Coaching psychology: Exploring definitions and research contribution to practice?
Jonathan Passmore (University of Reading)
Yi-Ling ai (University of Portsmouth)
This paper aims to provide an analytic review of contemporary coaching evidence and future
research directions through reviewing the development of coaching (e.g. executive, health
and life coaching) and coaching psychology definitions. We offer alternative perspectives
from psychologist and non-psychologist coaching practice in the development of both
traditions over the past two decades. As part of this paper we will summarise systematic
reviews and meta-analyses in workplace coaching and outline the key messages for evidence-
based practice. Three key messages are identified from this review. First, coaching itself is a
professional helping relationship since the process mainly relies on reciprocal actions
between the coach and coachee. Second, coachees should be placed in the centre of the
coaching relationship, recognising their motivation to change is the essential antecedent for
coaching success. Third, social psychological perspectives are an important element in dyadic
coaching interactions. Our aim in this paper is to encourage coaching scholars and
practitioners towards future research collaborations in the interest of developing evidenced
based practice in coaching.
Keywords: Coaching, coaching psychology, health coaching, executive coaching, analytic
literature review, coaching pedagogy.
Since coaching started its journey of development as a separate discipline in the early
1980s (Brock, 2012; Passmore & Theeboom, 2016); definitions of coaching have been part of
the debate within coaching practice and research, across the literature from practitioner’s
guides to academic texts. While there has been broad agreement over these years, the focus
and emphasis has varied reflecting the orientation and focus of different writers (e.g.
Whitmore, 1992; Grant & Palmer, 2002; Passmore & Fillery-Travis, 2011).
The search for a formal definition of coaching may be considered to be an academic pursuit.
However, Grant (2011) argues that a clear definition is needed for the purpose of the
development of evidence-based practice, such as coach training and education. Summarising
from previous discussions on the need for a standardised coaching definition, we conclude
that marking the boundaries of a domain is vital for three reasons. First, it is essential for
practice, a standardised definition of an intervention makes it clear to clients what they can
expect from a service provider (their coach), namely a regulated professional service. This
view is shared by the International Coach Federation (ICF), who encourage coaches to
include an exploration of the nature of coaching during the contracting phrase with clients,
ensuring both have a shared understanding of the process and what the client can expect (ICF,
2017). Second, it’s vital for research. We need to clearly delineate the domain to understand
the phenomena being studied. As coaching is still an emerging research domain, it is crucial
to define the key components to differentiate coaching from other similar helping
interventions (e.g. counselling) and provide a platform from which theoretical contributions
can develop. Third, a consistent definition is vital for coaching education and qualification;
with a scientific-based framework to support its pedagogy. Meanwhile, we consider a distinct
description and characterisation of coaching helps us to have a better understanding of
whether coaching psychology is a unique discipline, and what the essential body of
knowledge is to support its theoretical domain.
This paper starts with reviewing the definitions of coaching following with the
distinctions between sub-specialised practices under coaching, such as executive, health and
life coaching. In addition, we also provide a comparative analysis to differentiate coaching
from other similar professional helping interventions (e.g. counselling). Moreover, we
summarise the interpretations of psychology-based coaching approaches considering that the
term, coaching psychology, has been used and perceived as a developed (or developing)
discipline in some regions (e.g. Australia and UK). Nevertheless, it is still not widely
accepted or used in other parts of the world. Therefore, we attempt to clarify whether the
theoretical foundation of what so called ‘coaching psychology’ is different to coaching and
what the body of knowledge is under its domain from existing research evidence through
reviewing the most used definitions. The term ‘coaching psychology’ is used hereafter to
maintain the consistency in this paper. Finally, we integrate key perspectives and finding
from recent systematic reviews and meta-analyses on coaching to consider psychological
contribution to coaching practice.
Grant (2001) indicated the first reference to coaching in the workplace dates back to 1937.
