying the groundwork for the emergence of modern coaching.

Thank You, Postmodernism!

Postmodernism is the thought movement which started in the 50’s and replaced the modernist way of thinking that dominated the world up to that point.

This shift from modernism to postmodernism was a global shift. Here are five examples of how our thinking changed:

  • A scientific world ruled by logic, rationality, objectivity, and analytical thinking gave way to a humanistic mindset where human bonding, networking, subjectivity, community and collaboration ruled.
  • A world where conformity was emphasized was replaced with a world where individualism and human potential took center stage.
  • Our ravenous pursuit of economic wealth faded and in its place emerged the pursuit of meaning, happiness and purpose.
  • The model of leadership in which people at the top teach and decide gave way to the community model of leadership where we learn from each other and participate in decisions together.
  • Change’s pace was relatively predictable, but then became far too fast to predict.

(Source: “Grounded Theory of the Roots and Emergence of Coaching”
by Vikki G. Brock, pp. 346-347)

Individuals started to move away from their support systems (family, friends, etc.) to find work, leaving them without any disciplines aside from psychology to help them cope with their self-directed journeys.

With modernism out of the way and a new reality rising, the world was ready for coaching. But first, it needed a good dose of Gestalt.

Gestalt Therapy

As the seeds of postmodern started to push up through the soil of the global psyche, another important movement was taking place: Gestalt therapy, a psychological tool German psychologist Fritz Perls popularized.

Fritz Perls, History of Coaching, Goaly Blog
Fritz Perls

Perls believed Gestalt therapy focuses on the patient, who has the potential, through the awareness of his or her present feelings and non-verbal cues, to recover his or her lost potential. The answer, Perls thought, lies inside the patient.

Gestalt therapy viewed the individual as an integrated whole made up of thoughts, emotions and feelings.

Gestalt therapy viewed the individual as an integrated whole made up of thoughts, emotions and feelings, a philosophy which fit perfectly with postmodernism. The Gestalt approach could be applied to nearly any coaching situation and  it was from this framework that coaching started grow and mature.

However, the Gestalt method was just part of the picture of coaching’s early history. Other thought leaders came into the picture who shaped coaching.


The Major Players in the History of Coaching

As we’ve talked about, we can thank postmodernism for the social environment which made coaching possible. Think of it as the soil.

Then, Gestalt therapy became popular, emphasizing humanism and being present in the moment. Think of this as fertilizer making the soil of postmodernism rich and ready for planting.

A long list of influential thinkers and coaches then arrived to plant and water the seeds that would grow into the diverse, influential industry that is now coaching.

A long list of influential thinkers and coaches then arrived to plant and water the seeds that would grow into the diverse, influential industry that is now coaching.

Though major players came to the forefront in the 60’s and 70’s, Brock said, their ideas and philosophies were built on the influence of psychologists and sports coaches who came before them.

Brock lists psychotherapist and doctor Alfred Adler as the 20th-century source of thinking that paved the way for the emergence of coaching in the postmodern era much in the same the Gestalt method did.

Alfred Adler, History of Coaching, Goaly Blog
Alfred Adler

Adler practiced in the early 1900’s. He emphasized “individual psychology,” in which he believed individuals were whole beings connected to family and society who could use principles of psychology in their own life to bring about personal development.


Brock links Adler’s ideas to several men who came after him, including: Napoleon Hill, Martin Heidegger, Carl Jung and Abraham Maslow. These men, along with other psychologists  like Carl Rogers, Virginia Satir and Albert Ellis in turn prepared the field for possibly the most influential name in coaching history, Werner Erhard.


Werner Erhard: The Father of Modern Coaching

Werner Erhard might be the single most influential person in the founding of the life coaching industry, not necessarily because he started the idea of coaching but because he started a movement which influenced many important names in coaching’s history.

Werner Erhard, History of Coaching, Goaly Blog

Erhard started his professional career as a salesman, transitioning into several different fields before starting Erhard Seminars Training, or “est” for short.

In 1982, author Steve Tipton wrote about the then-contemporary est movement, saying the principle behind est was simple: find fulfillment in your own path and pursue inner satisfaction along with “outer” success:

“est defines what is intrinsically valuable in self-expressive categories consonant with counter-cultural ideals. Then it uses these personally fulfilling and expressive ends to justify the routine work and goal achievement of mainstream public life. This formula … motivates them to lead this life effectively, with an eye to inner satisfaction as well as external success.”

The idea that you should find a career that fulfills more than your financial desires seems normal now, but at the time, the philosophy was radically different than the modernist mindset which still lingered.


Erhard’s Influence: Business, Sports, Ontology, American Coaching

Erhard’s seminar series and teaching influenced thousands of people, some of whom started their own coaching niches based on his philosophies.

The following categories and personalities are sourced from a 2014 presentation by Vikki Brock.

