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By Dr Anthony M Grant MAPS and Dr Michael J Cavanagh MAPS, Coaching Psychology Unit, School of Psychology, University of Sydney

The long and winding road! Coaching psychology has certainly come a long way since the term ‘psychology of coaching’ itself was coined in 1926. In this article we present an overview of the historical development of coaching
psychology and speculate on its future. Do we have a truly emerging psychological sub-discipline, or are accusations of faddism justified? We discuss issues related to the broader Australian coaching industry and highlight some of the problems (and benefits) of non-psychologist coaches. In addition we discuss what is happening globally in coaching and look at the current state of private commercial training and university training
in coaching psychology world-wide. We conclude with some thoughts about where coaching psychology could be headed.

What is coaching psychology?

The public has a clear thirst for methodologies that enhance wellbeing and facilitate the attainment of personal and business goals. Yet historically, psychology as an academic and applied discipline has failed to adequately engage with this demand, leaving the door open for other, arguably, less qualified individuals to meet the public’s call for personal
development tools.

Many of us came to our studies in psychology with the expectation that we would learn empirically validated ways to work with people, to help them set and reach goals in their personal and business lives. We were looking to be taught how to design and implement real-life change interventions that furthered our understandings of the psychological mechanisms of human change and development. Unfortunately, for many of us the undergraduate curriculum was disappointing in that regard.

Without doubt, the theoretical and empirical foundations laid in the study of perception, learning, individual differences, neuroscience, and social and abnormal psychology are all important in understanding the mechanics of the mind, and group and individual processes. The growing body of knowledge and practice in applying this theory and research in clinical settings bears witness to this. Nevertheless, there has been a frustrating gap in the application of psychological knowledge beyond clinical populations to improve the lives of so-called normally functioning individuals and groups. These kind of frustrations gave impetus to the emergence of contemporary coaching psychology.

Founded in 2002, the APS Interest Group for Coaching Psychology (IGCP) defines coaching psychology as “the systematic application of behavioural science, which is focused on the enhancement of life experience, work performance and wellbeing for individuals, groups and organisations with no clinically significant mental heath issues or abnormal levels of distress”. Coaching psychologists use a wide range of theoretical frameworks, including psychodynamic, systemic, cognitivebehavioural, solution-focused and positive psychology in their work. It is this focus on the systematic application of evidencebased behavioural science that distinguishes coaching psychology from the atheoretical proprietary approaches to coaching commonly seen in the market.

Distinguishing coaching psychology

In general terms, contemporary coaching psychology can be seen to sit at the intersection of clinical, counselling, sport, organisational and health psychology. Postgraduate clinical and counselling training prepares practitioners to work with a range of clients, from those with severe mental health or behavioural problems to those who are experiencing or recovering from distressing life events such as divorce. Sport psychologists’ training focuses primarily on enhancing the wellbeing and performance of athletes, and organisational psychologists’ training tends to concentrate on assessment and selection, leadership and the design of healthy, productive work environments. Health psychologists’ training prepares them to work in behavioural medicine, with individual, community and social health problems, and in public health policy. To be sure, each specialty may include some aspect of coaching, but coaching is not their primary focus.

In contrast, coaching psychologists work with clients using theoretically grounded and scientifically validated techniques to help clients reach goals in their personal and business lives. Such goals may be concerned with aspects of personal or organisational wellbeing, or may be about more concrete material outcomes. In addition to applied work with clients, coaching psychology is also focused on conducting research into human change and the enhancement of performance and wellbeing. As such, evidence-based coaching psychology has the potential to make significant contributions to the broader psychological enterprise.

The roots of coaching psychology

Although some may see coaching as a short-lived and recent fad, the roots of coaching psychology are grounded in the humanistic traditions of psychology (e.g., Maslow, 1943), and are related to the human potential movement of the 1960’s and the recent emergence of the positive psychology movement.

The term ‘psychology of coaching’ appears to have been first used in 1926 with the publication of Coleman R Griffith’s book Psychology of coaching: A study of coaching methods from the point of view of psychology, which explores the use of psychology in sports coaching (see O’Broin & Palmer, 2006). Early references to coaching psychology were almost entirely focused on sport and exercise, and the term ‘coaching psychology’ continues to be frequently used with reference to sport. Since the 1950’s some clinical psychologists (e.g., Albert Ellis) have considered their work to involve coaching non-clinical populations for wellbeing and performance enhancement. However, in the past, the term ‘coaching psychology’ was rarely used in this context, and such work was more commonly referred to as consultancy or counselling.