This has subsequently been cited by multiple research papers over the past two decades. The
paper, a journalist’s report by C.B Gordy, the Detroit editor of Factory Management and
Maintenance, examined the role of worker development (through training and coaching) to
improve factory processes. The journalist offered little in the way of a formal definition of
coaching. In fact, the only reference to coaching by Gordy comes at the very end of the
paper: ‘whereas supervisors found it advisable in the early years to coach employees in the
importance of spoiled work and cost reduction, it is now found the older men voluntarily
assume this task in training the younger employees’ (Gordy, 1937, p.83). Gordy appeared to
suggest that coaching and training are almost synonymous, with a progress from what might
be a short and informal approach to training (coaching) to a more formal training
intervention. Our own literature search, using the term ‘coaching’ through the Henley One
database which searches multiple business databases, has revealed earlier references to the
term. As early as 1911 the term was being used in journals to reflect its use as an educational
tool within university and school debating societies; helping members improve their debating
skills (Trueblood, 1911; Huston, 1924). As with Gordy, there is little description in these
papers of the process, nor explicit definition of the term. Also like Gordy, the term appears to
be used inter-changeably with training. More workplace coaching papers continued during
the 1930s (Bigelow, 1938). At the same time sports coaching was developing too, where the
first connections were made between coaching and psychology (Griffiths, 1926). But these
works were relatively few and far between, until the eruption of coaching in the 1980s.
As the literature evolved from a sporadic collection of papers, often with little if any
definition of terms, Whitmore’s seminal book placed a marker in the sand, and provides a
clear definition of coaching. For Whitmore, coaching was about ‘unlocking a person’s
potential to maximise their own performance. It is helping them to learn rather than teaching
them – a facilitation approach’ (Whitmore, 1992, p.8). Whitmore drew heavily on Timothy
Gallwey’s inner game model. Gallwey had noted in sport performance that the internal state
of a player was a significant factor. He went further to argue that it was more significant even
than the opponent in individual sports like tennis and golf. If the individual could control
their self-talk, sizable performance gains could be made (Gallwey, 1986) At the core of
coaching for John Whitmore was a belief that the purpose of coaching was helping
individuals develop greater self-awareness and personal responsibility: ‘Performance
coaching is based on awareness and responsibility’ (Whitmore, 1992, p.173).
Other founding writers offered alternative definitions. Laura Whitworth one of the
pioneers in the US, along with Thomas Leonard (Brook, 2009), developed co-active coaching
which defined coaching as ‘a relationship of possibilities… based on trust, confidentiality’
These perspectives highlighted the nature of the coaching process and its dependency
on people, interpersonal interactions and collaboration. This relational aspect distinguishes
coaching from other tutoring, or training interventions, where arguably knowledge exchange
is at the heart of the process and has led to one stream of coaching research focusing on
interpersonal and relational aspects, in the belief that if the relationship is sound, effective
outcomes will result.
Passmore and Fillery-Travis (2011) offered a more process-based definition in an
attempt to differentiate coaching from mentoring, counselling and other conversation-based
approaches to change. They suggested coaching involved ‘a Socratic based dialogue between
a facilitator (coach) and a participant (client) where the majority of interventions used by the
facilitator are open questions which are aimed at stimulating the self awareness and personal
responsibility of the participant’.
Bachkirova et al. (2010) have suggested that coaching is ‘a human development
process that involves structured, focused interaction and the use of appropriate strategies,
tools and techniques to promote desirable and sustainable change for the benefit of the
coachee…’ (Bachkirova et al., 2010, p.1). While Lai (2014) suggested coaching is defined as
a ‘reflective process between coaches and coachees which helps or facilitates coachees to
experience positive behavioural changes through continuous dialogue and negotiations with
coaches to meet coachees’ personal or work goals’. Again, positive behavioural changes are
pointed out as the main purpose of coaching, with a recognition that a structured process is
involved. Moreover, ‘negotiation’ is put forward in Lai’s re-interpretation of coaching that
reflects back the previous definitions, coaching is a relationship-based learning and
Sub-specialised practices under coaching
As the coaching industry has grown, definitions have split into a series of sub-sets of
coaching. These have included ‘executive coaching’, ‘health coaching’, ‘life coaching’. The
following sections summarise the definitions and characteristics of these most prevalent
sub-specialised areas of coaching.
The application of coaching in the workplace and specifically with senior managers has led
to the development of what has been labelled executive coaching. At its simplest executive
coaching could be defined as coaching for senior, or c-suite, managers. Kilburg suggested
executive coaching was distinctive in being ‘a helping relationship formed between a client
who has managerial authority and responsibility in an organization and a consultant who
uses a wide variety of behavioural techniques and methods to help the client achieve a
mutually identified set of goals to improve his or her professional performance and personal
satisfaction and, consequently, to improve the effectiveness of the client’s organization within
a formally defined coaching agreement’ (Kilburg, 1996, p.142).
