Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Life coaching

Migel Jayasinghe 
England, UK

This article was previously published by the author between the years of 2006 and 2018. The original publisher has since been lost and the article edited and republished by Hektoen International staff. Other appearances of this text elsewhere on the internet may be unauthorized.


Wheel showing areas of life addressed by life coaching
The dimensions of life addressed by life coaching. Original illustration by Migel Jayasinghe. Originally published in “What is Life Coaching”’ in CoastRider, 2009.

Although coach and coaching had been familiar terms in sport and perhaps to a lesser extent at work, life-coaching began as a phenomenon typical of the late twentieth century. Even though a form of corporate coaching and mentoring were evident in the largest and most progressive business organizations for most of the twentieth century, such interventions were principally aimed at achieving corporate goals and much less for the personal development of individuals.

Life coaching appeared on the horizon as a form of reassurance for the ordinary “normal” people bombarded by the media and the environment in highly industrialized, complex societies. Most people were in need of a person to whom they could turn to for help and guidance. Increasingly, that “one person” happened to be recognized as a life coach.

The term coach, in business, as much as in sport, is used to denote someone more experienced taking on a mentoring role with more junior, or less experienced staff, usually on a one-to-one basis. It is often specific to the job or work role. With personal, or, life coaching, anyone in any sphere or stage of life, may be coached by another, enabling them to articulate and achieve their dreams, desires, and goals in life.

According to Master Certified Coach Rich Fetttke, the life coaching profession began with corporate personal development seminars “that challenged participants to break through limiting beliefs, take responsibility for their lives and take action on what really mattered both personally and professionally.”1 A coach was a trainer then, but more like a “buddy” who gave individuals unflinching feedback and held them accountable. This was done either in person or increasingly by telephone. Some of these “coaches” then decided to set themselves up in business and worked with private clients in the same way that they had worked with seminar participants. The success of these pioneers created ongoing referrals resulting in continuing demand for their services.

In the 1990s coach-training organizations were set up to meet the ever-increasing demand for coaches. The two largest independent coach-training organizations joined together in 1997 to form the International Coach Federation (ICF). In 2002, when ICF held its fifth annual conference, there were at least 20 coach-training organizations on record, with an estimated 10,000 full and part-time trained coaches worldwide. It was in the late 1980s that Thomas Leonard3 who had originally worked with Werner Erhard at Landmark Forum, was recognized as one of the leading lights of life coaching. He sought to address the problem of a multiplicity of life choices and life styles open to normal, healthy, and ordinarily resourceful individuals, who needed a sounding board or catalyst to reassure themselves that they were making the right decisions. Thomas Leonard is credited with developing at least 80 percent of the material currently used at CoachU (Coach University), which began in 1992. Until his death a few years back, he ran the virtual organization Coachville based on the Internet with a continuing worldwide membership, which currently exceeds 10,000.

In the UK Sir John Whitmore (1996, 2017)4 is regarded as the pioneer of life coaching. In his Coaching for Performance, Growing Human Potential and Purpose he refers to the “sporting origins of coaching” and cites the Socratic Method, or dialogue, as a precursor of modern-day coaching. He distinguishes coaching from mentoring, the latter according to myth originated with Mentor (or Athena, from a feminist perspective) friend of Odysseus, in bringing up the latter’s son Telemachus. It was Timothy Gallwey in his seminal work The Inner Game of Tennis (1975)2 who shifted the paradigm in sports coaching to unlock a person’s potential in order to maximize their performance by helping them to learn for themselves rather than teaching them. Gallwey wrote several more Inner Game books involving golf and skiing, but the book most relevant here is The Inner Game of Work including the definition of coaching with the succinct formula “Potential – Interference = Performance.”

Even more ambitiously, the authors of Co-Active Coaching (1999)5 the subtitle of which is New Skills for Teaching People Toward Success in Work and Life, define coaching as a “powerful alliance designed to (move) forward and enhance the lifelong process of human learning, effectiveness and fulfilment.”

Whitmore4 stresses the boundary between coaching and counseling when he says that “coaching is mainly pro-active and counselling is generally reactive.” Coaching is recognized as an interaction between equals, occurring in the present, working towards a better future as envisaged by the client and not the coach. It is not one of interpreting, fixing, mending, or curing, or the exercise of assiduously acquired expertise by an individual offering the service as a coach.

In traditional corporate coaching and mentoring, the coach was an internal expert or an outside consultant, whereas in life coaching, the coach need not be knowledgeable in the field of work of the coachee. Indeed, it is said that an outsider’s perspective is often better to get people thinking in new ways “outside the box” free from the limiting frameworks and concepts induced by trade jargon.



  1. Fettke, Rich (http://www.fettke.com ) Adventures in Business & Life.
  2. Gallwey, Timothy (1974) The Inner Game of Tennis, New York, Random House (2000) The Inner Game of Work, New York, Random House.
  3. Leonard, Thomas (1998) The Portable Coach, 28 sure fire strategies for business and personal success.
  4. Whitmore, John (1996, 2017) Coaching for Performance Growing Human Potential and Purpose; www.amazoon,co.uk.
  5. Whitworth, Laura, Kemsey-House, Karen, Kemsey-House, Henry, Sandhal, Philio (2011) Co-Active Coaching, new skills for coaching people towards success in work and life.



MIGEL JAYASINGHE, BA Hons, MSc, AFBPsS, C. Psychol, emigrated to the UK in 1963, and qualified in Psychology (1971) and Occupational Psychology (1982). Starting as a research assistant at the Industrial Training Research Unit, Cambridge, he worked as an occupational psychologist with the Educational and Occupational Assessment Service in Lusaka, Zambia (1975–1978). Then, he was an occupational psychologist with the Manpower Service Commission (1981–1995). He established the vocational assessment and rehabilitation facility for ex-service personnel at Royal British Legion Industries (1996–2001), gained distinction from UK Life Coaching Academy (2002), and ran a workshop at the First Russian Life Coaching Conference held in St. Petersburg (November 2002).


Spring 2021  |  Sections  |  Psychiatry & Psychology

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