Academic and professional psychology enter the coaching arena

Many professional psychologists have long thought of their executive consulting and counselling work as executive coaching. However, the landmark 1996 publication of the first special issue on executive coaching of the APA journal Consulting Psychology: Theory, Research and Practice brought public debate about the role of the psychologist as executive coach to the fore. It was following this publication that formal discussion within the APS of the role of psychologists in coaching became more frequent. For example, in 1999 the Victorian Sections of the Colleges of Organisational, Clinical, Counselling, and Educational and Developmental Psychologists held a combined day-long seminar. The presenters, Simon Brown-Greaves, Ray Elliott, Cait McMahon, Dr John Munro, John Urbano and others, addressed issues related to theoretical frameworks for executive coaching, ethical issues and the nature of executive coaching.

Contemporary coaching psychology as an emerging academic and applied psychological sub-discipline began to flourish. The Coaching Psychology Unit at the University of Sydney was founded in 2000, offering the world’s first postgraduate degree in coaching psychology. In 2002 the APS Interest Group for Coaching Psychology was formed and membership currently stands at over 700. The British Psychological Society (BPS) formed a Special Group for Coaching Psychology in 2004 and membership there stands at 1800. There are also other European coaching psychology groups, for example the Swiss
Society for Coaching Psychology (part of the Federation of Swiss  psychologists) and the Danish Society for Evidence-based Coaching (part of Danish Psychological Association). The BPS now puts out two coaching psychology publications, the Coaching Psychologist, and the International Coaching Psychology Review which is co-published with the APS. In 2006 the establishment of a Coaching Psychology Unit at City University, London was
another important step in further development of the academic underpinnings of coaching psychology.

Indeed, in contrast to the atheoretical ‘six-steps-to-yourperfect-life’ private sector commercial training programs that dominated coaching training in the late 1990s and early 2000s, an increasing number of universities world-wide are offering postgraduate degrees in coaching psychology. These are welcome changes, as the involvement of graduate schools and universities will raise the standard of the private sector coaching industry.

As of April 2007, there are three Australian universities offering coach-specific education as part of postgraduate degree programs. All of these are offered by Schools of Psychology. At least seven UK universities offer coaching degree programs. Most of those are not offered by Psychology Departments, rather they are offered by Business Schools or from within Faculties of Education. In the US, seven universities offer coach degree programs and in Canada there are two postgraduate programs in coaching and coaching psychology. The majority of the North American programs are offered from within Business Schools rather than Schools of Psychology.

In Australia there are moves within the private training sector to offer coaching qualifications in line with the Australian Qualifications Framework, for example, Diploma and Certificate VI levels are now available in Workplace and Business Coaching. Whilst such qualifications are clearly far removed from the six years needed to become a psychologist, given the lack of rigour associated to date with many proprietary coach training programs, it is indeed a welcome move.

The business of coach training: “You too can be a coach!”

From browsing web pages related to coaching one might easily begin to believe that there is more money to be made in training people to be coaches, than in the practice of coaching itself. Conduct a search for a life coach, and on any one web site you will probably be offered not only the services of a life coach, but also asked if you’d like to become a life coach, with assurances such as “you too can be a qualified coach in less than six months”. It is hard to think of another industry where one can move from client to practitioner so easily! Imagine trying to procure the services of a lawyer or architect, to be met with the offer to swiftly become one!

In the unregulated coach training industry, grand titles, pseudo-qualifications, meaningless accreditations and self-appointed ‘global thought leaders’ abound. Anyone can call themselves a Master Certified Credentialed Coach. Anyone can set up a coach training organisation, and anyone can teach coaching. The lack of clearly defined standards and competencies is a major issue facing the coaching industry, and one that is disconcerting to us as professional psychologists.

A recent survey of the 14 Australian life coach training organisations (Grant & O’Hara, 2006) uncovered some disturbing findings. Some coach trainers had no qualifications whatsoever and some organisations had nonexistent affiliations or academic appointments with universities. Some organisations claimed that coaching could be used to treat anxiety or depression. All offered impressive ‘credentialing’ of one kind or another.