Similarly, de Haan et al. (2013), echoing earlier relational definitions, indicated
executive coaching is a relationship-focused development intervention. Their research and
practice perceive executive coaching as a form of leadership development that takes place
through a series of contracted, one-to-one conversations, with a qualified ‘coach.’ The
process itself is tailored to individuals, so that they learn and develop through the reflective
conversation, but that such learning occurred because of the unique relationship based on
trust, safe, and support.
Both definitions highlight the professional working relationship in the coaching
process and the importance of ‘contracting’ beforehand. However, the definition by de Haan
et al. (de Haan, Duckworth, Birch & Jones, 2013) specifies the term ‘qualified coach’ which
raises the awareness of a ‘standard’ coaching qualification. Given that de Haan’s own
background as facilitator and coach trainer, this is not surprising, but his definition opens up
the discussion, what does ‘qualified coach’ mean and who decides.
A further strand that has emerged and is continuing to grow in popularity is health
coaching. The approach has grown in both the UK, within the National Health Service (NHS)
(Evidence Centre, 2014), in the US through private providers and globally. A literature
review identified 275 published studies, with the approach now widely used by nurses,
doctors and allied health professionals such as physiotherapists and health advisors (Evidence
The study defined health coaching as: ‘a patient-centred process that is based upon
behaviour change theory and is delivered by health professionals with diverse backgrounds.
The actual health coaching process entails goal setting determined by the patient,
encourages self-discovery in addition to content education, and incorporates mechanisms for
developing accountability in health behaviours’ (Evidence Centre, 2014, p.3).
A similar definition was offered by Palmer, Stubbs and Whybrow (2003), who defined health
coaching as ‘the practice of health education and health promotion within a coaching
context, to enhance the wellbeing of individuals and to facilitate the achievement of their
health-related goals’ (Palmer, Stubbs & Whybrow, 2003, p.91). The distinction the focus on
self-discovery, which echoes Whitmore’s primary aims of coaching: self-awareness and
However, what is less clear from these definitions is where health coaching starts and
finishes. If coaching is employed to help individuals with chronic conditions and to improve
health outcomes, does this include approaches such as motivational interviewing, which are
widely used for drug and alcohol treatment, or brief solution focus therapy and cognitive
behavioural therapy, which might be considered to be included within the definitions above,
but which the practitioner delivering it might consider to be counselling or therapy. This lack
of a more clearly defined boundary has made it difficult to study and compare coaching
interventions within this health (Boehmer et al., 2016).
One useful, although controversial, distinction we have offered is to use the time
focus of the conversation, with coaching focused on future behavioural change for health
improvement, while counseling or therapy focus on coping with, managing or making sense
of the past.
Like health coaching, life coaching has become a popular means of helping non-
clinical populations in setting and reaching goals and enhancing their wellbeing (Green,
Oades & Grant, 2006).
Life coaching can be broadly defined as a collaborative solution focused, result
orientated and systematic process in which the coach facilitates the enhancement of life
experience and goal attainment in the personal and/or professional life of normal, non-clinical
clients (Grant, 2014). In other words life coaching has often been considered to be coaching
outside of the work arena, for example in education (Green, Grant & Rynsaardt, 2007) or
coaching for wellbeing (Green, Oades & Grant, 2006).
One possible distinction between life coaching and health coaching is that while
health coaching is often defined in terms of the qualification of those providing it: health
coaching is coaching delivered by health professionals, while life coaching is delivered by
those outside of the health sector. In the UK and Australia, the term itself has slipped in
popularity being replaced by the term wellbeing coaching. Although the term life coaching
remains popular in North America, coaching continues to grow and spread to new areas
beyond business and sports to areas including driving development (Passmore & Rehman,
2012; Wilmott & Wilmott, 2018), safety coaching (Passmore, Krauesslar & Avery, 2015),
maternity and childcare (Golawski et al., 2013) and marital relationships (Williams &
Williams, 2011; Ives & Cox, 2015).
Reflections of the developing nature of coaching definitions
Reflecting back on the wide-ranging definitions, a common theme is the facilitative
nature of coaching. First, the role of the agent (the coach) is not to guide, direct or instruct,
but to ‘facilitate’. The process is to support the client (coachee) in new discoveries, insights
and move closer to their goals. A second observation from reviewing these multiple
definitions is that coaching has been refined and redefined continually over this period as it
has changed, developed and spread into new areas. This brings not only challenges, but could
also be considered to be coaching’s strength, reflecting a vibrant, dynamic and developing
area of practice. As Palmer and Whybrow note ‘definitions seldom stay static, unless the area
has stagnated’ (2007, p.3).
