Exploring career mentoring and coaching
Exploring career mentoring and coaching

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

1 A brief history of coaching

Described image
Figure 1 The origins of coaching

The word ‘coach’ was initially used to describe a horse drawn vehicle, but its transition to meaning ‘instructor’ probably began in the 1830s, when it was used at Oxford University as a slang word to describe a tutor who was ‘carrying’ a student through an exam. Later in the nineteenth century, it started to be used in sporting circles to describe an individual who helped an athlete to improve and move forward.

In the 1970s, people started to realise that the coaching approach used in sport could add value to life in general. In 1975 Tim Gallwey, a successful US tennis player, first wrote his bestseller The Inner Game of Tennis: The Ultimate Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance (2015). This book was one of the first to focus not just on fitness, but on the ‘battle within ourselves as we try and overcome self-doubt and anxiety’. He soon found himself in demand from US business professionals as well as sports people.

Activity 1 Are sports coaches as tough as we think?

Timing: Allow about 15 minutes

When we see sports coaches on television or in films, they are often portrayed as tough, unsympathetic characters – sometimes even bullies.

Watch this clip created by Burger Fiction and Esquire.

Movie coach super speech [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]

In the box below, summarise the approach of a sports coach as it is portrayed in the film clips presented.

How does this differ from your understanding of a career/life/business coach and what they do?

To use this interactive functionality a free OU account is required. Sign in or register.
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).


As business coaching grew out of sports coaching, it is useful to explore the differences and similarities between them, but the media portrayal doesn’t always present the full picture.

While the media often depicts lots of shouting and belittling of players who don’t perform, the reality can be very different.

In his LinkedIn blog post, Andrew Neitlich (2016) explains that what we see on the sports field is the coach as a manager – managing the game and their team, for example, shouting from the sidelines.

Behind the scenes, the approach is more aligned to how we imagine life or business coaching. For example, the coach will ask the players questions about their performance, encouraging them to take accountability and offering them feedback.

Cox et al. (2014, p. 3, Table 0.1) explain how the more directive approach, which was used in the early days to educate trainees or apprentices, has adapted and changed over time:

Table 1 Transitions from traditional coaching
Coach requires expertise/knowledge of the taskCoach requires expertise/knowledge of the coaching process
Driven by the coach’s agenda, or, at best, an agreed agendaDriven by the coachee’s agenda
Coachee performance (doing)Coachee self-actualisation (becoming)
Skills acquisition (building knowledge of the task)Capability development (building insight and self-knowledge as stepping stones to more substantive change)
Meeting standards set by othersMeeting standards set by the coachee
(Cox, Bachkirova and Clutterbuck, 2014)

As you can see, the emphasis has changed and is now placed on the coachee or client driving the process and affecting their own transitions.

Career coaching has taken career development theory plus decades of careers advisers’ and career counsellors’ experience, and combined it with the tools, techniques and positive, solution-focused approach of modern coaching.

In the modern workplace, a range of individuals might take on a coaching role. Cox et al. (2014, p. 4) present a list of coaching roles that they have observed within a range of organisations, some more successful than others:

  • Line manager as coach – not always effective as they often won’t have sufficient time to dedicate to the coaching relationship.
  • Coaching role model – senior managers receive training and act as role models and champions for the coaching agenda within the organisation.
  • The expert coach – experienced employees are rewarded for transferring knowledge and skills to others. Potentially a similar issue to line manager as coach.
  • The internal coach – a professional coach working full time within the organisation. May be constrained by authority structures etc.
  • The performance coach – typically an external professional brought in to achieve task-specific behavioural change in a relatively short time.
  • The developmental coach – also an external professional brought in to focus on broader, longer-term changes.

Now that you’ve explored how coaching has evolved in the workplace context, the next section provides case studies to show you how it can impact on individuals.

Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has 50 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to University-level study, we offer two introductory routes to our qualifications. You could either choose to start with an Access module, or a module which allows you to count your previous learning towards an Open University qualification. Read our guide on Where to take your learning next for more information.

Not ready for formal University study? Then browse over 1000 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus371