What Is the History of Life Coaching?

Life coaching and its derivatives (such as executive coaching, career coaching, business coaching, health coaching, financial coaching, sports coaching) has an unusual background to its choice of name and when it began.

Rachel Bamber

What Is the History of Life Coaching?

Life coaching and its derivatives (such as executive coaching, career coaching, business coaching, health coaching, financial coaching, sports coaching) has an unusual background to its choice of name and when it began.

Rachel Bamber

Life Coaching: A Timeline


The word “coach” is thought to have first entered the English language in 1550s and according to Etymonline, this referred to a “large kind of four-wheeled, covered carriage”.  The English word derived from the Hungarian village of Kocs, where a coach (“kocsi”) was first made, and through French and German iterations in the next century, “coche” and “kotsche” respectively.  The coach would have been drawn by horses which offers another travelling idiom to the Twentieth Century term “coaching.”


It was not until around 1830s at the University of Oxford, England that a “coach” was used to describe a private “instructor/trainer” who “carries a student through an exam.”


Around thirty years later, the term also referred to someone who “trains athletes for a contest.”  “Pony” – meaning small horse, was also used in education at this time referring to “being something that enables a student to get along fast.” 


So, the origins of the meaning of the word coach reflect carrying from one place to another – and that this would be fast, which are still relevant to its newer meaning.


“Human beings, by changing the inner attitudes of their minds, can change the outer aspects of their lives.”


William James, American Philosopher, and father of American Psychology education


Despite James’ pronouncement, throughout the much of the twentieth century, psychology researchers following Freud and Jung tended to look to the past and what makes humans go wrong, rather than how they can change and what creates a happy, fulfilled life.


Coaching and training seem to have been used interchangeably in the early twentieth century in education, work, and sport (Passmore and Lai, 2019).


Coaching the mind as a form of improving performance came to prominence when tennis coach, Tim Gallwey, noticed that results were better when he helped his tennis players focus on how to learn and manage their thinking, rather than specific technical instruction of how to hit the ball.  He realised that there was a critical self which provided an ongoing commentary (now more popularly known as a “inner critic”) of what the other self was doing and silencing this negative chatter was key to creating peak performance.  He described performance = potential – interference.


The Inner Game of Tennis was published in 1974 and following his book’s success, Gallwey wrote versions for other sports and crucially, applied his methodology in the workplace.


Eton-educated former racing car driver, Sir John Whitmore, was an early pioneer of this approach, bringing The Inner Game to the United Kingdom in 1979.  He developed performance coaching and took this style of self-directed learning into the workplace to help leaders and managers.  With his colleagues at Performance Consultants, he researched his methods throughout the 1980s and 1990s, finding that it was possible for others to “improve performance, increase learning and enjoyment and find a sense of purpose at work.” (2)


His business training model GROW was featured in his globally best-selling Coaching for Performance (1992), and this paved the way for the growth of the coaching profession.  The GROW Model is used as a foundation model in many different international coaching skills training programmes for leaders and coaches, with its popularity being attributed to its simplicity and effectiveness.  Whitmore was also involved in setting up the European Mentoring and Coaching Council (EMCC).


Meanwhile, in the USA, financial planner Thomas Leonard observed that his clients wanted more support with organising their lives better and achieving their goals. He pivoted his career to reflect this customer need and developed what he called life planning, the origin of life coaching.  He chose to train others and formed the first formal coach training programme in the country: Coach University (Coach U) in 1992.  Leonard packed a lot into furthering the development of the coaching profession in his short life. This includes providing funding and forming the International Coaching Federation in 1994, online coach community, CoachVille in 2000 and publishing multiple books and audiotape resources.

Other notable coaches who have helped the profession evolve include:

Tony Robbins

From the early 1980s, Tony Robbins, or Anthony Robbins as he used to be known, championed the self-development scene in California, publishing audiotapes and books reflecting personal transformation and demonstrating NLP techniques ‘live’ to sold-out arenas first in USA, then all over the world. He is perhaps the best-known coach (and one of the financially wealthiest) however, he does not practice as an accredited coach as such and prefers to use the term “life and business strategist”.

Jack Canfield

Starting as an inner-city high school teacher inspiring his students, forty years ago, Jack Canfield became a transformational and motivational speaker and founded The Chicken Soup for the Soul™ publishing empire. A multiple New York Times best-selling author, he is renowned as an expert trainer in human potential and success. Now, aged 78 years old, he shows no signs of slowing down – you can still hire him to speak at an event.

Marshall Goldsmith

Executive educator, coach and author, Marshall Goldsmith pioneered 360 Feedback as a leadership development tool forty years ago. INC magazine cite him as “America’s #1 executive coach” and he is well regarded in the professional coaching industry.

Susan Jeffers

International best-selling author coined the phrase Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway with her self-help book of the same name first published in 1987. Although not a professional coach, she widened the appeal of the personal development industry and like others in the profession, she taught classes before reaching a bigger audience and achieving global success.

Fiona Harrold

From a small town in Northern Ireland, Fiona Harrold is credited with bringing coaching to a wider public in the United Kingdom and encouraging others to train as coaches through her appearances on national television and best-selling book, Be Your Own Life Coach (published 2001).

Laura Whitworth, Karen and Henry Kimsey-House

A previous collaborator with Thomas Leonard and trainee of Tim Gallwey, Laura together with her second coaching client, Henry and his future wife, founded Coaches Training Institute (CTI) in 1992. The first edition of their book Co-active Coaching: New Skills for Coaching People Toward Success in Work and Life was published in 1999. More recently the Co-Active Training Institute is a leadership development company, and the ICF-accredited programme Co-Active Professional Coach Training is available worldwide.

Cheryl Richardson

The first President and Chair of the International Coaching Federation, Cheryl is also one of the first coaches to hold the ICF’s prestigious MCC credential. Coverage on US television including The Oprah Winfrey Show and best-selling books have further ensured her prominence. Her work focuses on supporting others to enjoy life-balance and extreme self-care.

Dr David Rock

David founded coach training organisation Results Coaching Systems™ in 1999 operating out of Australia until moving to New York, USA in 2010. Pioneering neuroscience research with coaching and leadership development, he coined the term NeuroLeadership in 2007 and founded the NeuroLeadership Institute, creating a global cognitive science consultancy. A skilled communicator at making the science accessible, he is also a prolific author.

At Brighter Thinking, I am grateful for the early pioneers and all those who have developed the coaching and training professions and grown the self-development, leadership, and personal development industries.


Buck, V. (2009) Coaching Pioneers: Laura Whitworth and Thomas Leonard. International Journal of Coaching in Organisations 2009 7(1), 54-65 Available at: https://researchportal.coachfederation.org/Document/Pdf/2966.pdf [Accessed: 29/08/2022]

ICF (2022) What is coaching? ICF website https://experiencecoaching.com/

Passmore, J. and Lai, Yi-Ling (2019) Coaching psychology: exploring definitions and research contribution to practice? International Coaching Psychology Review. 14 (2), pp. 69-83. ISSN 1750-2764.