The situation has been less fluid in coaching psychology. While there have been
various definitions of coaching psychology offered since the turn of the millennium, the
variety and volume of change has been markedly different, with only two or three alternative
definitions offered in publications (Passmore et al., 2013).
The differences between coaching and other helping interventions
One way of understanding the essential defining elements of coaching is a comparison
to other relevant facilitation activities. Traditionally, coaching has been compared to therapy/
counselling and mentoring (Bachkirova, 2008) because they share very similar features and
process. In this discussion we also include a discussion about organisational change. Various
writers have discussed the key similarities and differences among coaching, therapy/
counselling, mentoring and change agent (e.g. Bachkirova, 2008; Leonard et al., 2013). Table
1 on pp.73–74 summarises the key features subsequent to reviewing a number of related
papers and book chapters (Joo, 2005; Gray, 2006; Bachkirova, 2008; McDowall & Mabey,
2008; Passmore et al., 2013).
Coaching compared to counselling/ therapy
The need for a clearer differentiation between counselling/therapy and coaching is
emerging as the use of psychological models and tools in coaching interventions has
increased considerably (Bachkirova, 2008). Such a differentiation is essential to ensure a
quality coaching engagement if the clearer orientation and required knowledge are defined in
the coaching evaluation and training agenda. The similarities between the counselling/therapy
and coaching domains are that both are concerned with the ‘relationship’, there is a need for
engagement or ‘client’s/coachee’s commitment’ and both rely on the ‘practitioner’s (coaches)
self-awareness’ to facilitate both the relationship and keep the conversation moving forward.
In both cases the aim is to facilitate a person’s change through an interpersonal interactive
process, the relationship between practitioner and client and how the practitioner facilitates
an effective relationship are essential for a positive outcome. In addition, the
counselling/therapy and coaching principle share a number of basic required professional
skills such as listening, questioning, summaries, reflection and affirmations.
We suggest that there are at least three differentiating aspects. First, the initial
Table 1: The differences and similarities between coaching other similar professional helping
(Revised from Joo, 2005; Gray, 2006; Bachkirova, 2008; McDowall & Mabey, 2008; Passmore et al., 2013)
Ultimate purpose and benefits.
Development and well-being of individual.
Development and well-being of
individual (if sponsored, also benefit for
the sponsoring organisation).
Development and well-being of
individual (if sponsored, also
benefit for the sponsoring
Development and organisational
Eliminating psychological problem and
Enhancing life, improving performance.
Enhancing life, improving
Enhancing life, improving
performance at the workplace.
Context of interventions.
Open to any and potentially to all areas of
Specified by the contract according to
the client’s goals, the coach’s area of
expertise and the assignment of a
sponsor if involved.
Specified by the contract according
to the client’s goals, the coach’s area
of expertise and the assignment of a
sponsor if involved.
Specified by the contract according
to the client’s goals, the coach’s
area of expertise and the assignment
of a sponsor if involved.
Client’s expectations for change.
From high dissatisfaction to reasonable
From relative satisfaction to much higher
From relative satisfaction to much
From relative satisfaction to much
Increased well-being, unexpected positive
changes in various areas of life.
Attainment of goals, increased well-
being and productivity.
Attainment of goals, increased well-
being and productivity.
Attainment of goals, increased well-
being and productivity.
Psychology and philosophy.
May include psychology, education,
sociology, philosophy, management,
health and social care etc.
May include psychology, education,
sociology, philosophy, management,
health and social care etc.
May include psychology, education,
sociology, philosophy, management
and organistaional change theories
Main professional skills.
Listening, questioning, feedback, use of tools
and methods specific to particular approaches.
Listening, questioning, feedback, use of
tools and methods specific to particular
Listening, questioning, feedback, use
of tools and methods specific to
Listening, questioning, feedback,
use of tools and methods specific to
Importance of relationship in the
Importance of the client’s
Role of the practitioner’s self in
Degree of formality
Variable, but usually several sessions needed
based on client’s individual situations.
