Context and development of coaching psychology

Understanding coaching and coaching psychology

There are various general definitions of coaching and coaching psychology to draw upon from the published literature. These are commonly shared on training courses as well as in books and publications because such summary statements help us clarify and refine our understanding of these areas of practice and/or applied psychology. They also enable coaches and coaching psychologists to articulate the focus of their work in both research and practice-based settings (e.g., to their clients and coachees). We will examine some examples of these descriptions next in this chapter.

From the perspective of coaching, perhaps the most well-known definition is offered by Whitmore (1992, p. 8); this promotes the view that “Coaching is unlocking a person’s potential to maximise their own performance. It is helping them to learn rather than teaching them - a facilitation approach”. Downey (1999, p. 15) simply stated that it is "... the art of facilitating the performance and development of another ...”. Grant (2003, p. 254) expanded this to suggest that life coaching is “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, nonclinical clients”. From a solution-focused perspective, it has simply been described as “an outcome-oriented, competence-based approach” (O’Connell & Palmer, 2019, p. 270). When we reflect upon some of the common themes, we define the purpose of coaching as the philosophy of encouraging the coachees’ learning, resourcefulness, and self-insight in a non-directive collaborative way to enhance their goal-striving and achievement.

Currently, further research is required to understand the actual effects of coaching but a literature review by Schermuly and GraBmann (2018) found that positive aspects for the client (or coachee) included improvements in job performance and changes in coping abilities and highlighted the important contribution of coachee self-efficacy to coaching outcomes. Negative points, which can arise even when coaching is believed to be effective, included the triggering of problems for the coachee as well as a decrease in job satisfaction and lowered goal attainment. This review study also suggested that there were some negative effects for coaches (e.g., well-being, reduced sense of competence, lack of recognition) and workplaces (e.g., coachees’ development pathway is a poor fit with the organisation).

It has been observed that coaching and coaching psychology have developed at a noticeably fast pace in recent years; Whybrow and Palmer (2019) have highlighted “Whilst coaching and coaching psychology maintain distinctions, their paths are aligned; walking together rather than divergently, each learns from and is informed by the other” (p. 5).

Indeed, Palmer and Whybrow (2019) provided a summary of the past, present, and future state of play of coaching psychology in an early chapter of their Handbook of Coaching Psychology, which may be a useful resource for the interested reader with a desire to learn more.

Like coaching, there is no universally accepted definition of coaching psychology. So, this means there are also various descriptions available in the literature aiming to represent the key features of coaching psychology. Interestingly, some place a slightly different emphasis on the main ingredients of this area of psychological research and practice, which have frequently been influenced by broader national psychology contexts and have also changed or have been revised over time. For example, one early definition of coaching psychology was originally contributed by Grant and Palmer (2002) and adapted by the British Psychological Society Special Group in Coaching Psychology (BPS SGCP), who asserted that it “... is for enhancing well-being and performance in personal life and work domains underpinned by models of coaching grounded in established adult and child learning or psychological theories” (Palmer & Whybrow, 2007, p. 3). This definition was aligned, but different, to those offered by other professional bodies—such as the Australian Psychological Society’s Interest Group in Coaching Psychology (APS 1GCP) who set out in 2002 that “Coaching Psychology, as an applied positive psychology, draws on and develops established psychological approaches, and can be understood as being the systematic application of behavioural science to the enhancement of life experience, work performance and wellbeing for individuals, groups and organisations who do not have clinically significant mental health issues or abnormal levels of distress” (APS 1GCP, retrieved 2007). A key takeaway here is that definitions of coaching psychology tend to highlight the psychological approaches, theory, and evidence base that underpin the coaching process. This appears less obvious in most definitions of coaching.

The APS 1GCP emphasised positive psychology in their original definition, which offers us a rationale to say more about this here. The field of coaching psychology and positive psychology have many congruent aims, and areas that overlap and have been considered as “best friends” and complementary in the literature (Green & Palmer, 2019). However, the focus of coaching psychology as an applied positive psychology emphasises the development of coaching psychology alongside the broader field of positive psychology. Explanations of positive psychology have included “... the scientific study of what makes life most worth living” (Peterson, 2014, p. 2) and the study of the conditions and processes that contribute to the flourishing or optimal human functioning of people, groups, and institutions” (Gable & Haidt, 2005, p. 104). This is in line with the aims and underpinning philosophy of the discipline of coaching psychology. However, Green and Palmer point out their key differences, which include positive psychology prioritising the goal of enhancing wellbeing and optimal functioning, whereas coaching psychology places the individuals meaningful goal-striving and achievement more in the foreground. Positive psychology coaching can be understood as “... evidence-based coaching practice informed by the theories and research of positive psychology for the enhancement of resilience, achievement and wellbeing” (Green & Palmer, 2014 cited in Green & Palmer, 2019, p. 10). Palmer and Whybrow (2019) found that 63% of coaching psychologists and 57% of coaches reported using positive psychology-based coaching approaches. Beyond positive psychology, coaching psychologists use a range of other psychological approaches and draw on broader evidence-based practice in their work; this will be discussed and elaborated throughout this book.

The APS IGCP later changed its name to the APS Coaching Psychology Interest Group (CPIG) and now states that “Coaching Psychology can be understood as the systematic application of behavioural science to the enhancement of life experiences, work performance, the wellbeing and potential of individuals, groups, and organisations” (APS CPIG, 2020). In this description, there is no explicit reference to positive psychology. The BPS SGCP (2020) now defines coaching psychology as ‘the scientific study and application of behaviour, cognition and emotion to deepen our understanding of individuals’ and groups’ performance, achievement and wellbeing, and to enhance practice within coaching’. Bringing together these different elements, we consider coaching psychology to be the application of psychological theory, research, and evidence-based practice to encourage the coachees’ learning, resourcefulness, and self-insight in a non-directive collaborative way to enhance their goal-striving and achievement.

So, it is worth noting that coaching psychology is still a developing field and there is no one agreed definition. Of course, this is no different from other disciplines of psychology where different national psychology bodies have developed their own definitions of counselling, clinical, sport, health, and forensic psychology.

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