Coaching: A Definition of the Art and Science
Updated: Jul 12, 2021
I had no idea what to expect going into my first classes on evidence-based coaching practices. One of the initial images that came to my mind when hearing the word "coaching" was a person with a whistle around their neck placing a steady hand on a youth's shoulder and, while looking them in the eye, providing them with words of wisdom that changes their life. Perhaps this is one type of coaching, but not exactly what I have in mind for this post.
The book Coaching Skills: The Definitive Guide to Being a Coach the Rogers (2016) offers this as a definition to coaching:
Coaching is the art of facilitating another person's learning, development, well-being and performance. Coaching raises self-awareness and identifies choices. Through coaching, people are able to find their own solutions, develop their own skills, and change their own attitudes and behaviors. The whole aim of coaching is to close the gap between people's potential and their current state (p. 7).
The guiding principle that can be pulled from this definition is that a coach's role is not to teach. The individual is capable of resolving their own problems and the coach is not there to give advice, but rather to develop resourcefulness through the use of trained questioning, challenges, and support. Thus, coaching is a conversation, free of judgment, between equals that helps to develop the self-awareness necessary to enable the changes the client wants to make.
Think about this: When was the last time you had a conversation with someone that was completely free of judgment either on your part or theirs? Better yet, think of a conversation recently in which you or the other party was not quick to jump in and give advice or offer a well intentioned anecdote form their own experiences?
Often, between friends and colleagues, these types of conversations can be helpful at the moment but they often fail to give you the tools or mindset to tackle those same issues in the future. In the current global climate, there is often a lack of time to think and reflect on the steps to reach our desired potential. Coaches act as a resource to help individuals find the time and mental space to build their own plans and put them into action to facilitate self-induced change.
But can people change? Especially as we get older? In short, yes, and neuroscientists offer evidence as to why. Shaffer (2016) points to neuroplasticity (see this short talk for detailed definition) and the different behavioral techniques that can influence the brain in positive ways. These include things such as aerobic exercise, computer programs, breaking age-defined stereotypes, diet, and other non-pharmaceutical interventions. The key is engaging in activities that promote the learning of new skills that challenge you. This can be something as simple as brushing your teeth with the opposite hand or driving a new route to work (Patel, 2018).
Coaching, in essence, capitalizes on the brain's plasticity and runs counter to the belief that talents, skills, and abilities are fixed assets. Instead, sessions focus on a growth mindset in which clients can recognize inevitable failures as an opportunity to reflect, learn, and change (something we all know, but overwhelmingly fail to do; see Eskreis-Winkler & Fishbach, 2019). Such practices also draw upon research in positive psychology which takes the focus off of "what is wrong with people" and instead on what healthy people can do to achieve happiness and fulfillment (Lomas, 2016). Personally, I love the idea that science supports our ability to acquire new skills and abilities at any age, and better yet, doing so helps us remain happy and healthy for longer.
I hope you enjoyed this overview of evidence-based coaching. Let me know if there is anything you agree or disagree with in the comments below. I am always looking for different perspectives.
In the future, I plan to dive more into what coaches should know about neuropsychology and how its emotion that rules our brain, not the rational decision making we would all like to think drives us.
Eskreis-Winkler, L., & Fishbach, A. (2019). Not learning from failure—the greatest failure of all. Academy of Management Proceedings. (this article is so new I can't complete the citation!)
Lomas, T. (2016). Positive psychology–the second wave. The Psychologist, 29, 536-539.
Patel, M. [University of California Television (UCTV)]. (2018, March 5th). New skills and brain plasticity. [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l79RAg-nmyE
Rogers, J. (2016). Coaching skills: The definitive guide to being a coach (4th ed.). Maidenhead, UK: Open University Press.
Shaffer, J. (2016). Neuroplasticity and clinical practice: building brain power for health. Frontiers in psychology, 7, 1118.