Variable, but usually several sessions
based on client’s individual
Variable, but usually several sessions
based on client’s individual
Variable, usually based on the
original contract with the
It is confidential data. Only shared between
therapist and client.
Coach and individual, some data often
shared with line manager. It depends on
the agreed contract.
Mentor and the mentee. Some data
and information are shared with the
organisation based on the initial
Most of the data and information
are shared with the organisation.
motivation of clients to undertake counselling/ therapy is different from coaching. For
example, the individual usually expects to eliminate psychological problems and
dysfunctions through counselling/therapy sessions. In this sense it may be considered to be
primarily problem focused. In contrast coaching clients are seeking more. The coachee
arrives in anticipation of an improvement in personal and professional development. In this
sense it may be considered to be solution focused. Second, the focus of counselling/therapy
may involve any matters relevant to the client’s personal wellbeing, while the coaching
process is usually restricted to the agreed and contracted goals. The expected outcomes and
evaluation methods are usually defined prior to the first session with the involved parties (e.g.
coachee, supervisors and other stake-holders). Third, the time horizon for the work is longer.
While the coach may contract for four, six or possibly twelve sessions, the therapists,
contracts week by week, with a view that it takes as long as it takes.
Coaching compared to mentoring
The similarity between coaching and mentoring is that they both provide a one-toone
relationship that is designed to enhance a person’s career development (Feldman & Lankau,
2005). However, there are notable differences between these two activities. First, mentoring
is a form of tutelage, which means a more senior or experienced mentor conveys knowledge
and insight to a junior mentee about how to improve in a specific job, role, vocation or
organisation. Passmore (2013) referred to the definition of mentoring from Eby, Rhodes and
Allen (2007, p.16): workplace mentoring involves a relationship between a less experienced
individual (protégé) and a more experienced person (the mentor), where the purpose is the
personal and professional growth of the protégé. The mentor may be a peer at work, a
supervisor, someone else within the organisation, but outside the protégé’s chain of
command. Both coaching and mentoring disciplines highlight the importance of
‘relationship’, however, coaching is typically conducted without the expectation of a more
equal relationship between the two parties, with less focus on technical knowledge (Joo,
2005). Besides, the main purpose of coaching is considered to be on improving performance
or workplace wellbeing through self-awareness and learning, whereas the purpose of
mentoring varies widely from socialisation of newcomers to management development (Joo,
2005). Some have also argued that coaching also differentiates from mentoring in its use of a
structured process, involving specific tools and assessments, to provide both awareness in the
client and the development of specific plans for improvement (Joo, 2005), which is in turn
reflected in the timelines, with mentoring often running over several years and coaching over
Coaching compared to change agent
A change agent is defined as being an individual who initiates and manages change in
the organisation (Lunenburg, 2010). Similar to the coaching intervention, the change agent
can be assigned from internal (e.g. managers or in-house HR professionals) or hired from
external specialists (Tschirky, 2011). Integrating contemporary theoretical interpretations
between the coach and change agent, these two roles share several common features and
historical development processes. First, coaches and change agents are commissioned to
transform individuals to fit into the norms (e.g. behaviours, attitudes, performance, thinking
styles) of societies or organisations at the early stage of both practices (Bennis et al., 1969;
Kilburg, 1996; Parsloe, 1999). A ‘planned’ change in the organisational setting is usually
expected by the change agency (i.e. the sponsored organisation) back to the late 1950s
(Lippitt, Watson & Westley, 1958). The primal definitions of coaching also emphasis on the
purposes of coaching are related to ‘corporate vision and goals’, ‘team performance’,
‘organisational productivity’ and ‘professional development’ (Parsloe, 1996; Sperry, 2008).