The general public is not well informed about what constitutes reliable qualifications and thus may be easily misled as to the validity of unregulated coach training credentials and the competency of such coaching practitioners. It has been estimated that there are 30,000 coaches worldwide, and the revenue generated by the global coaching industry is US$1.5 billion, with the US accounting for about half that amount (according to a 2006 PricewaterhouseCoopers report commissioned by International Coach Federation). Taken together with the disturbing findings outlined above, it may be that the time has come for the non-psychologist section of the coaching industry to be registered or regulated, and explicitly exercise its duty of care to its clients.

Should all coaches be psychologists?

It is noteworthy that psychologists are generally underrepresented in the coaching industry. Only five per cent of respondents in a global study of 2,529 coaches were psychologists (Grant & Zackon, 2004). Furthermore, psychologists have not been represented in the media as being uniquely competent coaching practitioners. It appears that psychologists have not done a good job of positioning themselves in this market.

The majority of coaches come from a consulting, management or sales background. Of course, such expert business-related knowledge is important and useful in coaching within those domains. Indeed, many non-psychologist coaches do excellent work with their clients and work in an ethical and professional manner. Such coaches are in high demand, and offer coaching services that most psychologists are not trained to deliver.

We are definitely not of the opinion that all coaches should be psychologists, but we strongly ague that all coaches should have rigorous tertiary-level training in theoretically-grounded approaches to coaching, and should have a solid grounding in recognising and referring clinical issues. Such coach education should also equip graduates to think critically and analytically, vital cognitive tools in an area where sharp coach training operators use pseudoscience and scientific jargon to give the impression of having a solid scientific framework. However, we strongly believe that where coaches are working on issues that require significant cognitive or emotional development, then such coaching should be conducted by psychologically trained professionals.

Coach or couch?

The focus on ‘normal’ non-clinical populations has, until recently, been central to delineating coaching psychology from clinical and counselling psychology and psychotherapy. Experience and research has shown that these boundaries are not so clear in reality (Cavanagh, 2005). What constitutes the ‘non-clinical’ client? Can a person with panic disorder be coached on a work performance issue? What about the coaching client who becomes depressed during the coaching engagement? Indeed, the issue of whether or not some coaching clients are using coaching as a socially acceptable form of therapy, and whether some non-psychologist ‘life coaches’ are acting as de-facto (and untrained) therapists, is contentious. Studies have found that between 25 and 50 per cent of individuals presenting for life coaching have clinical levels of psychopathology (see Green, Oades, & Grant, 2006; Spence & Grant, 2005). These findings pose serious ethical dilemmas for coaches who are not trained mental health professionals, and emphasise the need for all coaches to be well trained in diagnostic and referral processes.

It has been argued that coaches (including coaching psychologists) do not need diagnostic skills and this should be left to clinical psychologists and psychiatrists (the ‘real’ holders of diagnostic skill). In fact we argue that the opposite is the case – namely that the diagnostic skills of coaching psychologists need to be finely tuned, perhaps even more so than clinicians. Clients presenting for therapy in clinical or counselling settings typically declare some form of psychological distress and have an explicit expectation of treatment. Presentation issues and expectations in coaching settings are quite different. Coaching clients typically present with goals and difficulties identified in their external worlds. Coaching is not a setting in which clients feel they should be reporting frank psychological distress. Indeed, those with a diagnosable condition may not know that they have a mental health problem, let alone be ready and willing to name this and engage in therapy. The coaching psychologist thus needs finely attuned diagnostic, engagement and referral skills so as to be able to identify and appropriately deal with psychopathological issues that emerge in the type of goal-focused, fast-paced process that characterises coaching.

While the overlap between coaching and clinical work rightly concerns psychologists and mental health professionals, it is hard to find factual reports of damage beyond occasional newspaper articles about the impact of failed therapy or counselling, or social commentary articles decrying the rise of the self-help or coaching culture. Whether this speaks more about the resilience of coaching clients or the lack of a formal and effective complaints process for disaffected coaching clients is not clear at this time.

Where to from here?

If coaching is a fad, it is one that has grown for over 20 years and is likely to continue growing. It is one of the major forms of personnel development being used in business today. Clearly psychologists have much to offer the broader community in the development of professional coaching. We would like to highlight just three of these contributions here.

First, over 50 years ago the Boulder Conference on professional psychology articulated the scientist practitioner model. Psychology has a sophisticated understanding of what it means to train professionals in the practice of behavioural science in the ethical service of our clients. This understanding is a major contribution to coaching.