Management and Consulting

Ken Blanchard, Robert Hargrove, Warren Bennis and Peter Senge are four of the big names in the history of management and consulting coaching. Blanchard, author of the bestselling “The One Minute Manager” is perhaps the most famous of the bunch.


Timothy Gallwey, Sir John Whitmore and Graham Alexander are the key players in this niche.

Gallwey was a tennis coach who created an approach to sports called the Inner Game, in which players ditched self-criticism for self-exploration. Coach and player were partners, a philosophy which became the bedrock of modern coaching.

Alexander and Whitmore are credited with the GROW philosophy of coaching, in which athletes are challenged to come up with a goal, identify the reality, tackle the obstacles and move forward.


Erhard’s dialogue with politician and entrepreneur Fernando Flores resulted in the emergence of ontological coaching, a movement that included Rafael Echevarria, Julio Olalla and James Flaherty. This movement has been very influential in the business world.

Rafael Echevarria, History of Coaching, Goaly Blog
Rafael Echevarria

According to Olalla’s Newfield organization, “ ontological coaching addresses the concern for more effective action while also addressing the concerns of the human soul that are mostly left out of our learning practices today”.

American Coaching

Other coaches played an important role in the popularity of coaching in the United States, including names like Laura Whitworth, who co-founded the Coaches Training Institute and the Alliance of Coach Training Organizations, and was a founding member of the Personal Professional Coaches Association; and Thomas Leonard, who founded Coach U, the International Coach Federation, the International Association of Coaches and Coachville.

Three  Important Philosophies
Within Coaching’s History

The names we mentioned were largely responsible for the rise of coaching in the modern world. In the midst of this growth, several important philosophies integrated themselves into mainstream coaching:

Hypnotherapy: Milton Erickson

Erickson was a psychiatrist and psychotherapist who championed using hypnosis as a form of therapy. Though Erickson wasn’t a coach, per se, his 1950’s theories on using his own casual version of hypnosis became a popular trend in the years to come in the coaching world. For example, U.K. life coach Gary Amers is a clinical hypnotherapist.

The Inner Game: Timothy Gallwey

Gallwey was Werner Erhard’s tennis coach and author of a book called “The Inner Game of Tennis” Gallwey’s ideas about coaching and the mind were eventually used in the business world, spawning what is today a popular area of life coaching.

Timothy Gallwey, History of Coaching, Goaly Blog
Timothy Gallwey

The book, published in 1974, made the distinction between the outer game (the actual competition) and the inner game (the competitor’s mind). The “Inner Game” philosophy emphasizes methods for removing anxiety and self-doubt of the inner game to produce positive results in the outer game.

Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP): Richard Bandler and John Grinder

Bandler and Grinder are two very popular names in the coaching world. In the 1970’s they originated the method of coaching known as NLP, in which coach and client can use the client’s neurology, language and experiences to reach the client’s goals.

Bandler and Grinder’s philosophies about communication and coaching are a combination of several different ideas, including Milton Erickson’s hypnotherapy and Perls’ Gestalt therapy.

Leaving the Church, Looking for Help:
The 1990’s & Beyond

Another important cultural factor in the rise in coaching has been the decline in worldwide church attendance:

Just like postmoderns leaving their homes and their support systems, churchgoers are leaving their support system of spiritual leaders and they’re looking for wisdom and advice.

“I think we all need someone outside ourselves in order to help us see where we are blind,” U.K. Leadership developerAboodi Shabi said. “In the past we might have gone to a priest … for guidance, someone outside our lives who could bring new perspectives, or provide a spiritual framework for our lives. I think those are some of the reasons for the growth of coaching in recent times.”

Where Coaching Is Today

As we’ve read, there are hundreds upon hundreds of building blocks which make up the modern industry of coaching: psychology, psychiatry, Gestalt therapy sports coaching, hypnosis, NLP and more.

The beauty of life coaching is that though the industry is made up of more than 100,000 coaches and has literally dozens of niches, the mosaic of interests and specialities is based on the ideas and philosophies of the 20th century’s most influential and well-studied psychologists and psychiatrists.

This strong foundation of science and innovation has led to the heart of the coaching industry: to bring about real change in the lives of the clients with whom coaches partner.

A 2012 study by the international Coach Federation, one of the most respected coaching organizations in the world, showed that coaching clients said their sessions with their coach produced measurable changes in their life.

  • 80% said they had improved self-confidence
  • 73% said they had improved relationships
  • 72% said they had improved communication skills
  • 67% said they had improved life/work balance

Vikki Brock estimates that there are more than 500 coach training centers around that world, and that the coaching industry is growing by 2,500 new coaches per year.

While the future of coaching depends on as many factors as  the past of coaching, one thing is clear: the present state of coaching is transforming the lives of clients whose goal is to become the person they’ve wanted to become and to embrace the aspirations for which they’ve longed.