These descriptions of being a coach and change agent focus on the task, instead of people;
and the process is viewed as an instrumental tool generating the conformity in the
organisation. Nevertheless, a broader view of both practices is established alongside with the
development of relevant theories, such as motivation to change. For instance, Zaltman and
Duncan (1977) indicated the change agent is any individual who transforms the status quo
even though the operation is not sanctioned. In addition, Caldwell (2003) indicates the role of
change agents has been shifted away from a planned approach to change; a bottom-up
approach is encouraged to meet the unprecedent level of change. Meanwhile, the objective of
coaching is expanded from specific corporate-related goals to a stimulation of personal
potential and responsibility (Passmore & Fillery-Travis, 2011). The evolution of both
practices is grounded on that people’s behavioural change is highly associated with their
intention (i.e. motivation) to change (Webb & Sherran, 2006). Accordingly, the focus of
changing process research transfers to change recipients’ needs and intrinsic motivation
in this changing and learning process. Second, facilitating a collaborative and equal
working relationship is encouraged in both practices. Zaltman and Duncan’s study (1977)
indicates change agents are more likely to be effective if they keep a flexible working
relationship with the change recipient; for instance, acknowledging their needs, maintaining a
collaborative process and being receptive to new ideas. In the meantime, the quality of the
professional helping relationship is recognised as an essential antecedent for positive
coaching outcomes (Bozer & Jones, 2018; de Haan, Duckworth, Birch & Jones, 2013)
through numerous primary studies. Third, psychology takes an essential part in both
practices. The involvement of psychology in the change process can be traced back to 1970s.
Several papers indicate change agents as ‘consultants in behavioural clothing’ or
‘psychological consultants’ (Reddin, 1971; Pearl, 1974).
The explicit inclusion of a psychological perspective within coaching can be
attributed to Grant (2001). Following Grant’s PhD (2001) the consideration of the
psychological effects of coaching, both processes and outcomes have been a popular area of
research (Bono et al., 2009; Smither, 2011). More recently several systematic reviews and
meta-analyses have established psychological informed research at the vanguard of coaching
research (Theeboom, Beersma & Vianen, 2014; Jones, Woods & Guillaume, 2016; Bozer &
Jones, 2018; Athanasopoulou & Dopson, 2018). Nevertheless, in terms of practice some
papers (e.g. Bono et al., 2009; Passmore, Palmer & Short, 2010) have argued that there is
little evidence of differences in practice between coaching psychologists and non-
psychological trained coaches. Despite these debates as to whether psychological training
informs coaching practice, we would argue there is little doubt that psychology theory, be it
behavioural change theory or psychological theories of human relationships, have informed
all coach training. The understanding of human behaviour, emotions, cognition and
motivation are key skills for all coaches, not just psychologists. Fourthly, both practices
involve managing a complex social context. According to O’Neill (2000), the change agent
often has no direct authority over the implementer; therefore, it is a natural triangle working
relationship between the sponsor-implementer-agent. A similar relationship exists in the
coaching context. More and more coaching studies (Louis & Fatien Diochon, 2014; Ianiro,
Lehmann-Willenbrock & Kauffled 2015; Shoukry and Cox, 2018) have acknowledged the
significance of the social dynamic in the coaching process. For example, Ianiro and
Kauffled’s study (2015) highlighted the importance of interpersonal interactions between the
coach and coachee and how these are altered by different social circumstance.
Defining coaching psychology
Given this debate the question remains, what, if anything, is the difference between
coaching and coaching psychology? At its birth, coaching psychology’s Godfather, Anthony
Grant, offered a definition of coaching psychology that subsequently established the
foundation of coaching psychology definition within the British Psychology Society.
According to Grant (2001, p.10):
‘Coaching psychology can provide a useful platform from which to investigate the
psychological factors involved in purposeful, directed behavioural change in normal
populations, and in this way further the contribution of psychology to the enhancement of
performance, productivity and quality of life of individuals, organizations and the broader
In Grant’s (2001) definition coaching psychology is:
1. An empirically-validated framework of change which facilitates the coaching process.
2. A model of self-regulation which allows delineation of the processes inherent in self-
regulation, goal setting and goal attainment.
3. A methodology of how behaviour, thoughts and feelings interact, and how behaviour,
thoughts and feelings can be altered to facilitate goal attainment.
Drawing on Grant’s PhD thesis, Palmer and Whybrow reformulated the definition for
the British Psychological Society SGCP. Coaching psychology is for: ‘enhancing well-
being and performance in personal life and work domains, underpinned by models of
coaching grounded in established adult learning or psychological approaches’ (Palmer &
Passmore (2010), as noted above, argued such definitions draw a false distinction
between non-psychologist coaches and coaching psychologists. He argued that many
coaches draw upon psychological models in their practice and that coach training has
over the past two decades become more evidenced based approaches, thanks in part to the
work of Grant, Cavanagh, Green, Bachkirova and Palmer, who have published widely,
and argued the case for evidenced based coaching. Passmore’s position appears to be
supported by research evidence, which suggests in terms of behaviours (Jenkins,
Passmore, Palmer & Short, 2012), and in wide practice (Passmore, Brown & Csigas,
2017), there is little difference between coaches and coaching psychologists and coaches.