Second, we bring a tradition of basic and applied research as a foundation for practise. Pop psychology and the business world alike are replete with examples of change methodologies that fail to develop a solid research base. Some burst on to the scene in a blaze of excitement and hype, with their claims unable to survive beyond the initial period of emotional fervour. Others develop into commercial offerings marked more by marketing than by evidence. Their proponents, unable to distinguish between what is valid and useful in their systems, are more like disciples than disciplined professionals. Psychology’s grounding in a rigorous, peer-reviewed research base is perhaps the greatest long-term contribution we can make to the wider coaching community.

Finally, the knowledge base of theory and practice built up over more than a century means that psychologists are ideally placed to assist clients working on issues that require significant cognitive or emotional development, or significant understanding of group dynamics. This is our field of expertise.

The development of a specialist professional qualification in coaching psychology, like those available in clinical, organisational and forensic psychology, would go a long way toward establishing a clearly recognisable niche for coaching psychology, both in the minds of psychologists and potential clients.

Do we have a voice in the wider coaching community?

The issues facing the international coaching community are well recognised. Numerous groups world-wide are discussing these issues with a view to improving industry standards. For example, a number of coaching industry groups have identified codes of ethics and competency frameworks. Until now these discussions have been conducted independently. The disparate nature of these efforts is a significant stumbling block to the professionalisation of coaching.

In order to bring these efforts together, an international dialogue, the Global Convention on Coaching (GCC), is due to be launched in July 2007. The GCC is aimed at identifying the core shared frameworks standards and competencies that underpin professional coaching. It will consist of a range of working groups made up of representatives of the key stakeholder groups in coaching. An impressive range of stakeholders are gathering to be a part of this process. They include professional bodies (e.g., American Psychological Association, the Australian Psychological Society and the British Psychological Society), universities across the world, practitioner bodies (e.g., the International Coach Federation, European Mentoring and Coaching Council), coach training organisations, and major private and public sector consumers of coaching (corporates and government bodies). (For more information see http://www.coachingconvention.org). The working groups will facilitate a genuinely global exchange on key issues facing coaching. The question is, what voice will we, as psychologists, have in that dialogue? The fact that only 5 per cent of coaches have qualifications in psychology is a sobering statistic. Psychologists are not nearly well enough represented in the coaching world, and our voice is not heard clearly enough.

We do not seem to have recognised the international coaching movement as an attempt to answer a real social need for psychologically-informed services in non-clinical settings, despite the wealth of knowledge we could bring to this. Serious engagement with coaching will require us to look at ourselves in new ways. It will challenge us to engage with other areas of knowledge and practice (such as business, education and health) to achieve integrated models of behaviour change. If we can meet these challenges, the opportunities are great. By increasing the profile and relevance of professional psychology we have the opportunity to be heard in a world that sorely needs new perspectives on living and working together.

The authors can be contacted at anthonyg@psych.usyd.edu.au and michaelc@psych.usyd.edu.au.

References

  • Cavanagh, M. (2005). Mental health issues and challenging clients in executive coaching. In, M. Cavanagh, A.M. Grant, & T. Kemp, (Eds.). Evidence-based coaching: Contributions from the Behavioral Sciences (Vol. 1) (pp.21-35). Bowen Hills QLD: Australian Academic Press.

  • Grant, A. M., & O’Hara, B. (2006). The self-presentation of commercial Australian life coaching schools: Cause for concern? International Coaching Psychology Review, 1(2), 20-32.

  • Green, L. S., Oades, L. G., & Grant, A. M. (2006). Cognitive-behavioural, solution-focused life coaching: Enhancing goal striving, well-being and hope. Journal of Positive Psychology, 1(3), 142-149.

  • Maslow, A. H. (1943). A Theory of Human Motivation. Psychological Review,
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    , 370–96.

  • O’Broin, A., & Palmer, S. (2006). Win-win situations? Lessons from the parallels and differences between coaching psychology and sports psychology. The Coaching Psychologist, 2(3), 17-21.

  • Spence, G. B., & Grant, A. M. (2005). Individual and group life-coaching: Initial findings from a randomised, controlled trial. In M. Cavanagh, A. M. Grant & T. Kemp (Eds.), Evidence-based Coaching: Theory, Research and Practice from the Behavioural Sciences (Vol.1) (pp. 143-158). Bowen Hills Qld: Australian Academic Press.