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History of Life Coaching

Compiling a 'history' of life coaching is no straight-forward task. Life coaching does not have a particular 'beginning', or a precise date to mark its birth. There was no one 'inventor', or one particular place of origin. The idea of self improvement is nothing new. Humans seem to have an innate hunger for knowledge, understanding, progress and enlightenment that can be traced back to the very beginnings of civilization.

As a term and a profession, 'life coaching' only really came into fruition in the 1980s as an extension of sports coaching and business coaching. It has since become a multi-million pound industry with an estimated 100,000 life coaches working professionally across the world.  

Why do humans need guidance?

Being a human is difficult. The incredible complexity of our brains makes us highly intelligent creatures. Our every thought and feeling is dictated by a myriad of chemical reactions and collisions that spark between every cell in our bodies continuously. We have tempers, desires, temptations, impulses, fears and insecurities that manifest across a broad spectrum of moods and vary hugely from individual to individual. In order to live together harmoniously, each one of us must learn to control these raw emotions and impulses - for if we all immediately bowed to our every whim, how would society function?

On the most basic level, we control and hone our emotions according to:

  1. basic moral structure (understanding the concepts of 'right' and 'wrong')
  2. guidance from others (supporting and learning from one another).   

Basic moral structure

The concept of helping others to improve themselves has been a part of human interaction and progress since the beginning of civilization. Around 2 million years ago, early man began to form small hunter-gatherer groups because they realised that by working together, they could significantly improve their chances of survival. However, in order to work together successfully, they also had to learn to restrain and adapt their basic impulses. Scientists believe that it was from this need for group cohesion that morality evolved (although whether morality is innate or learned is an on-going debate in this field of science). Concepts of 'right', 'wrong', 'good' and 'evil' would have helped to form a sense of structure in a large clan. From these clans, civilizations were eventually built. Man began to build houses, farm crops, breed livestock, form families, devise politics and hierarchies, and develop spiritual beliefs.

The idea of working towards a moral 'good', whether to please the gods, reach the afterlife or experience the full richness of life, also instilled the all-important idea that we could each strive to be better individuals.

Guidance from others

Ancient 'wisdom books', including the Bible as well as even older texts from the ancient civilizations of Babylon, Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt, were written by sages pondering the nature of love, good, evil, knowledge and self-improvement. One such wisdom book, known as 'The Instructions of Kagemni', contains advice that could be straight out of a modern lifestyle magazine, despite being written in Ancient Egypt over 3000 years ago:

"If you sit with a company of people, desire not the food, even if you want it; it takes only a brief moment to restrain the heart, and it is disgraceful to be greedy.  A handful of water quenches the thirst, and a mouthful of melon supports the heart."

This drive for self improvement caused man to seek leaders for guidance towards a better way of life. Spiritual leaders, such as Buddha, Jesus Christ and the Prophet Mohammed all preached methods for improving the mind, body and soul. Many of these ancient wisdoms have remained with us today and amazingly still form the basis for whole nations' legal and political systems, including our own in Britain.

The self-help book

As most of us know, honing our characters and bodies into the perfect, honest, healthy, enlightened individuals we would all like to be is no easy feat.

Even as adults, we seek advice for the problems we encounter in life. But where do we find this advice?

Throughout the middle ages, British people relied on church services for their life advice, which was based entirely on passages from the Bible that the priest would read out as part of his sermon.

With the advent of the printing press, however, the age of the 'self-help book' began. These were known as conduct books and were the modern descendants of wisdom books. They focused on manners and ways of living that were based on Christian values such as modesty, honesty and virtue. The books outlined how to eat, how to dress, how to act and (especially so in the 18th and 19th centuries) how women should conduct themselves 'appropriately' in order to become perfect housewives.

The leap from self-help to life coaching

So what part does the 'self-help book' play in life coaching?

Of course, life coaches are not spiritual sages, nor are they agony aunts. Life coaching as we know it today is not about preaching philosophies, worshiping gods, or even giving advice. Life coaching is about providing the framework to allow for introspection. By encouraging a person to delve into their own selves and take a structured look at their lives, a life coach can help them to help themselves improve and progress towards their goals.

These structuring techniques were supposedly inspired by the techniques used by sports coaches in the late1900s.

The inner game of tennis

The person credited with identifying the self-improving potential of sports coaching is American writer Timothy Gallwey, who published his ground-breaking book 'The Inner game of tennis' in 1975. The author observed how tennis players created their own mental blocks on the court by doubting their abilities and picturing failure. He concluded that this kind of negative thinking interfered with the 'natural doing process' of the mind and limited the likelihood of success.

Sports coaches were encouraged to take a holistic approach towards improving their players' games. The coaching element began to extend further than shouting encouragement in the gym, or devising challenging work-out plans. Sports coaches began to delve into the players' lives in order to identify their personal and psychological mind-blocks. What was preventing them from running just that little bit faster? What was it that distracted them from that ball?

Gallwey believed that examining a sportsman's life, behaviour and character was more important in coaching than training them up with technical or physical skills.

From the sports-field to the boardroom

Pretty soon, eagle-eyed business people began to notice the similarities between a team of sportsmen on a field and a team of co-workers in a boardroom. This gave rise to the widely popular idea of business coaching. As more people trained to become business coaches, the more widely available the service became. Now it wasn't just executives and directors receiving coaching, it was whole teams of employees. Business coaching has since divided into a number of sub-categories, including leadership coaching, management coaching and career coaching.

From the boardroom to the home

It didn't take long for coaching to leave the boardroom and follow workers right into their homes, their relationships, their families and their hobbies.

Modern life is fast-paced, high-pressure and very often incredibly overwhelming. The structured, clinical approach of life coaching offered a refreshing break from some of the more invasive therapies on offer at the time. Life coaching wasn't about delving into clients' childhoods, or forcing them to bring up long repressed memories. There was no psychobabble, no dubious sounding psychosexual explanations. Life coaching was very simply about assessing the situation and moving forwards.

Life coaching today

Today, life coaching is still becoming increasingly popular. People like life coaching because it is:

  1. about the client - not about the life coach giving explanation or dishing out opinions
  2. forward-looking - it is not about revisiting past traumas
  3. action-orientated - it is less about assessment and more about progress
  4. enjoyable - it is a fundamentally positive experience that should be refreshing and enjoyable, and leave the client feeling clear-headed and capable.

Although the drive for self-improvement is as old as humanity itself, life coaching as a profession is only in its infancy. When a brand new (and extremely lucrative!) industry emerges out of the blue, it can take a while to establish it professionally. The term 'life coach' is currently unregulated meaning that essentially anybody can call themselves a life coach if they want. However, as of July 2011, the International Coach Federation (ICF) and the European Mentoring and Coaching Council (EMCC) filed a common Code of Conduct (for the EU only) ensuring a standard set of industry principles that individuals practising as life coaches are expected to adhere to.

'Life coaching' may be new, but self-improvement is integral to our species. Feeling happy and meeting goals is becoming increasingly difficult in the current economic climate. To find out what life coaching is all about, why not contact one? You can browse our directory of policy-approved professionals by using our search tool.

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