In contrast to focusing on psychological approaches, he sought to recast coaching
psychology as a separate domain of study, parallel to occupational, health or forensic
psychology. He defined coaching psychology as ‘the scientific study of behaviour,
cognitive and emotion within coaching practice to deepen our understanding and
enhance our practice within coaching’ (Passmore, 2010, p.4).
Passmore suggested that while there are few observable differences between coaches
and coaching psychologies in their practice, the study of psychology can enhance practice,
and may lead to materially different outcomes. This view however remains the subject of
debate. In this paper we might go further to suggest that coaching psychologists may be able
to more clearly articulate what they do and the underpinning theory supporting their
approach. Further, as a result of the robust ethical standards set by national psychological
societies such as the British Psychological Society (BPS), Australian Psychological Society
(APS), New Zealand Psychological Society (NZPS). Psychological Society of South Africa
(PsySSA), Canada Psychology Association (CPA) and American Psychological Association
(APA), psychologists may act to raise ethical standards when working with coaching clients.
This last point of course is highly contentious, given the complex, and diverse nature of
ethics, what is ethical and the diversity of ethical standards between different coaching body
members and different national cultures (Passmore, Brown & Csigas, 2017).
In response to an invitation (Passmore, Stopforth & Lai, 2018) researchers and practitioners
have responded with their own definitions of coaching psychology. Our role here is not to
suggest that one is right or wrong, but recognise that different traditions, cultural perspectives
and working environments shape and influence these different perspectives. Our purpose is to
simply bring these perspectives together as part of the debate.
Grant offers a fresh take from the vantage point of Australia. ‘Coaching psychology is
a branch of psychology that involves the systematic application of behavioural science to the
attainment of professional or personal outcomes that are valued by the coachee. Such
outcomes or goal typically focus on the enhancement of personal or professional life
experience, work performance and/or well-being, and can be used for individuals, groups
and/or organisations. Coaching does not aim to treat issues related to mental illness’ (Grant,
Personal Communication 2018).
Michel Moral, a leading name in French coaching, researcher and practitioner, has
suggested that ‘coaching psychology is a way of doing coaching which uses and combines all
the theatrical and technical resources of psychology in intrapersonal, interpersonal and
systemic areas of knowledge. It allows the coach to be fully aware of what they are doing in
service of the coaching mission’ (Moral, Personal Communication 2018).
The South African Psychologists Coaching Group draw on the work of Odendaal, and
Le Roux, (2016, p.3) in the following definition of coaching psychology: ‘Coaching
Psychology, as practiced by a registered practitioner, is a conversational process of
facilitating positive development and change towards optimal functioning, well-being and
increased performance in the work and personal life domains, in the absence of clinically
significant mental health issues, through the application of a wide range of psychological
theories and principles. The intervention is action-orientated with measurable outcomes, and
is also reflective towards creating greater self-awareness and meaning, and is directed at
individuals, groups, teams, organisations and communities within a culturally-specific
context’ (Gail C. Wrogemann, Chair Group Sub-Committee, PsySSA, Personal
The New Zealand Psychological Society Special Group use the following defintion:
Coaching psychology… ‘draws on and develops established psychological approaches, and
[is] the systematic application of behavioural science to the enhancement of life experience,
work performance and well-being for individuals, groups and organisations who do not have
clinically significant mental health issues or abnormal levels of distress.’ (Jonathan Black,
Co-Chair of CPSIG, Personal Communication, 2019).
While different psychological groups, and practitioners hold differing perspectives, a
common feature is the link to psychological theory and a common purpose to promote
evidence-based practice through a psychological understanding of what it is to be human,
within a ‘normal’ (non-clinical) range of functioning.
Coaching psychology is ‘the well’ which refreshes the wider coaching profession. It is
the heart of scientific enquiry about coaching practice for work with non-clinical populations
and while practices may not diverge, understanding of psychological theory, ethical standards
and contribution to research, mark coaching psychologist, and coaching psychology apart.
