hat is a coach, exactly?

Words are powerful. They have the ability to change lives, ideas and the world.

Coach is a word most people are familiar with these days. Because of the growth of the coaching industry in the last few decades, it has become an umbrella term covering several types of coaches and niches- not just general life, business and health coaches.

Despite this (and perhaps, because of it!), the meaning of coach has become lost in translation and you may find yourself asking the question:

What is a coach, exactly?” 

Understanding the history of the word coach is really helpful when it comes to answering this. 


The origin story

Let’s look at another meaning of coach – “a mode of transport”. Would you believe me if I told you that what a coaching professional is and does is directly linked to this definition? 

Well, the story goes like this…

Once upon a time, way back in the 15th century, in the small Hungarian village of Kocs (pronounced kotche), a carriage was developed called the “kocsi kart”. This horse-drawn carriage with its steel-spring suspension revolutionised the transport system, making it faster and more efficient. Gaining world-wide fame, it became known in English-speaking countries as the coach, after the area.


So, how did the word come to be applied to people? 

The image of a sports coach on the side lines, cap on head and whistle around neck is usually the first thing that comes to mind when we think of a person who is a coach. “A football coach?” is a question I still get asked when I tell people what I do for a living. 

While it’s true that a great deal of modern coaching philosophy is based on sports psychology, I for one was surprised to learn that the first time coach was used to describe a person was in the 1830s…and it wasn’t in the athletic sense. Back in the day, tutors were nicknamed coaches in Oxford University because they “carried” students towards exam success (most likely inspired by the 70 or so coaches that would have driven through the city daily!). 

And so, the word coach was used to describe a process whereby a person was brought from where they are, to where they want to be. 

It wasn’t actually used in sports until 1861. 

What a coach does

Transporting others from A to B in the same way that a horse and carriage does is a wonderfully simple metaphor to describe what a coach does, no matter what their niche is. 

Coaching, be it life coaching, business coaching, relationship coaching or other, is a partnership between the coach and the person being coached (the coachee) to unleash the coachee’s potential so that they achieve their desired result. Just like any partnership, each party has their own roles and responsibilities on the coaching journey.


The coaching journey

The coaching journey may take many forms, and staying with our metaphor, the coach and coachee work together to make the journey as enjoyable and memorable as possible in the following ways: 

  • The coachee chooses the destination, sets the goals and decides upon the action steps that will lead them there.
  • The coach helps to facilitate the coachee in identifying the best way to get there through powerful questioning, challenging and offering feedback. They keep the coachee on track, ensuring that they are on board and making progress by holding them accountable throughout the journey. 
  • Like a comfortable carriage, the coach holds space for the coachee to show up, as they are in the moment, to reflect and be their authentic self in a confidential, supportive and trusting environment. 
  • The carriage may be comfortable and safe, but sometimes the coachee can feel uncomfortable- any change process requires stepping out of the comfort zone!
  • On the way, there is a great deal of self-discovery. The coachee learns even more about themselves and gains a greater understanding of what is really important to them.
  • Sometimes the coach may operate as the driver and, sitting at a higher level from the carriage with a good view of the road ahead, has the ability to offer the coachee new perspectives for them to consider. Every now and then on the journey, the coach may offer this seat to the coachee- a different vantage point can provide them with greater clarity or help them to identify blocks or obstacles that may get in their way. 
  • The coach thus encourages the coachee to take action and explore new routes and opportunities; to take the reins and become their own driver- the coachee is the expert of their own situation, so ultimately knows the best route to take! On a sometimes bumpy and winding road towards their destination, having a professional alongside them makes it easier to navigate the journey. 

As a coach myself, researching the background of the title of the profession that I’ve chosen and love has added even greater meaning to what I do. If you found this article interesting or useful, or have anything to add, I’d love to hear your comments below!