Key findings from recent systematic reviews on coaching psychology
While the on-going debates between the psychologists and non-psychologists have
continued, several systematic reviews on coaching psychology have identified key factors for
a positive coaching outcome (Bozer & Jones, 2018; Athanasopoulou & Dopson, 2018). First,
the working alliance which refers to the quality and strength of the collaborative relationship
between the client and therapist (Hatcher & Barends, 2006) has been recognised as a key
indicator of coaching outcomes (Lai & McDowall, 2014; Grover & Furnham, 2016). Second,
self-efficacy which focuses on how individuals perceive their acquisition of a skill or
knowledge (Gist & Mitchell, 1992) has been found to be an important antecedent of affective
coaching outcomes as reflected in perceived coaching effectiveness (de Haan, Duckworth,
Birch & Jones, 2013; de Haan, Grant, Burger & Erikkson, 2016; Bozer & Jones, 2018).
Third, the coachee’s readiness to change (i.e. motivation to change) is a critical variable to
outcomes (Bozer & Jones, 2018). Moreover, the leader-member exchange (LMX) theory
(Aryee, Budhwar & Chen, 2002), which explains the support from the coachee’s leader and
organisation to their coachee, has a key role to play in outcomes (Bozer & Jones, 2018).
Summarising from these critical reviews on existing coaching evidence, we can
conclude psychology continues to play a significant part in shaping contemporary coaching
research, specifically, frameworks from psychotherapy (e.g. the working alliance framework)
and organisational psychology (e.g. motivational theory and LMX). As coaching research
continues, we suspect that the contribution of both psychological theory and psychological
research methods will inform and shape the development of evidence based coaching
practice. Secondly, that evidenced based practice will increasingly become the core modality
for qualified coaching practitioners, as the draw from the well of coaching psychology
This review paper answers several questions on contemporary coaching study,
practice and the need for coach’s training and development. We can initially conclude that
coaching intervention cannot be detached from psychological perspectives in considering that
the main activity embedded in the coaching process relies on ‘interpersonal interactions’,
such as dialogues and conversations. In addition, some research (Ianiro et al., 2015) indicated
‘body languages’ and ‘unspoken manners’ between the coaching dyad act a key role for a
successful coaching outcome. Therefore, the psychological professional relationship is
embedded in all coaching setting, regardless of the technique or framework.
Second, most of the current research evidence indicated theories in psychotherapy,
such as therapeutic working alliance, provides a theoretical foundation in coaching alliance
study. Nevertheless, social psychological perspectives are highlighted in recent coaching
research domain due to the power dynamics and cultural differences in most of the coaching
contexts (e.g. hierarchy in the social settings of coaches and expectations in different cultural
backgrounds). Moreover, motivational theories which are usually studied in organisational
psychology and adult learning areas are identified as the fundamental factor for an effective
coaching alliance. Therefore, building trust and rapport at the beginning of the coaching
relationship is the key to open up the coachee’s mind and enhance their motivation to change.
Consequently, we argue that while psychology is not the only theoretical discipline to
facilitate an effective coaching process and outcome, it plays an essential part in this human-
relationship focused intervention.
The evidence for investment in coaching intervention will continue to be a major
concern for scholars in relevant domains, as well as for organisational stakeholders. While,
the development of coaching has been transformed from a ‘business model or service’
(Briner, 2012) towards a more scientific rooted profession, more rigorous research is still
required to inform practice.
Coaching research has evolved from the ‘infant’ stage and has moved towards its
teenage years. It has established that coaching works and produces moderate effect sizes
(Theeboom et al., 2014). Further, it has a role beyond the coaching dyad, such as sponsoring
organisations, cultural influences and coachees’ social environments (Passmore &
Theeboom, 2016). Its next stage of development must be to identify the active ingredients in
coaching, and measure what effect each has. Secondly, it must start to differentiate between
individuals and presenting problems. What type of coaching fits what type of person and
what type of issue. To suggest that all are equal (Kilburg, 2005) is not supported by the
growing evidence from other behavioural change domains, such as motivational interview
(MI) and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).
These have shown that different approaches can be better suited to specific types of
presenting problem. We hypothesise that coaching will find that personality factors of the
coach and coachee, as well as presenting problems and levels of readiness to change all
influence outcomes: My coaching need, is not your coaching need. To move closer to this
understanding a renewed energy is needed, with closer collaborative between coaching
psychologists with the research skills and coaching practitioners to deliver the hundreds of
data points needed for this type of research to bear fruit. If the past 15 years of coaching
psychology have been growing and learning, the coming decade of coaching psychology will
be a coming of age.
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